Thinking outside the eighteen-yard box – the need for a holding midfielder (or two)

My favourite Arsenal picture may seem a strange choice. It’s taken in April 1998, at a tense moment of Arsenal’s 3-1 win at home to Newcastle United at Highbury (the programme from which you can see above). All eyes are on Toon striker Alan Shearer, who was preparing to unleash one of his scud missile free kicks towards Arsenal’s goal. There, in front of him stand Arsenal’s classic back four of Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould, who were prepared to charge down whatever Shearer propelled towards them. No surprise there, you might think, but in the thick of the wall are two others; Patrick Vieira and Manu Petit, their eyes fixed in concentration, also ready to throw themselves in the way of Shearer’s shot. From memory, it was Petit who copped it in the midriff, took a few seconds to compose himself after being on the receiving end of the thunderbolt, then carried on playing as if nothing had happened.

To me, the picture embodies the spirit of every successful Arsenal side since the early 1970s. Namely, there needs to be a pair of midfielders who screen the back four as if their lives depend on it. An alarming recent statistic that has just come to my attention is that Arsenal’s defensive record last season (49 goals conceded in 38 matches) was, in terms of goals to games, the team’s worst ever record in the Premier League. In the 1994–1995 campaign, the Gunners conceded an identical number of goals, but played four more games. So last season was 1.29 goals conceded per match, as opposed to 1.17 in George Graham’s last season in charge. Remarkably, you’d have to journey back to 1965–66 (the hapless Billy Wright’s last campaign in charge) to find a worse defensive effort, when Arsenal leaked a horrendous 75 goals in 42 games. That was a desperate 1.79 per game.

So what went wrong last season? Naturally, all eyes fell on Arsenal’s back four last campaign. Arsenal’s most hapless defensive displays last season at Old Trafford, the Liberty Stadium, Ewood Park and Stamford Bridge coincided with the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, and at OT, the line up of Jenkinson, Traore, Koscielny and Djourou appeared desperately lightweight, and so it proved in abject circumstances. For the bulk of the campaign, there were also long term injuries to Gibbs, Vermaelen, Mertesacker and Sagna, which wrecked any chance of stability.

That said, Arsenal’s backline has been increasingly porous for several years, but perhaps it’s unfair to simply lay the blame at the feet of individual defenders, and constantly criticise them for failing to operate as a unit. Maybe it’s down to the fact that a midfield defensive screen has gone AWOL in the last few years. Successful Arsenal sides didn’t simply rely on a successful back four. It was frequently a flexible back six. The historical evidence is there for everyone to see. A few years back, Frank McLintock told me: “I got a lot of plaudits in the 71 Double side. So did ‘Stan’ (Peter Simpson) alongside me as being a solid defensive pairing. I think we were, but I knew full well that in front of me, ‘Snouty’ (Peter Storey) was really the first line of defence, and the opposition were terrified of him, and Eddie Kelly could put his foot in too. In my eyes, they were the defensive shield. ‘Stan’ and I were there for seconds if needed!”

Arsenal’s legendary back line in 1989, 1991, 1998 and 2002 benefitted massively from the Rocastle/Thomas/Richardson/Hillier and Petit/Vieira axes in front of them. Anfield hero Michael Thomas famously commented: “George’s back four all played well into their 30s. That’s because in front of them, they had Rocky and me do their running for them. We played into our late 20s.” Stretching the truth it may be, but Rocky and Mickey, having been instructed to bomb from box to box for George’s Arsenal were burnt out by their mid 20s, and never the same players again after they left Arsenal. I recall vividly sitting near the Arsenal dug out during the 88–89 campaign, and hearing George and assistant Theo Foley yelling at the pair to “get back and help Tony and Bouldy.” Adams later joked: “One game against West Ham, I really fancied getting stuck into Frank McAvennie, but I never got the chance, because every time I was about to go for it, Rocky appeared and booted him all over the place.”

After a few uncertain weeks at the start of the 97–98 campaign, an animated conversation at the Gunners’ Christmas party changed Arsenal’s fortunes. In the early months of the campaign, the prodigiously gifted Vieira and Petit had been playing (in Martin Keown’s words) “…their own game. Sometimes helping us out at the back, sometimes dancing to their own tune. Once we told them they needed to screen us, I’d say they became the best midfield partnership in Europe.” Both Frenchman could play “Hollywood” passes, but they were more than willing to hassle and harry the opposition to alleviate the pressure on the back four. In the “Invincibles” campaign, Vieira was partnered by Gilberto.  In short, the best Gunners sides over the last 40 years have had defensive screens in front of them.

Not anymore. The shock absorbers have been surgically removed, and the Gunners are fatally exposed on far too many occasions. Aesthetically, Arsenal are of course, phenomenally easy on the eye, but apart from Flamini putting it about in the 2007–2008 campaign, and Alex Song sometimes hassling the opposition (but not always effectively) the days of a flexible back six have gone. It’s why the club’s pursuit of Rennes midfielder Yann M’Vila could be the most vital signing in years. With an 84% completion rate, not only is he a fine passer of the ball, he’s also (in both Patrick Vieira’s and Claude Makelele’s opinion), the best defensive midfielder in France. Emmanuel Petit claims M’Vila is a combination of Vieira and Makelele at their best. That can only be good news for Arsenal fans, because as several of Real Madrid’s galacticos admitted in the noughties, Makelele may not have shone as brightly as some of his colleagues, but he was their most influential player. He was the glue that held them together. How often have we seen Arsenal fall apart at the seams in recent campaigns, all because the midfield defensive blanket was full of holes?

Arsenal need a water carrier. Maybe even two. Hopefully M’Vila will come, and the noises are positive that he may well make the move, particularly as Bayern Munich have supposedly cooled their interest. My contact in Manchester tells me that Arsenal are continuing to put the feelers out for Nigel De Jong, whose future at City is uncertain. Both M’Vila and De Jong are deluxe water carriers, who are equally adept at defending and moving forward, and both would cost somewhere around £12 million, which appears to be the ball park figure for Arsenal transfer targets this summer. The presence of one or the other in the centre of the park would free up Arteta and the returning Wilshere to move forward, and alleviate the pressure on Song to roam at the back.

Signing M’Vila, and fending off interest from Bayern Munich, would represent a statement of intent in two ways. Firstly, it would show that the Gunners are capable of attracting promising young talent, and following the signature of Podolski, closing deals more effectively. Secondly, it would show that Arsene Wenger (possibly with a quiet word from Steve Bould in his ear) is finally realising that successful Arsenal sides need more than a bit of bite in midfield. It all sounds so simple, but if Arsene doesn’t learn a fairly straightforward lesson from Arsenal’s history, he’s doomed to repeat recent failures next season.

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