Arsenal’s midfield problems?
The Gunners have endured their worst ever Premier League start under Arsene Wenger’s tenure this term and after 16 games they find themselves in the lowly position of seventh in the league table. The French manager has come under increasing fire from the club’s fans and he’s slowly but surely starting to become a divisive figure on the terraces, with large swathes of supporters deeply frustrated by the club’s perceived lack of progress and inactivity in the transfer market.
A main part of the team’s under-performance throughout this campaign, though, has not only been the struggles to compensate for the huge loss of Robin van Persie in the summer, but the need for a recognised holding man in the middle of the park to help break up play, with Alex Song’s departure to Barcelona hurting the side more than many fans have let on.
It’s not as if Song was an archetypal holding man in any sense; he lacked positional discipline, seemed more interested in getting involved in play higher up the pitch and continuously gave away silly little fouls in dangerous areas, but Wenger has found it difficult to replicate his power, drive and energy from within the existing members of the squad.
Abou Diaby looked as if he was ready to assume the mantle with a commanding display full of running and ideas in midfield during the 2-0 win away against Liverpool at Anfield, but his well-known injury problems have resurfaced yet again and confined him to the treatment table; the team conceded just once in the 344 minutes he spent on the pitch at the beginning of the term, and they miss the balance and organisation he brings to them.
Mikel Arteta does offer an element of control in front of the back four and he’s done an admirable job in an unfamiliar shielding role, but he lacks the tenacity to get in and around opponents when they have the ball in the same way Diaby does, and teams play through the middle of the team rather than around them, while going forward they now lack penetration.
The result is that Arsenal are simply not as tricky to play against anymore. The midfield triumvirate of Arteta, summer signing Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, a man still working his way to full fitness after over a year out with injury, are extremely comfortable in possession, they move the ball well, but it’s without it that the problems start and this is an avoidable shortcoming that Diame could help address.
Allardyce intimated during the week that any switch may be out of his hands, although he refused to divulge specific details of any release clause in Diame’s contract, stating: “There is always a situation where you are powerless to keep a player. Because of the size of the fee, you can’t turn it down and the chairman says: ‘We can’t say no, we’ve got to move him on’ but I won’t be disclosing a player’s contract. I didn’t really ever have to convince Mohamed to join West Ham, it was all about the contract. In the end, it took a bit of time, but we came to a financial agreement that was suitable for the club and the player.”
The club’s co-owner David Gold tweeted last week: “Diame does have a release clause in his three-year contract. He joined us from Wigan on a free transfer.” West Ham remain desperate to tie him down to a new deal, one which doesn’t have the same sort of release clause, but there’s a concern that he could go for as little as £4m in January now.
Going into the game at West Brom, while the Arsenal midfield improved upon their recent home performances, which had seen them take just 13 points out of possible 30 prior kick-off, they dictated possession but without any real urgency to their play, and they had to rely on two penalties to secure the win. They remain a fluid, composed and cultured team, and while their start in the league is far from ideal, they still sit just two points outside the top four. Nevertheless, you still get the feeling that they are failing to deliver on their potential.
This is where Diame comes in; a true box-to-box midfielder, who can drive straight at the heart of a back four and pick a precise pass. He might not completely fit in with the probing style that the side have come to adopt in recent years, but that’s all the more reason for doing it. Arsenal pass the ball in straight lines now, often lacking that runner from deep willing to go beyond the striker, with every player looking for a ball into feet. The game is big on ‘breaking lines’ and ‘horizontal runners’ now and Diame fits into both categories well.
The side lacks versatility and can become somewhat predictable, particularly when they’re out of form as they have been the past month or so. It’s not as if Diame’s a slouch on the ball either, boasting a respectable passing accuracy of 82%, and while it’s certainly not world-beating, it bears favourable comparison with Wilshere’s 87%, Cazorla’s 88% and Ramsey’s 88%. This number would surely get higher while playing in a side which keeps the ball a lot better and around a better calibre of team-mate too.
His strength, power and aggression are unmatched in the Arsenal ranks and the diminutive playmakers would surely welcome the opportunity to hand over a degree of their defensive burden, therefore allowing them more room to manoeuvre with the ball higher up the pitch. Arteta and fellow Spaniard Cazorla have just two league assists between them in their last 12 games apiece and they look shackled to an extent, seemingly far too deep to have much of a telling impact on the game in the final third. Diame would help remedy that.
The fact that he’s averaged 4.1 tackles per game this season, the second most in the league, speaks volumes and he’s a player of real substance who appears to have a genuine impact on the teams he plays for. He might not quite have the reputation to match his illustrious counterparts or fit in with the club’s established brand of play to the letter, but that’s exactly why he’s required.
He was hugely impressive coming off the bench during West Ham’s 3-1 win over Chelsea last weekend and was again outstanding prior to being stretchered off against Liverpool, with his introduction and withdrawal completely changing the complexion and result of each game. He left the pitch in the 73rd minute against Brendan Rodgers’ side with the score at 2-1 and within three minutes Liverpool had equalised and within six minutes had raced into a slender one-goal lead which they managed to hold onto.
His injury could prove a potential stumbling block to any proposed deal after the midfielder suffered s suspected hamstring tear hamstring tear and Allardyce made it sound like a blessing in disguise after the game, telling reporters, even if the timing was slightly off: “I would sooner have that aggravation in January where people trying to get him than lose him for the period of time, eight-12 weeks.” He will be away from the spotlight for a number of weeks now, though, which could still help the Hammers’ cause in keeping hold of their man.
Had Kenny Dalglish not been sacked by Liverpool in the summer, then in all likelihood, Diame would be at Anfield this season, and Lord knows given their struggles without Lucas Leiva they could have done with such an impressive understudy. There’s no denying that the Senegal international is capable of making the step up required to play for Arsenal given his exceptional performances against the league’s bigger clubs so far this season, and with such a tantalising price hanging around his neck, Wenger would be foolish not to consider the midfield enforcer.