When we anticipate or fantasize about jobs we will fill or would perform as the proverbial “king for a day”, we often say, “The first thing I’d do is…”. The first thing Arsene Wenger did for Arsenal was to sign Patrick Vieira.
On August 14, 1996, Patrick Vieira signed for Arsenal, almost seven weeks before Wenger arrived to take over the job. Vieira, a box-to-box central midfielder who practically defines that role to this day, was an instant sensation. His combination of size, strength, athletic talent, technical skill, vision, and hard-nosed competitive desire made him a juggernaut in the Arsenal midfield.
In hindsight, Vieira was also a noteworthy addition for what he wasn’t. In 1996, Arsenal had Bergkamp, but around him in those pre-Anelka, pre-Overmars days were aging forward players like Ian Wright and Paul Merson, and youngster John Hartson. Wenger, undoubtedly knowing he was inheriting a resolute defensive squad, might have been tempted to add another attacking player, but Vieira was instead his first choice. That decision was sound.
Arsene Wenger, who prefers playing with a back four fronted by two dynamic central midfielders screening them, knew that he needed a player like Vieira to not only screen that back four, but also link that back four to the attack. If you’re building your play from the back, you need to build your squad from the back too, and once built (as it fortuitously was already in 1996) you need a way to link play going forward. Vieira provided that link for almost the next decade.
Arsenal under Wenger have never won the league without Patrick Vieira in the team. There is only one other player about whom that can be said, Dennis Bergkamp. Only Vieira of the two, however, could be regarded as being in his prime throughout the period from 1997 to 2004. Vieira was the heart of Wenger’s definitive sides, and he remained so through a remarkable amount of squad turnover. Whether feeding Wright or Henry, whether defending with Adams or Campbell, whether linking with Bergkamp or Fabregas, Viera remained the fulcrum for Arsenal in midfield.
Thirteen years after Vieira’s departure, however, he has never been replaced, and that void during that time has never been more apparent than it is now in 2018. In a strict sense, Vieira of course cannot be replaced. His unique blend of talents and temperament are not replicable. Most teams never get such players. Even ignoring his leadership qualities, it is difficult enough to simply find good box-to-box central midfielders, let alone ones who possess all of his elite physical and technical traits. (I’d argue in fact that this is the rarest elite profile to recruit, even tougher than elite strikers.) The trouble for 2018 Arsenal is, however, that they have done too little to even attempt his replacement after Vieira departed almost 13 years ago.
Arsene Wenger likes to build teams that play on the front foot. He owns no “buses”. At its best, his expressively fluid and electric brand of football embodies “the beautiful game”. Possession is valued as the best way to generate scoring chances, and the team builds its attack from the back, with each player expected to contribute meaningfully both in and out of possession, and to do so at pace.
Premier League football, though, is a game that exposes weaknesses, and the risk-taking of Wenger’s attacking football often means that isolated defensive players pay dearly for their errors. When you’ve got Seaman or Lehmann behind an elite back four and the likes of Vieira screening them you can limit such moments and still take risks, but Arsenal, flatly put, don’t have that anymore, and haven’t for quite some time.
Since Vieira departed, the major central midfield figures (excluding pure attackers like Ozil) for Arsenal have been, overlapping but more or less in chronological order:
Of that list of players, only Wilshere who is slowly rebuilding his injury-marred career, Ramsey, and the shaky Xhaka are even available for Arsenal.
The last four signings for Arsenal’s first team, who were intended to fill pure CM roles at the time of their signing, were Xhaka, Elneny, Flamini and Arteta; Cazorla was of course adapted to the role later on after having been signed as an attacking midfielder. It’s even arguable how much Wenger was squarely planning to play Arteta there in August 2011, the same head-spinning month that both Fabregas and Nasri departed.
The list of Arsenal’s recurrent central midfield players even just since Arteta signed is mercurial at best:
Arteta who was plucked from Everton on deadline day despite his age and injury history, was a player who relied on technique more than physique to win the ball, and had a history of playing farther forward in the midfield, much like the pint-sized Cazorla who later joined him. Remarkably, that flexible duo capitalized on their technical prowess and professionalism to adapt to new roles and must be regarded as the best Arsenal midfield duo of the last decade, happy accident though it was. Their heyday as an impromptu pair lasted only about two seasons, however, before injuries effectively ended Arteta’s career;
Ramsey recovered from an injury that might well have been career ending, and has gone on to star in certain moments while struggling in others, all amidst a frustrating pattern of recurrent muscular injuries that typically cost him multiple months of playing time each season. Even at his best as a box-to-box midfielder, however, defending/holding typically is a weaker aspect of his game, which leaves defenders more exposed;
Flamini was another late-in-the-transfer-window, past-his-prime signing, done on a free during a summer transfer window defined to that point largely by inaction after the rumored Luis Gustavo transfer never materialized. Simply put, he was a consolation prize who literally walked into London Colney to train as a free agent Arsenal alumnus, and ended up getting signed;
Coquelin was a desperate loan-recall to an injury-riddled squad, whose marginal talents on the ball could sometimes be offset by his tenacious, never-say-die efforts out of possession. Still, like Flamini at this time, he was really just a pure defensive midfielder, which is a position that Wenger doesn’t accommodate in his setup;
Elneny, a minor star in the Swiss league and a player who always shows for the ball and who remarkably matches Ramsey’s work rate, nevertheless is neither elite in possession nor in defense, and is merely a serviceable squad player for Arsenal; and
Xhaka is, almost to the exclusion of everything else, a pure deep-lying playmaker, who must have both time and space to pick out long passes, and who otherwise excels at taking rocketing low-percentage shots from outside the box. He is slow and relatively unathletic, and a liability out of possession and in possession against the press.
Since 2011, then, there has been a veritable parade of partial, almost, temporary and not-really fixes to this deep midfield problem, which remains as it always does right at the heart of the team. Little wonder that so much of the team’s play has been marked by meandering possession with little inventiveness or incisive play.
It is not only a void but a caveat when analyzing the performances of the rest of the team.
Was Giroud “useless” or was he simply not getting any service from the back?
Does Ozil “disappear in big games” or is his relentless discovery of space to ghost into wasted by wont of central midfield partnership?
Was Mustafi “brainless” or was he beaten on a given play because the midfielder who should have been screening the channel for him was nowhere to be found and left him isolated?
This is the most difficult type of analysis of all, because it forces you not just to see what happened, but to imagine what didn’t happen, requiring both knowledge of the game and often multiple views of a match or at least of a game situation to understand it. Not all fans are willing and able to engage in such analysis, and so their convenient applications of “obvious” blame to the nearest defender to a goal, or to the attacker who didn’t make the score sheet, are their predictable verdicts. Arsene Wenger, however, has no such excuse.
For almost five years, dating back to the signing of Ozil, Arsenal have had one of the biggest football transfer budgets in the world. Arsenal have emptied the purse now for multiple attacking players, each of whom has cost the club tens of millions to acquire, and yet Xhaka somehow is the only parallel attempt they’ve made in that time to acquire the critical central midfielder they’ve long lacked. How is such squad-building malpractice possible by a team and manager who supposedly value possession and build-up play through the center of the pitch? Will that void ever get filled?