The latter years of the 2000’s saw an evidently profound shift in the way that the majority of professional football teams laid out their starting eleven. The days of the traditional 4-4-2 formation, with ‘two bags of four’ and two strikers, were becoming a distant memory, and a more possession based midfield three, coupled with a lone ‘target-man’ leading the line, was coming to light.
More and more of Europe’s elite clubs were adopting the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 approach, using at least one midfielder with a more defensive mind set, breaking up opposition attacks and allowing the more creative players freedom to play offensively, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side included.
There are ample reasons as to why we have failed to win a single Premier League trophy since our ‘Invincible’ season of 2003/04, none of which can be used as a sole explanation for our league title drought. But one major factor that has been pinpointed by fans and pundits alike is our failure to obtain a truly ‘world-class’ central defensive midfielder since our move to Emirates stadium in 2006.
Arsenal, of course, had one of the best defensive minded midfielders in Europe in Patrick Vieira. Not only was Arsenal’s legendary former skipper exceptional in possession of the football, and among the best in Europe when it comes to link-up play and offensive creativity, the Frenchman will mostly be known for his ability to completely halt opposition attacks, his profound aggression in tackles and his overwhelming defensive presence in the heart of our midfield. A presence that hasn’t been truly filled since his untimely, and some would say, premature departure to Juventus in 2005.
We have, on the other hand, flirted with ‘potentially’ world-class central defensive midfielders in years gone by. The likes of Gilberto Silva, Denilson, Mattieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta were all brought in as an attempt to fill the obvious void in our midfield but none of which truly lived up to the standard that was left by the departed Vieira.
Alex Song is the CDM that offered the most ‘promise’. Signed almost behind the scenes from Bastia in 2004, Song waited a long time for his opportunity to show his worth in the Arsenal first team, and when he did, he took it with both hands. For a year and half after his burst onto the scene at Emirates, Alex Song produced a number of fine performances on a consistent basis as a CDM, forming a great relationship with the likes of a young Jack Wilshere and Cesc Fabregas. However, such performances attracted the interest of a certain Barcelona in 2012 and he left the club and never really fulfilled his potential on the world stage.
18th January 2015. Manchester City away. Enter Francis Coquelin, a player who was seemingly on his way out of the club when his contract was set to expire later that year. A host of injuries meant that Coquelin, alongside an out of position Santi Cazorla, who was used more of a number 10 at the time, lined up in central midfield against a strong City side. To say that Coquelin was the best player on the pitch would be an understatement, and to say that his performances throughout the rest of that campaign were truly remarkable would also be an understatement. Coquelin was simply magnificent in our midfield as a ‘CDM’, breaking multiple Premier league defensive records for tackles made and distance covered etc. And showcasing outstanding performances for the Arsenal throughout a solid calendar year for the Frenchman. A year that saw him go from a potentially free agent, to starting in the 2014/15 FA Cup final win over Aston Villa.
This season, however, Francis Coquelin or any of our CDM’s haven’t quite replicated such performances. The £34 million capture of Switzerland international Granit Xhaka promised a lot at the start of the season, and though a lot of the Arsenal fans were confident he would hit the ground running at Emirates, he hasn’t quite set the world alight with his performances as a defensive midfielder this season and, in fact, his poor disciplinary record has at times become a hindrance to the squad.
Poor performances, particularly in the middle of the park, have really affected the team as a whole this season, with results such as the diabolical 2-1 defeat at home to Watford and the 10-2 aggregate defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich this season living long in the memory as poor displays defensively in the middle of park, almost allowing the opposition to play with the upmost freedom.
You only have to look at the fortunes of Leicester City last season and Chelsea this season, with the likes of N’golo Kante in their midfield, to understand the effect a world class CDM can have on a clubs title winning aspirations, and hopefully for the Arsenal the likes of Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka can improve their individual performances in the middle of our midfield as we know they can going into the important climax of the season which will put them in good stead going into the 2017/18 season – otherwise it’s time to hit the transfer market and get someone who can truly hold the fort.