After last season, there have been several doubts over the effectiveness of Denilson, Alexandre Song and Abou Diaby. Perhaps rightly so in the case of the latter, who so frustratingly seems to randomly fluctuate between world beater and idiot. Hopefully the extra fitness training he has put in prior to pre-season will pay off this year (yes, I’m ignoring the accident that caused Nasri’s injury!).
As for Denilson and Song, the statistics support Arsene Wenger’s insistence that one of the two is the answer to the defensive role in central midfield. While the reliance of statistics is always questioned, it is important to use them to compare the numbers of the Arsenal trio to other players who play similar roles for our rivals. Below is a table showing the statistics of our three defensive options:
|Tackles per game||3.6||3.0||2.9|
|Interceptions per game||4.3||2.8||2.9|
Now, before looking at how these numbers compare with opposition players, we must end a number of misconceptions about Arsenal players. There is a widely held view that Denilson predominantly passes sideways and backwards in an ultra-conservative fashion, but this is not as a result of his technical limitations but his tactical discipline.
In the first few months of the season, Arsenal were scoring goals and conceding them with relative abandon. The majority of Denilson’s goals and assists came within this period. Then as Wenger sought to shore up the defence, Denilson become far more reserved and controlled in his style of play. In contrast, Diaby seems unable to adapt to a central role, because he is defensively naïve.
The Frenchman fails to use his imposing physique when required, often ponders on the ball and slows the momentum of our attacks. He must improve his fitness and ability to prolong runs in the side, and only then will he be able to improve tactically. Robin Van Persie’s new attitude to his physical needs has helped reduce the number of injuries he has sustained.
If the Frenchman could improve his awareness on the pitch, he could be the one partnering Cesc Fabregas next season. Otherwise, it could be the dreaded left flank once again for Abou. There have been flashes of brilliance – the performance against Fenerbahce, the goals against Villa and Newcastle, and of course, that long, raking pass onto Van Persie’s boot for the last gasp equaliser against Everton. Yet, such flashes of brilliance are just that – flashes – and we’ve yet to see Diaby hit a prolonged patch of good form.
As for Alex Song, he has improved greatly from scapegoat to genuine challenger to the first XI. The turning point was starting the matches against Villarreal and Manchester United ahead of Denilson. Wenger clearly sees Song’s build and technical ability as a good complement to Fabregas’ style of play. Yet, the only deterrent to such a partnership would be the lack of pace in both players. Similarly, Denilson partnering Fabregas leads to a lack of a physical presence, despite Denilson offering pace and stamina in abundance.
These strengths and weaknesses are evident in the statistics, with Denilson making the most interceptions in the league, while his passing is also very consistent. Song and Diaby have both played fewer games, but their statistics also seem to stand up against a number of opposition players, as shown below:
Palacios 132, Denilson 128, Barry 125, Mascherano 124, Parker 124, Kompany 112, Mikel 97, Alonso 89, Song 76, Lampard 69, Carrick 68, Cesc 54, Gerrard 53, Diaby 53, Nasri 50, De Jong 45, Ballack 41, Anderson 27, Essien 24.
Tackles per game (mean):
Mascherano 4.6, Parker 4.4, Palacios 4.1, Denilson 3.6, Alonso 3.3, Kompany 3.3, Barry 3.3, Song 3.0, Mikel Obi 2.9, Diaby 2.9, De Jong 2.8, Carrick 2.7, Cesc 2.5, Essien 2.4, Anderson 2.1, Fletcher 2.0, Lampard 1.9, Gerrard 1.8, Nasri 1.8, Ballack 1.7
Essien 83.3%, Barry 81.6%, Kompany 78.6%, Scott Parker 77.4%, Denilson 77.3%, Mikel 76.3%, Cesc 75.9%, Mascherano 75.8%, Song 75.0%, Diaby 73.6%, Ballack 73.2%, Nasri 72.0%, Gerrard 71.7%, Alonso 69.7%, Palacios 67.4%, Lampard 65.2%, Fletcher 62.0%, Anderson 59.3%, Carrick 58.8%, De Jong 57.8%
Denilson 155, Mascherano 85, Barry 85, Palacios 83, Kompany 75, Parker 72, Song 69, Mikel 65, Cesc 57, Carrick 53, De Jong 49, Nasri 49, Alonso 42, Diaby 39, Fletcher 35, Gerrard 34, Lampard 33, Ballack 27, Anderson 26, Essien 18
Interceptions per game (mean):
Denilson 4.3, Mascherano 3.1, De Jong 3.1, Song 2.8, Parker 2.6, Mikel 2.6, Palacios 2.6, Cesc 2.6, Barry 2.2, Anderson 2.2, Kompany 2.2, Diaby 2.2, Carrick 2.1, Nasri 1.8, Essien 1.8, Alonso 1.6, Fletcher 1.4, Ballack 1.1 Gerrard 1.1, Lampard 0.9
Denilson 2533, Alonso 2473, Mikel 2368, Lampard 2307, Gerrard 1708, Kompany 1677, Parker 1619, Barry 1619, Cesc 1619, Mascherano 1610, Carrick 1567, Ballack 1361, Fletcher 1361, Nasri 1348, Palacios 1254, Song 1176, Diaby 954, De Jong 879, Anderson 600, Essien 589
Mikel 90.0%, Essien 88.3%, Nasri 87.9%, De Jong 87.6%, Denilson 87.3%, Song 87.1%, Fletcher 86.2%, Ballack 85.7%, Carrick 85.6%, Parker 85.0%, Alonso 84.8%, Anderson 84.2%, Lampard 84.0%, Diaby 83.5%, Mascherano 83.5%, Palacios 82.8%, Cesc 80.5%, Gerrard 80.3%, Kompany 79.1%, Barry 77.1%.
10 – Lampard
9 – Gerrard
8 – Cesc
7 – Denilson
6 – Barry
5 – Carrick
4 – Alonso, Ballack
3 – Parker
2 – Mikel, Nasri, Diaby, Scholes
1 – Kompany, De Jong, Mascherano
0 – the rest including Song, Fletcher
16 – Gerrard
12 – Lampard
6 – Nasri
5 – Barry
4 – Carrick, Alonso
3 – Denilson, Diaby, Cesc, Fletcher
1 – Song, Ballack, Kompany
0 – Anderson, Mikel, Mascherano, Palacios, Anderson, Fletcher, Essien, De Jong, Rosicky
What does this show then? After all Carrick and Fletcher are far from the archetypal defensive midfielder, but they were the pairing for the champions. It seems that while we stress on the partner for Fabregas being tall, strong, technically excellent, defensively dominant amongst other qualities, we forget that football is a team game and these statistics show this, with the Manchester United pair often scoring low on these various aspects but they weren’t doing much wrong given the trophy haul they accumulated last season.
A team work ethic is the most important factor, and while Denilson’s contribution seems statistically decent, his influence is limited if his teammates fail to track back. While Nasri improved in this aspect as the season went on, players such as Fabregas, Walcott and Arshavin, along with all of the strikers, did not do enough in terms of pressing the opposition and reducing the pressure on the defence.
Looking at the statistics, Denilson rivals Javier Mascherano as the most efficient defensive midfielder. Of course, we know Mascherano is far more experienced and the better player (hinting at why his tacking percentage is lower than Denilson’s, given that he is far more inclined to go for 50/50s, for the sake of the team). The Argentina captain has solid numbers across the board, but, coupled with the excellent work ethic of players such as Kuyt, Riera and Gerrard, his cause is aided.
Denilson’s teammates fail to provide the same amount of support. The story is the same at Chelsea and Manchester United. At Arsenal the main focus is on team building and player development. When Arsene Wenger sets out to buy a player, he is looking for a player that would significantly improve the side’s characteristics. The options available (at least those linked to us by the media) do not represent a massive improvement on our current options, at least in terms of our available budget.
Fans may bemoan ‘missing out’ on the signings of Lorik Cana, Felipe Melo amongst others. The fact is that the former would have only added a physical presence but none of the finesse an Arsenal player requires. If Cana had received a work permit earlier in his career for a trial at the club, it would have been easier to mould his technical ability to match the tenacity. Right now, £5m seems an unnecessary gamble, when Denilson and Song are far likelier to surpass the targets that have been mooted to join us.
Of course, it is more difficult to argue why Denilson should be preferred over Juventus’ new signing Melo. The reason is that the players that would significantly improve us are out of our price range. Therefore Wenger is right to stick with the current crop (unless an exceptional player (that isn’t too old, or injury prone) suddenly becomes available in our price range – maybe when pigs fly?).
Similarly, while Adebayor was chastised for his lack of work ethic (and rightly so), the other strikers did not pull their weight either (with the possible exception of Bendtner’s late improvement). Denilson’s lack of offensive momentum was, in contrast, unfairly criticised (while Adebayor’s mercenary ways were) during a period when our attacking options were very few in number, given that the Brazilian was attempting to keep the defensive balance.
But the fact is that Denilson’s statistics are in the right company, but for those numbers to turn into trophies the whole squad must show an increased work ethic and pressing game for Denilson’s game to be recognized. The same goes for Song and Diaby, because while the defensive midfielder has a specialised role, he is in no way responsible for the defensive duties of all of the front six players. He will improve – hopefully in terms of tracking runners from midfield but then so could all of our players. Improvement comes from experience, for which the past season will be invaluable for all of our budding defensive midfielders.
Trust in Wenger’s method and his faith in Denilson, Song and even Diaby (there’s also the talented Aaron Ramsey). If a new central midfielder doesn’t come in, it won’t be for a lack of trying on the manager’s part, but it will more likely be due to financial restraints. It’s always interesting having a look at the statistics, but as we all know, they don’t tell the full story.
Of course remember this, and years of following the club will tell fans to ignore any statement the Boss makes on transfers. Arsenal act discreetly so the chances of any comment on potential transfers being true are unlikely. So don’t take every single word that comes out from Arsene’s mouth as the gospel truth, and that way you’ll avoid any stress-related incidents.