Liverpool and Arsenal shun defensive midfielders; creativity over destruction

ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno, Craig Burley and Stuart Holden are in agreement the pressure is piled on Liverpool ahead of their Capital One Cup match against Bournemouth, with a clash against Arsenal looming.

The defensive midfielder is not a footballing dinosaur or dodo, a species consigned to extinction by the changing of the times. How could it be when Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic is perhaps the most influential player of the season?

Yet it has no counterpart at two of the supposed elite: The defensive midfielder seems a dying breed at Liverpool and Arsenal. Matic highlights a philosophical divide in football. This summer Chelsea paid 21 million pounds to re-sign the man they sold for a sixth of that amount three years earlier. In contrast, Arsenal have spent some 280 million pounds in transfer fees since they last bought an actual defensive midfielder, Lassana Diarra, in 2007 (as opposed to a deep-lying one, Mikel Arteta).

Liverpool have paid out 360 million pounds since they purchased one — the abject failure known as Christian Poulsen — and rather more since they recruited any successfully. They brought in nine players this summer, but no defensive midfielder (Emre Can, though sometimes billed as one, says he prefers a box-to-box role with the insurance of someone else playing the holding role).

When Liverpool and Arsenal convene Sunday, Arsenal’s probable defensive midfielder is Mathieu Flamini, a free transfer. If Liverpool field one, it will be Lucas Leiva, deemed surplus to requirements at least twice since he arrived at Anfield in 2007. Each highlights the way priorities have shifted because, for years, these clubs were bywords for defensive-midfield solidity. They had partnerships par excellence. Supposed nullifiers were catalysts for success.

Arsenal’s first Premier League title in 1998 came as a consequence of manager Arsene Wenger’s recruitment of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, the forceful Frenchmen who extended the careers of George Graham’s venerable back four. Liverpool’s incredible Champions League triumph in 2005 — coming from 3-0 down against AC Milan to win on penalties — was, in part, due to the game-changing half-time introduction of Dietmar Hamann in Istanbul.

Liverpool had two counterattacking strategists, managers Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez, who believed in defensive midfielders. Arsenal have one, Wenger, who prospered for the first half of his reign with two dominant duos: Petit and Vieira, then the latter alongside Gilberto Silva. Wenger’s three titles and eight top-two finishes came during Vieira’s nine years in London.

Wenger’s emphasis switched quickly from the physical to the technical. Liverpool’s finest couple were a marriage of both. Javier Mascherano was the scrapper; Xabi Alonso the stylist. The Spaniard represents the man who straddles eras: With his positional discipline, even his tactical fouling, he was equipped for the midfield battle in the days when clashes of the Premier League giants tended to be cautious affairs. As a creator who could collect the ball from the centre-backs, he was a “quarterback” long before Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers dropped Steven Gerrard into a deeper role.

Alonso (now at Bayern after prospering at Real Madrid) can flourish in an age when there is a tendency to judge players by their pass completion rate. Yet even if they are not individual assessments, other statistics can be more significant when defensive midfielders’ merits are considered.

Look at the rise in the goals-against column; Arsenal conceded only 17 times in 1998-99, when Vieira and Petit were at their most effective, and the “Invincibles” of 2003-04 were breached only 26 times, when Vieira was paired with Gilberto. The Gunners have let in at least 30 goals in every subsequent season, and more than 40 in four of the last five.

In four successive campaigns under Benitez, from 2005-06 to 2008-09, Liverpool let in only 25 to 28 goals. Alonso, who left in 2009, was a constant in those years; Mascherano arrived in January 2007. Hamann, Mohamed Sissoko and Lucas all contributed.

Rodgers’ team conceded 50 league goals last season, Liverpool’s highest tally for two decades, and are on course to let in 52 this year. That reflects, too, on his dreadful defence, but it is notable how the balance in his side has shifted. The Northern Irishman often fields six attack-minded players and five who are more defensively orientated (perhaps only in theory, in cases such as Alberto Moreno.) Under Benitez it was more like 7-4 in favour of the defenders.

And Gerrard’s relocation to the Andrea Pirlo role illustrates how these managers look for a constructive, not a destructive, presence in front of the centre-backs. It tends to be a lone individual, too, not the double pivot of bygone days. Tellingly Benitez, aware of the captain’s capacity to roam, rarely trusted Gerrard in a defensive-midfield duo. Rodgers fielded Gerrard as a lone shield.

Steven Gerrard and Mikel Arteta are not the traditional defensive midfield types.

It is little wonder he was exposed, or that his Arsenal counterpart suffered similar problems. Arteta may be relieved that injury prevents him from returning to Anfield on Sunday as he endured a harrowing afternoon in February’s 5-1 defeat. But he is slower and slighter than Vieira was, plays without the cover a second defensive midfielder provides, and also has full-backs who are far more adventurous than Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn were.

Wenger has given Arteta very different duties, though not as different as the manager’s critics insist. Despite some suggestions to the contrary, Arteta did spend the second half of his Everton career as a central midfielder. Yet in a less flamboyant side, he had a smaller territory to patrol. Sometimes he was paired with a more defensive player, such as Phil Neville; sometimes with a physical presence, whether Tim Cahill or Marouane Fellaini. Arteta was never the one man with responsibility for halting opposition attacks before they got to the back four.

But he played for David Moyes, a pragmatist. Wenger’s idealism has become more pronounced as he has gotten older; Rodgers has always presented himself as one of the game’s purists. These managers do not always see the need for a battler in the centre of the park. Rodgers’ switch to 3-4-2-1 at Old Trafford last week was an attempt to bypass the issue altogether, to field an extra defender instead of a defensive midfielder. Wenger required a high-class defensive midfielder in perhaps only four league games last season.

Yet over the course of those 360 minutes, away at Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton, Arsenal conceded 20 goals. They were made to look naive, something Liverpool have appeared all too often this season. And that is the thing about the finest defensive midfielders. They are streetwise. They are savvy. And they are rarely seen at Anfield or the Emirates.

Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.

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‘The Ox’ Deserves The Spotlight Too

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has enjoyed a fine season at Arsenal at a time when all the focus has been on Alexis Sanchez’s impact.

In a season in which the most eye-catching performer has been Alexis Sanchez, there’s only one Arsenal player who has played in every single league game so far: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

With 11 starts and five substitute appearances, the England man is the only ever present although Alexis, Santi Cazorla and Per Mertesacker have all played just one game fewer. His record is in doubt ahead of Sunday’s game at Liverpool, however, with Arsene Wenger reporting that Oxlade-Chamberlain faces a fitness test before a final decision is made.

“He’s not in training at the moment,” said the Arsenal manager on Thursday, which is a worry because without him the Gunners look particularly short of midfield options. There’s no Aaron Ramsey, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky or Jack Wilshere, so if Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t make it, that leaves Mathieu Flamini with just Francis Coquelin as a foil for a game against a team that blew Arsenal apart in the same fixture last season.

Yet through the injury problems, “The Ox” has been a fine option for his team because of his versatility. Wenger has long said that his natural position will be as a central midfielder, and it’s been part of many players’ education that they’re asked to do a job in a wide position. In the past Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and even Cesc Fabregas in his very early days were selected there to give them a better understanding of the central role.

Wenger believes that learning to play when one side of the pitch is essentially cut off allows players to make better decisions when they’re deployed in the middle of the park. However, the thing about Oxlade-Chamberlain is that his skill-set suits the wide positions as well as it does the middle.

Ramsey, Wilshere and Fabregas don’t have the explosive pace and power that the former Southampton man possesses and only Wilshere can be said to have anything near the same dribbling skills. His ability to play there has allowed him to cover for the likes of Theo Walcott on the right and players like Lukas Podolski, Cazorla and even Mesut Ozil on the left.

At this moment in time, it’s probably where he’s best suited despite his ability to do a job in the centre of midfield. It’s easy to forget he’s still just 21 and developing as a player, but perhaps his most obvious weakness is his distribution. The stats may be skewed by attempted crosses from his deployments wide, but his pass completion rate in the Premier League is a lowly 81 percent.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has played in a variety of positions at Arsenal as the club have struggled to name a consistent starting XI.

In comparison, Arteta is at 93.8 percent, Flamini — not renowned as a possession football specialist — ranks at 92.9 percent while Cazorla, Ramsey and Wilshere are all in the mid-to-high 80s. But an improvement will occur over time as the former Southampton man matures as a player.

What’s been notable about Oxlade-Chamberlain this season is how positive he’s been in the way he plays. It’s always been his way to have a go, create and to shoot from distance but he’s stepped that up a gear since the arrival of Alexis. Speaking last month, he said the Chilean’s performances and attitude had been something of a revelation.

“It has been an eye-opener for me,” he said. “To make it to the top and to be able perform like he does week in, week out you have got to be an absolute winner.”

His response to seeing a player like Alexis do as well as he has tells you everything you need to know about the young midfielder. He wasn’t inhibited, he’s been inspired. That kind of character will ensure the development and the progress he’s made this season will continue.

In the meantime, an injury-hit Arsenal can be thankful he’s already good enough to play as many roles as he does and that he can offset the absence of so many first team players. They’ll also keep fingers crossed he comes through that fitness test.

Andrew Mangan

Andrew Mangan is owner and writer of the award-winning and has blogged about Arsenal every day since 2002. He likes late winners, clean sheets, bullet headers and John Terry falling over. You can follow him on Twitter @arseblog.

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