Ask any Arsenal fan what the club’s priority should be in the summer transfer window, and the answer will likely be ‘a holding midfielder’ – to many, Arsene Wenger’s eternal blind spot in the transfer market, where make-shift options such as Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, Mathieu Flamini and most recently, Francis Coquelin, have been preferred to the more costly, more conventional play-breakers attainable from other clubs.
The problem eternally plaguing the Gunners however, is that they’re obliged to be more stubborn than most when adding to the midfield – particularly in deep-lying roles. The need for some physical variety in the engine room is obvious – currently, Aaron Ramsey and Diaby are the only midfielders that measure at above six foot – whilst the defensive capabilities of a tried and trusted anchorman would accommodate for the creative licence Arsenal’s more offensive midfielders have become accustomed too.
Yet, a beastly juggernaut like Marouane Fellaini, Mile Jedinak, Victor Wanyama or William Carvalho would look disastrously cumbersome in a midfield where silky skills and technically-demanding build-up play reigns supreme. At least the academy products, although lacking the more familiar characteristics of defensive mids, are well-versed in the Arsenal philosophy.
In other words, physically imposing midfield generals that don’t juxtapose Arsenal’s definitive brand of creative, expansive football – 6 foot 4 monoliths blessed with the technical quality and composure participate in Gunners’ passing game without slowing it down or conceding possession – are an exceptionally rare breed.
One might look at Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure or Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, but these are amongst the best in their trade; even if Arsenal hypothetically had the money to sign them, convincing top stars to leave top clubs is a gargantuan task within itself – especially for a club that’s won just a single trophy in the last decade, and never claimed a Champions League title.
Indeed, unless Arsene Wenger plans on rebuilding Arsenal’s philosophy from the ground up, he can only settle for the perfect candidate to anchor his midfield – someone not only blessed with an eclectic blend of defensive awareness, height, strength and quality on the ball, all at Premier League title-contending standard, but perhaps most importantly, feasibly within the north London club’s reach this summer.
One defensive midfielder that might just embody all of those requirements however, is Bayern Munich’s Javi Martinez – a bullish, brazen, 6 foot 3 battering ram, also capable of playing at centre-back, boasting all the technical mastery one would expect from a regular Spain international plying his domestic trade under tiki-taka specialist Pep Guardiola.
The 26 year-old is no Xavi or Pirlo, but for a player of his imposing frame and bellicose nature, a pass completion rate of 89% over the last two campaigns, jumping up to 93% in the Champions League, with a forward pass bias of 80%, is certainly nothing to be sniffed at, especially when combined with averages of two tackles, 1.8 interceptions and 3.4 successful aerial duels per match.
Likewise, although holding position remains Martinez’ predominant job, it’s by no means his only mode of play; during his time at Athletic Bilbao and inaugural season with Bayern, the Spaniard made bullish runs forward one his trademarks, regularly fighting, wrestling and contesting his way up field – in a not too dissimilar fashion to Chelsea’s Diego Costa – to produce a healthy supply of goals; 25 in 240 for the Basque outfit, three in 43 during his first campaign at the Allianz Arena.
That diverse dynamism could serve Arsenal equally well in defence and attack, but perhaps most importantly of all, Martinez represents the size and calibre of player capable of competing effectively with Chelsea’s Matic and City’s Toure. In my opinion, this has been the ultimate difference between Arsenal and the Premier League’s table-toppers over the last few season – the glass ceiling that perpetually limits positive results against the title contenders.
You might be wondering why Bayern Munich would be prepared to part with such a player – as I’ve billed him, a domineering battler of brawn and skill, adept enough aerially and defensively to even play at centre-back – and officially, they aren’t.
But Martinez has never quite captured Guardiola’s imagination in the same way as predecessor Jupp Heynckes, making nine appearances less than the campaign prior under the former Barcelona boss in 2013/14. He’s yet to feature this season due to a long-term injury, but that convinced Guardiolo to sign both Xabi Alonso and Medhi Benatia towards the end of the summer window, two coveted names Martinez will struggle to reclaim his place in the starting Xi from. From playing a pivotal role in the Bavarians’ 2013 Champions League title campaign, he’s now being pushed to the peripheries of the squad.
In my opinion, that gives Arsenal a way in – albeit, an exceptionally expensive one, having originally cost Bayern an eye-watering €40million. Yet, for what Arsenal desperately require in their midfield, the unique demands aforementioned, and the positive effect Martinez could potentially have on them, breeding a new sense of balance into an otherwise attacking-centric starting XI, any price can quickly become a justifiable one if it paves the way for titles and silverware.
Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin, Real Madrid’s Sami Khedira or Sporting Lisbon’s Cavalho are perhaps cheaper options, but the Bayern Munich star remains the real McCoy. Add him to Arsenal’s starting XI, and suddenly they’re a very different, far more formidable proposition.