Arsenal fans cannot be blamed if they feel like pinching themselves every morning. With the Gunners having sealed the signings of Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal are in the curious position of being trend-setters this transfer window, and there is a sense of cautious optimism around the Emirates these days. However, Arsene Wenger will know that the job is only half done; Arsenal still need a back-up goalkeeper, a central defender and a defensive midfielder to add strength to the squad and build on the platform set by last season’s FA Cup triumph.
It’s the last of these three that stirs the most debate. Wenger’s need for a strong, solid defensive midfielder has been apparent for a couple of seasons now; the kind of midfielder who is content to sit back and shield the back four, win the ball from the opposition and launch attacks from the base of the midfield. He can also partner up with a more attack-minded central midfielder (like Aaron Ramsey) in the midfield double pivot of Wenger’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Here we take a look at two of the frontrunners linked with a move to the Emirates this summer, Morgan Schneiderlin and Lars Bender.
Schneiderlin is a year younger than Bender at 24, but he comes with invaluable Premier League experience; he’s played at Southampton since 2008 and been in the EPL since their promotion in the 2011/12 season. He won’t require a bedding-in period to get used to the league’s physical nature, which is ideal since Arsenal will have to challenge for all four trophies right away, including the two-legged Champions League play-off game that they contest in the first week.
Although they both tend to play in the central midfield role, Bender is a dynamic midfielder who can cover a variety of roles in the midfield. While Schneiderlin likes to primarily sit back and break up opposition attacks, the German international is also comfortable in a box-to-box or even roaming midfield role. It can be argued that given their packed midfield the Gunners don’t need another attacking midfielder, but the truth is Lars Bender’s versatility offers Wenger a little more cover for important midfield positions that could have used some depth last season. The German international can be rotated with Arteta or Flamini and used in a more attacking midfield role in the absence of Ramsey or Oxlade-Chamberlain.
One glaring weakness in Bender’s game is his low passing accuracy. Schneiderlin’s 89% over the season eclipses his 77%, and this leads to the Saints player creating more chances per 90 minutes (0.98 to 0.77) than Bender. Bender’s ability to play in an attacking role can be seen in his higher attack score, but even then he only scored 3 goals last season to Schneiderlin’s 2. Schneiderlin’s ability to be the starting point of counter attacks, once his team wins the ball, is visible in his domination of the forward passes category, averaging 39.68 every 90 mins compared to Bender’s 28.
On the defensive side, Bender wins out in the tackling category, winning 3.4 tackles per game as compared to Schneiderlin’s 2.83. His 75% success rate at take-ons underlines his physicality, but his overall defence score shows that there is still room for improvement on the defensive side of his game. Schneiderlin is stronger in the air (winning almost 62% of his aerial duels), and is an excellent reader of the game; he had the most interceptions of any Premier League player (137) two seasons ago and his per 90 rate of 2.21 this year was one of the top five in the Premier League. His role would be one of an out-and-out defensive midfielder, the kind Arsenal are in desperate need of, and his strength would add perfect balance to a midfield that sorely lacked the muscle required to compete for multiple trophies last season.
Schneiderlin would almost certainly be a cheaper option, and his added experience in the Premier League would be a bonus for Arsene Wenger. However, Bender’s versatility might be enough to convince the Arsenal manager to shell out a little extra for the Leverkusen midfielder.
Schneiderlin is more in the mould of the player Wenger needs, and is probably first choice for the Arsenal boss right now, but it will be interesting to see if he is willing to move to the Emirates especially given his supposed preference to join up with ex-Southampton boss Mauricio Pocchetino at Tottenham. Sporting’s William Carvalho is also an option, but both Bender and Schneiderlin would represent great buys if Arsenal can make either deal happen, and some much needed strength in the central midfield position will make the Gunners genuine title contenders next season.