If you ask someone about the reasons behind Arsenal’s strong start to this season, they’ll probably tell you about Aaron Ramsey being on course for the POTY award, Mesut Özil having the most assists in the league or Olivier Giroud being a completely different footballer compared to last campaign. There’d also be some praise to the defensive formation, which seems to finally be much less sloppy than it used to be in the previous years. Of course, all of those praises would be well deserved, though I can’t help feeling that there is one very important player, whose contribution to team’s success so far is heavily underrated.
Mikel Arteta is not really the kind of footballer to hit the headlines with his performances. He’s doesn’t score or assist too many goals, and he’s not the one to take on opponent after opponent in some eye-catching dribbling. He is Arsenal’s key player, though. Why? A quick look at his stats should provide us with some good answers to that question.
First off, it’s hard not to notice Arteta’s impressive passing accuracy of 92%, that makes him one of the best passers of the ball in the whole league. As you can see, his passing is mostly made sideways rather than vertical. If you look at where he play his passes, you’ll notice that most of them are being made deep, in his own half or around the middle of the pitch, with only 25% of all the passes he’s taken in the opposition half being made in final third, which seems to be a very low percentage given he’s a part of strong, attacking-minded Arsenal team. Here’s how his passing looked against Cardiff City:
This image says a lot about Arteta’s distribution and areas in which he operates. All of his passes in the recent Arsenal game were actually made around the halfway line and addressed to either right or left flank. Even the balls he played in the opposition’s final third were coming from some really deep positions – they seem to be addressed from the edge of middle and final third rather than being real attacking passes. He didn’t create any chances with the balls he played, but it’s quite obvious that was never his job. He has also fired one shot through the whole game. It says a lot about his role in the team – he’s not the one to create or possess a constant threat to the opposition’s defence. His job is to make that safe, intelligent pass to help the whole team get some rhythm. Mikel is fully focused on making the ball circulate, he doesn’t go for glory or look for a killer pass too often – he’s got Ramsey, Özil and Cazorla to do that for him. Given that, it’s hard to blame the Spaniard for his poor stats in those areas, as it takes him 201,33 minutes to create a chance and 115 minutes to take a shot.
A look at Arteta’s defensive dashboard from the same Cardiff game is a good illustration of another one of Mikel’s tasks. He’s doing the dirty work in Arsenal’s midfield, being involved in a challenge every 4,68 minutes. As you can see above, the Spanish midfielder had a really good defensive display against Cardiff. It’s not a big surprise, though, as the stats he achieved through the whole season so far seem to say the same thing. Winning 70% of his tackles and 64% of ground duels, Mikel seems like a very tough midfielder to play against. He also intercepts the oppositions’ passes every 33,56 minutes. Perhaps the least impressive of his defensive stats is his aerial duel win percentage, which is 52%. Still, it seems like a decent result given his rather average height.
So, why is Arteta Arsenal’s key player? He basically makes sure everything goes to plan for Wenger’s team. Working tirelessly in defence and helping his teammates to build their moves with his safe, wise passing, he provides what is necessary for the Gunners to win their midfield battles. He is basically the massively underrated cover that allows Ramsey & co to bring havoc to the opposite teams’ lines. Another good example of Arteta’s hard work allowing his teammates to boss the midfield would be the Liverpool game, where Mikel’s passing and defensive contribution had basically shut the whole Reds’ midfield trio down. Always calm, determined and doing his best for the team, Mikel Arteta may not be as popular in the media as some of his teammates are, but without his contribution none of Arsenal’s starmen could shine as bright as they do at the moment.