There needs to be a balance in finding and acquiring the star name, the big-money signing and establishing who will be the best fit for any given side.
Arsenal fans would have loved the idea of Marouane Fellaini roaming about the pitch at the Emirates as a towering and imperious Goliath. Would he fit the Arsenal way? To an extent: he’s big, strong, versatile, and would counter the “bullies” in the Premier League; Arsenal could make it work. But there is such a thing as a good player not always being a great fit for a team – and that’s not really to say Fellaini wouldn’t be a good buy for Arsenal, but rather that Lars Bender would be an even better fit.
The modern game doesn’t really need set roles with specific duties if the whole team is willing to work. The very best teams are those who share the burden of reclaiming possession and tracking back, not just in the forwards relying on those with a defensive mind to do so. There are obvious defensive midfielders in the game, but those managers who wish to evolve the formations and tactics in football choose to deploy hybrids rather than clearly defined specialists.
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The admirable thing about Arsene Wenger and his philosophy on the game is that he tries to avoid conforming to what is viewed as the norm, wishing rather to play his own brand of football and winning the day on his own terms. That’s the Barcelona way, too, and the whole idea of creating a “Plan B” is nonsensical and alien to the foundations and traditions laid by Johan Cruyff.
For Arsenal, long gone are the days of a Patrick Vieira/Gilberto Silva figure in the midfield. Don’t get me wrong, they would have been of great use at various points last season. The tandem at Bayern Munich of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez is one of the most imposing in European football. That was their foundation that led them to Champions League glory and the treble. But Martinez wasn’t just picked for convenience; he was bought for purpose.
Mikel Arteta has done a fantastic job in the Arsenal midfield, and more often than not Arsenal make it work by having a diminutive figure in the holding role over a colossus whose presence spans the entire width of the field. Think how much better Arsenal as a unit could have been if all the outfield players bought into the idea of closing down and tracking back, much in the way of Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund.
As a reference to both Barcelona and Dortmund, their “holding midfielders” do far more than simply shield the back four. Ilkay Gundogan is one of the best deep-lying playmakers in Germany and his reputation is growing rapidly; Sven Bender, though not as “complete” as his brother, also offers to the attack as well as the defence; Sergio Busqeuts is a necessary reference point for players like Xavi and Andres Iniesta when they need a third man in retaining possession, and he’ll bring the ball out from the back and split defences with passes that are up there with the very best of his midfield colleagues. As for players like Xabi Alonso, he too has been able to bring about both defensive and attacking aspects of his game to either fit Spain or Real Madrid’s needs. Like his counterparts in or around his level of ability, he can switch between the two almost with ease.
Lars Bender allows for very little deviation from Wenger’s philosophy. In addition, the German looks and plays like an Arsenal player much more than Fellaini. While the Everton midfielder does have a level of guile and grace, the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder comes with as much versatility, but a degree that allows him to adapt his game from the deep-lying midfield position. He’ll play forwards in on goal – an aspect of his game that has improved tremendously over the past year – he’s one of the finest tacklers in the Bundesliga and also offers that level of steel that’s on occasion required in English football. Again, Bender is a well-rounded player but one who undeniably looks like a Wenger signing. It’s a little difficult to picture Fellaini playing the brand of football Arsenal are regularly associated with.
There’s no surprise that Arsenal have reportedly gone in twice this year for Bender, as well as making an enquiry last summer. The 24-year-old is an international-level footballer who was integral to Leverkusen finishing third last season.
If Wenger has truly evolved on from the idea of bringing in a defensive midfielder in the Gokhan Inler mould, who he chased a number of years ago, then adding Lars Bender is a fine choice in continuing on from the altered ground set by Arteta.
Would Lars Bender be a better fit for Arsenal over Fellaini?
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