Pep Guardiola is a national hero in Spain and Catalonia. His deep lying, subtly aware role in the midfield of both Barcelona and the Spanish national team made him the essence, the epitome, the definitive version of what the Spanish call pivote and the Italians call regista. The ball playing defensive midfielder who wins the game not my being an all action powerhouse, but by his awareness, his reading of the game, his distribution of the ball and his dedication to making the team click. Pep Guardiola was the man an entire generation of young Spaniards wanted to be. And now, finally, Arsenal have a player who can genuinely compare himself to the master.
When you look at Mikel Arteta’s recent repositioning, it can be said it was long overdue. In his younger years he always played as a pivote, both for Barcelona and Real Sociedad. Even when he joined Everton he was signed to replace Thomas Gravesen, who himself was an interesting combination of slick passing from deep and reckless tackling. The reason Mikel Arteta’s game gradually went forward when he played for Everton is in the same, unfortunate, category of why the English game still isn’t as good, in terms of the principles of the game, as in other countries. Arteta was good enough with the ball, creative enough and important as a playmaker, so he was moved further forward, and at times, onto the wing, where his excellent delivery was essential and his hard work indicative of what he would later do for Arsenal.
And how well he has done at Arsenal. Amy Lawrence described Arteta’s recent form as a ‘reinvented Arteta’, with ‘Makelele style defensive cover and aware of everything’ and that he was ‘incredibly impressive’. Mikel certainly didn’t start his Arsenal career as any of those things (well, the impressive part was always there) but gradually he has become this player. Last season he often played too far forward, and whilst Arteta is very good with the ball, an excellent passer and a great metronome, he isn’t the lock picker that Xavi or Fabregas are. With the emergence of one Santi Cazorla, and the great double role played by the box to box midfielders like Diaby, Ramsey and Coquelin, however, everything has fallen into place. Look at the Man City match. I don’t know if anyone else noticed but our midfield was fast and slick and played wonderful triangles. Those were almost always instigated, from a relatively deep position, by Arteta. The same Arteta who covers the continuous runs of the fullbacks. Most of his work isn’t flashy, isn’t too showy, but if you understand football (and I dunno if I do) you will realise just how important he is.
So what exactly is the pivote and who else can really be called a pivote? Well to me the master of the craft is someone like Guardiola, now retired of course, and in more recent times players like Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets and Andrea Pirlo, although the latter two have one or two interesting differences to the archetype. Michael Carrick might be called a pivote too, but is he good enough? That is the point of the word pivote. The pivote is, literally translated, the pivot. Maybe the most important player in the team, the player that makes the team tick. Not every team has their deep midfielder as the most important player. And not all deep players are pivotes. Schweinsteiger for Bayern, Lucas for Liverpool, they play at the base of the midfield but are slightly more box to box than a traditional pivote is. But to me, the title of pivote can only be given to the very best players. Many teams will have defensive midfielders who strength lays in awareness and positional play. Many teams have a player in defensive midfield who can distribute the ball well and some even have a midfielder who can keep play ticking. But at Arsenal right now, with Arteta, we have someone who does all of that, in one role, and does it very well. This facilitates our playing a 4-3-3, like Barcelona, with an extra midfielder to do both defensive and attacking roles (Diaby or Ramsey or, when fit, Wilshere) rather than using the famous double pivot of 4-2-3-1. Sure, when we defend it can turn into a 4-2-3-1, but mostly Arteta does that role on his own. And that is part of why this season we are more fluid going forward (and in midfield) than we have been in a while.
As I said earlier, Guardiola was a player that every Spanish boy aspired to be. And yet there are very few players in that famous Spanish team, the Spanish team that wins every single tournament, who can be called a real pivote. Xavi isn’t defensively capable enough and plays higher up. Iniesta started his career as deep as Guardiola, but his dribbling and finishing sees him play very high up now too. Ivan de la Pena was the next Guardiola in his youth but never quite reached the level. Xabi Alonso is a pivote but still is often shackled with another defence-minded player, and Sergio Busquets is a little more physical, and, controversially, to me, not as good on the ball, as a traditional pivote would be.
And then we get to the reason this article has been given the name it has. You see at Arsenal we have played all kinds of midfielders. Patrick Vieira was a box to box leviathan with the ability to pass the ball very well, but never was the metronome who made things tick. In fact, maybe Manu Petit was more that type, as was Edu, whose contribution was very often underrated, as a good pivote always is. Later we had Gilberto Silva, who had the ability to shadow players and did the silent, invisible cleaning up, like a pivote, but Silva’s passing ability wasn’t good enough to play that role, necessitating a ball player next to him. That ball player was Cesc Fabregas, a player who wanted the number 4, who always said how Guardiola was his hero and how he wished to emulate him, not just in career terms, but as a player. That same Cesc who ended up drifting further and further forward, no longer pulling the strings but instead applying the finish, giving the assist. That is not part of the role. When he started it seemed like maybe he could be that player, but his defensive reading of the game was never quite good enough, nor was his willingness to just sit back a bit. It is a shame that he never managed to be that player but now, at Arsenal, we have two Spaniards, neither of whom has that identity crisis. One is the pivote in the truest sense of the word. The other the playmaker, as good as any in world football.
Florentino Perez never offered Claude Makelele a big Galactico salary at Real Madrid because ‘defensive players aren’t important’. That man has a hilariously short memory, because how long before that decision had Guardiola been the captain and most important player at their big rivals Barca? I doubt he ever wanted for anything when he asked for it. At Arsenal we have Mikel Arteta, who to me is the standout performer of the season so far, and indeed for large parts of last season. Everton’s fancy dan with the fantastic hairstyle and the drop dead gorgeous wife has become our invisible metronome, the player who intercepts, passes, track and covers. All the while dripping with class and style. Florentino Perez may not have appreciated back then the need and necessity of a defensive midfielder but most in football do now. Mikel Arteta wanted to prove he could play at the very highest level and he has succeeded. He even took a pay cut to do so. I think it’s time the club repaid the favour and gave him a little payrise. After all, his position in the club, as our very own Guardiola: leader, pivote, standard-bearer and metronome, is one we can’t afford to lose. As recent signings go, serendipitous or not, Arteta is amongst the very best. And whilst some claim he came to replace Fabregas, to me he does more than that. He doesn’t just replace Fabregas (in fact, he doesn’t at all…), but replaces what Fabregas could, maybe should, have become. He is our pivote. And we are lucky to have him.