Last weekend saw Arsenal snatch a point at Eastlands against Premier League champions Manchester City. The Gunners dominated possession in the game and created the larger number of chances, but it was their dominance in midfield that hinted at what this team has in store for the season.
In a game that exposed the defensive frailties of both sides – both goals the result of lapses in concentration defending corners – and equally demonstrated the room for improvement in finishing with both teams squandering their numerous chances in front of goal.
The middle of the park, however, is where the game provided both managers with food for thought. Roberto Mancini has cause for concern after witnessing his midfield dominated by Arsene Wenger’s side who, after Sunday’s game, will likely feel justified in his sale of Alex Song to Barcelona this summer – Arsenal already had a world-class ‘defensive’ midfielder in the unsung hero of the game, Mikel Arteta.
The Spaniard has played most of his career as a playmaker – a creative architect in the centre of the park. For Everton, although occasionally utilized on the right, he played 174 games as their nucleus and, since his move to Arsenal last year, has been playing much the same role.
Upon his arrival at the Emirates, there were sections of Gunners’ fans who dismissed the 29-year-old, nicknaming him ‘Fabregas-Lite”. It was unfortunate for the Spaniard that he came in to replace one of the best young playmakers this league has seen, in his compatriot Cesc Fabregas.
Like Fabregas, Arteta also has “Barcelona DNA”, having trained his way up through the ranks of their youth academies and Barcelona B team. The player was, perhaps, unfortunate that he graduated to senior level in an era of unprecedented excellence, competing for his place with the likes of Xavi and Adres Iniesta, two of the greatest midfielders, and passers of the ball, the sport has ever seen.
Subsequently, he found his home away from home in Britain – first in Scotland, playing for Rangers for two years before he made his way southwards to the English Premier League. His time at Goodison Park saw him become a fans’ favourite. His dedication to the team never in question – his commitment unequivocal, his talent exceptional.
Although happy playing his football for Everton, when tempted by the lure of playing in the Champion’s League, at the age of 29, the Spaniard may have felt it would be his last chance to make a ‘big move’. He signed for Arsenal on deadline day 2011, and has since made the transition appear effortless. His goal at the Emirates last season against Manchester City, sealed his reputation as one of the best midfielders in the league.
But this season, in the absence of an out-and-out DM, Arteta has found himself a new role – as Arsenal’s enforcer. Playing just in front of the Arsenal back line, Mikel Arteta has become the pivotal link between the new-look Arsenal midfield and the defence. Saturday’s trip to the Etihad saw Arteta make tackle after tackle and use his position to crowd the City attackers out. He put pressure on the player every time they wandered into his defensive jurisdiction and made himself a presence in and around the Arsenal box.
In that game he completed 100 passes out of 106 (94% accuracy) - an incredible stat when you consider his work-rate off the ball.
Arsene Wenger took the heat when Alex Song followed Robin van Persie out the door, especially after the Gunners failed to replace him with Nuri Sahin who, after arguing the toss over a contract, ended up on loan at Anfield. But it appears Arsene really does ‘know’, as Arteta’s performances so far have left Arsenal fans singing a very different song – “Alex who?”
image: © wonker