For years, Arsenal have been renowned for their creative footballing style and their quick-flowing passing play. It has produced some great moments for the club and when Arsene Wenger introduced the philosophy in 1996, it certainly paid off. Some of the greatest footballers in the Premier League era wore an Arsenal shirt and they were praised for their flair and quality in possession. The centre-forward partnership of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp epitomised the “Arsenal way” and their poise, elegance and exquisite touch delivered plenty of silverware to north London at the start of the millennium. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are looking to follow suit in the current Arsenal squad but one thing is missing and unless the Gunners re-introduce this, they will not win the Premier League purely on creativity and flair.
As well as the “footballers for the camera,” there were some “dirty” players who played a vital role in Arsenal’s success during Wenger’s earlier years in charge. Patrick Vieira is the one midfielder who comes to mind. The former Arsenal skipper spent a decade with the club and wore the armband as his side completed the 2003-4 season unbeaten – adopting the name of the “Invincibles.” He was the spearhead in midfield; breaking down play and intercepting passes across the centre. His presence was dominant and he wasn’t afraid to get stuck in. He made crunching tackles, ran from box to box and would happily accept a yellow card if it was needed.
Arsenal’s current front players are given freedom to roam and they have a number of creative players who can cause problems in attack but without a solid base in midfield, they can be vulnerable if they lose the ball high up the pitch. Wenger knows this and he has always used holding midfielders to provide the essential cover needed for his attackers. Vieira was the ultimate midfielder for the Gunners but since his departure, there have been relatively few players to match him and while there are plenty of areas Arsenal can develop and improve, they still lack dominating presence in midfield and it is an area which needs addressing.
Granit Xhaka, Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey have all been utilised in the role and none of them are particularly weak. They would make the starting XI of most teams in the Premier League but would they make it into every side in the top six? Arguably not and that’s where the concern lies.
All three Arsenal stars can break down play, read the game and put their stamp on an opponent when needed but none of them can carry a midfield with the same kind of authority or dominance as Vieira. Chelsea have N’Golo Kante, who is an excellent box-to-box player, supported by Nemanja Matic and the results have proved to be highly successful. Tottenham have Victor Wanyama; Manchester United have Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba who are both proving to develop into those athletic players and Manchester City have Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, who is inconsistent but certainly has the ability to perform in that role.
Liverpool and Arsenal have attacking flair in abundance but both teams are weaker in midfield and against certain opponents, they are exploited. The Gunners miss that engine; that player who can maraud his way between the two boxes, breaking down play and providing a pivot when in possession. Xhaka, Coquelin and Ramsey are just not up to the task – though they have the potential to develop into this kind of player.
Ramsey is not strong enough off the ball, though he has the vision to move the ball forward and link the midfield up with the attack. Coquelin is a fairly solid defensive midfielder but he doesn’t have the capacity to play between the two boxes and Xhaka is not disciplined enough or consistent enough to provide composure on the ball. Mohammed Elneny has the potential to become a great box-to-box midfielder but he has not been used enough and he sometimes looks like he struggles with the pace of the Premier League.
Arsenal will struggle to win the Premier League with flair and creativity. They could win it with a mixture of dirtiness, strength and poise though, so they need to find a box-to-box midfielder who can combine all three.