The ghost of Vieira still haunts us. Post defeats (where accusations of being bullied are rife) our shortcomings are nearly always diagnosed as failure to replace our iconic leader. But is it Vieira or is something else amiss? Comparing players from our last major successes (between 2002-2005) helps to pinpoint the problem.
Seaman and Lehman both possessed top-level shot stopping ability and a dominance of their penalty area with the required consistency that minimized errors. I have reservations over Petr Cech’s form but when playing well he does bring the aforementioned attributes and security and therefore the issue here is more consistency than a skills gap.
Lauren and Ashley Cole delivered defensive assuredness from the right and a dynamic offensive threat from the left. There modern day comparators (albeit on opposite flanks) bring such qualities through the defensively sound Monreal combined with the rampaging Bellerin. In the middle, we have two Kolo Toure’s in Mustafi and Koscielny acting as natural sweepers suited to recovery play, foot races and timely interceptions. Like Kolo they also retain the requisite aggression and technique required of a modern-day centre back. The first skills gap (never replaced) is the dominance, proactivity and presence of Sol Campbell, a beautiful complement to Toure.
Up top we have the most Bergkamp type player possible in Mesut Ozil. Although employed from deeper, Mesut brings creativity, an exquisite touch and chance creation stats that compare favourably to Dennis’s. The Ozil-Bergkamp comparison fits like a glove which is interesting because initially Ozil was incorrectly benchmarked against Fabregas, a controller of games from deep. Ozil has proved himself as a world-class ‘number 10’, a creator of special and decisive moments. In Aubameyang we hope to have finally replaced Henry’s pace, power and exceptional goal-scoring/assist record.
The crux of the analysis is in midfield. Firstly, we have replicated Parlour/Ljungberg’s energy, defensive work rate and goals from midfield in Aaron Ramsey (albeit he is employed more centrally.) On the left, the hope is that Mkhitaryan will use his peripheral vision like Pires to come inside and be a key creative source. Unquestionably he has the technical ability to contribute to our fluid, technical and offensive approach so it’s just a question of whether he can match Robert’s goal-scoring and assist contribution.
Given Wilshere’s resurgence bringing bite, drive and personality to our midfield, it can be argued he has begun to pick up some of the Vieira mantle. Admittedly his presence is not as forthright and his dominance comes from clever passing, neat footwork and drive rather than brute force however in an age where teams drop off (challenging us to break them down) perhaps presence alone isn’t as effective as it once was.
The real missing piece of the jigsaw is the failure to replace Gilberto Silva’s defensive focus in midfield. We have lost the impeccable defensive positioning and reading of the game that ensured opposition play was continually disrupted and broken up, which undoubtedly was a key factor in our past success. Nowadays we have Xhaka, a more offensively focused player who contributes expansive passing from deep or Elneny, an energetic box to box midfielder unnaturally disciplining himself to try and protect our back four. Neither provides a world-class defensive screen as our former number 19 once did. Put Gilberto and his defensive focus into our midfield today and challenging for major honours seems more feasible, consequently, I conclude he is the key man that we never replaced.