Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Is this Arsenal's best midfield under Arsène Wenger?

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil (second left) has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s midfield
Arsenal's Mesut Ozil (second left) has added a new dimension to Arsenal’s midfield

Narratives change quickly in modern football but Arsenal have managed to go from their lowest ebb in recent years to their very highest in just seven weeks.

From losing at home to Aston Villa on the opening day – their season threatening to finish before it even started – into this remarkable recent run of 10 straight wins – including one on penalties – each seemingly better than the last.

Given the last two – Swansea away and Napoli at home – it is safe to say that Arsenal are playing the best football in the country, with the best options in midfield. When was that last true? During their long trophy drought there have been two seasons – 2007-08 and 2010-11 – when they came close enough to challenging before letting it slip.

But Arsène Wenger said last week that this was their best chance at the Premier League title since 2004-05, given that they now have more of the "quality and experience" that decide title races. After watching them on Tuesday night, as they tore Napoli apart without even Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere or Theo Walcott, Wenger's claim seemed obviously true.

Mikel Arteta is only in his third season at Arsenal, but said afterwards the first half was the best performance he had ever played in. "Because we faced a team who know what they're doing, and that's why we deserve credit. Some people were writing us off, saying we hadn't played a really big, big game yet. Now we've done it, we've proved we're ready for it."

Arteta was at the heart of it alongside Mathieu Flamini, forming a resilient midfield foundation of precisely the sort that Arsenal have lacked recently. Arteta – who completed 75 of 76 attempted passes, Flamini making 66 of 73 – praised his new partner. "I think he is a very intelligent player, and he knows what he is doing and he works hard for everyone as well. So I think we will have a very good understanding."

The real damage was done in front of those two, where Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsey played either side of Mesut Özil, about whom Arteta was thrilled. "It gives you a step forward quality-wise, to have someone else on the pitch that can decide the game by himself," he said. "The more players you have like that, the better chance you have."

Özil, Ramsey and Rosicky were switching positions, giving Arsenal more fluidity and imagination than they have had in years. Certainly, since the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in 2011, but probably far longer than that.

Last time Arsenal challenged for the league, in 2007-08, they had Fabregas and Flamini in central midfield with Rosicky, Walcott and Alexander Hleb in wide positions, and Gilberto Silva, Alex Song and Abou Diaby in reserve. A good combination, certainly, but even with Fabregas probably less incisive than the Özil-Ramsey-Cazorla-Wilshere range they have now.

Arsenal Dream Team - greatest Gunners ever

PAT JENNINGS
Goalkeeper
Arsenal 1977-84, 327 appearances
After thirteen years and 591 games with Spurs, Keith Burkinshaw believed the 32-year-old Pat Jennings was coming to the end of his career. It proved to be a miscalculation on a par with Pope Innocent III's prediction that the Second Coming would happen and it would happen in AD1284. Almost eight centuries after that gaffe he's still waiting to be proved right but Burkinshaw only had to wait eight games to realise he had made an awful mistake. Terry Neill poached the 119-cap Northern Irishman from N17 to N5 in 1977 and it wasn't until eight years later that Jennings played the last of his 327 games for Arsenal.

Jennings made the game look easy but unlike his Highbury goalkeeping descendant, David Seaman, he didn't need a horse-tail and 'tache to prove that the cameras didn't matter. In an age more accustomed to 'keepers who punch, flap and beat away the ball like demented volleyball triallists, Jennings is an exemplar for the philosophy that a goalkeeper's hands is the only safe place for the ball. 

His performances for Northern Ireland in the 1986 World Cup, including a fitting finale against the Brazilians, came a year after he had retired from first team football and are a testament to Arsenal's finest 'keeper.
PAT JENNINGS Goalkeeper
Arsenal 1977-84, 327 appearances After thirteen years and 591 games with Spurs, Keith Burkinshaw believed the 32-year-old Pat Jennings was coming to the end of his career. It proved to be a miscalculation on a par with Pope Innocent III's prediction that the Second Coming would happen and it would happen in AD1284. Almost eight centuries after that gaffe he's still waiting to be proved right but Burkinshaw only had to wait eight games to realise he had made an awful mistake. Terry Neill poached the 119-cap Northern Irishman from N17 to N5 in 1977 and it wasn't until eight years later that Jennings played the last of his 327 games for Arsenal. Jennings made the game look easy but unlike his Highbury goalkeeping descendant, David Seaman, he didn't need a horse-tail and 'tache to prove that the cameras didn't matter. In an age more accustomed to 'keepers who punch, flap and beat away the ball like demented volleyball triallists, Jennings is an exemplar for the philosophy that a goalkeeper's hands is the only safe place for the ball. His performances for Northern Ireland in the 1986 World Cup, including a fitting finale against the Brazilians, came a year after he had retired from first team football and are a testament to Arsenal's finest 'keeper.
PAT RICE Right-back Arsenal 1967-80, 528 appearances, 13 goals
Belfast-born but London-bred, Pat Rice came up through Arsenal's youth and reserve system. He established himself as first-choice right-back at the age of 21 after three seasons of playing understudy to Peter Storey. His first full season at right-back culminated in Arsenal winning the 'Double' and nine seasons later he could still be found sweating blood for the cause, as well as captaining the side to an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat against Valencia in the 1980 European Cup Winners' Cup final. It was out of Rice's cloth that Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn were cut and, 42 years after making his debut, he continues to play a significant but understated role in the present and future of the club. Rice wasn't deemed good enough to play for Islington Schools but his work ethic, concentration and consistency saw him go on to make 528 appearances for Arsenal and condemned one North London pub to suffer some ol' punter's echoing refrain: "When I was a lad, that Pat Rice had nothing on me. Islington Schools first choice right-back I was, first choice right-back..."
DAVID O'LEARY Centre-back
Arsenal 1975-93, 722 appearances, 14 goals Pat Rice's longevity was built on dedication and uncompromising work ethic, David O'Leary, whose 722 appearances is still an Arsenal record, built his career on natural athleticism. His unflappability belied a gangling frame (which earned him the North Bank nickname 'Spider') and Arsenal fans are forever grateful that he didn't join the early eighties Celtic exodus that saw Frank Stapleton and Liam Brady both leave Highbury. In the sixties and seventies, Arsenal fans were used to granite-etched defenders with tungsten pounding through their veins, then along came 1975 and a 17-year-old locally-born Dubliner made his debut. Not only was O'Leary imperious in the air but his talent extended below his wiry shoulders and pigeon-chest to feet stuck to the end of telescopic legs. It must be a source of regret to both O'Leary and Arsene Wenger that the Irishman's Arsenal career came a generation early. Were the mad professor be allowed to steal away to the basement of an Alpine hideaway with footballers' brains and body parts, he would surely turn up days later, looking wild-eyed and sleep-deprived, to declare he had created his ideal defender: a wiry-shouldered, pigeon-chested, spider-legged creation named David O'Leary.
SOL CAMPBELL Centre-back Arsenal 2001-06, 197 appearances, 11 goals
Sol Campbell moved to Highbury for free from White Hart Lane in 2001 and never has a team stolen so much from such a close rival for so very few pounds. He was immense in his first season as Arsenal powered their way to the 'Double' but he saved his greatest season for 2003-04. As devastating as Arsenal were going forward, it was Campbell's hulking presence that made them invincible. The fact that Jens Lehman, in his debut season, was able to settle-in so comfortably was down to Campbell's defensive leadership. And now the justification for his inclusion over Tony Adams: with David O'Leary included to act as a libero when Arsenal are in possession, leaving Adams at the back would expose the three-man defense. The side is already packed with former Arsenal captains so leadership and dedication to Arsenal are not in short supply. Campbell shared Adams' defensive strengths but he also had a rare ability pushing forward and even Fernando Torres would struggle in a straight foot-race against the freebie colossus. His importance to the Arsenal side was underlined when his suspension from the Bolton draw at the end of the 2002-03 season let United slip-in and steal the title from right under Arsenal's noses. That setback merely strengthened Campbell's hunger and made him and Arsenal 'invincible' the next season.
KENNY SANSOM Left-back Arsenal 1980-88, appearances 394, goals 6
This position should be Ashley Cole's, but the wrong move at the wrong time to the wrong club crippled his progression at the forefront of wing-back play. His move to Chelsea was a huge loss and smear on football's soul - football agent Jonathan Barnett choosing commission over Cole - but his loss is Kenny Sansom's gain. It is highly appropriate that Sansom should fill the role at Cole's expense as England's most-capped full-back firmly believed that his primary purpose, and most effective form of defense, was to take off on nitro-assisted runs whenever the opportunity arose - Sansom had fast-twitched muscles in his feet and was never afraid to use them. His attacking qualities complemented, rather than disguised, his defensive abilities and his Highbury-endowed 'Kenny White Shorts' nickname paid homage to a supreme sense of timing, as much as it lovingly mocked his reluctance to dive-in on a mud-pocked pitch. A single League Cup win in his eight-year 394-game Arsenal career does not do justice to his talent and contribution to the Arsenal cause; yet another player from the past it is hard to imagine Wenger not coveting.
PATRICK VIEIRA Midfield Arsenal 1996-2005, 406 appearances, 33 goals
It is a commonly held view in North London that Arsenal won the World Cup in 1998. The origins of this strand of historical thinking lie in Patrick Vieira's exquisite first-time pass into the path of Emmanuelle Petit, to allow his pony-tailed club-mate to slide home France's third goal in the final. Vieira's intervention as a 22-year-old substitute in 1998 was the cherry on top of the cake but he had arrived on the English scene two years earlier with the all-action frenetics of a high-octane blender. When Arsene Wenger foraged around in the San Siro recycling bin and pulled a 6' 3" African-born warhorse from among the discarded bottles of Sassicaia's 1985 Tenata San Guido, he changed the face of Premier League midfield play forever. In his first season in the side, his superhuman stamina and tackling that left tendons with their own victim support helpline, drove an invigorated Arsenal to the club's second ever 'Double'. He was the only choice to replace Tony Adams as captain on his retirement and Vieira's Arsenal legend was confirmed when he led the side to their 2003-04 Invincibles season - scoring the winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup final shoot-out with his last kick in an Arsenal shirt is just the cherry on top.
LIAM BRADY Midfield Arsenal 1973-80, 307 appearances, 59 goals
Liam Brady is yet another name to add to list of former Arsenal players that Arsene Wenger must pretend to have at his disposal in those quiet moments playing Subbuteo with the footballing gods in his attic video suite. With Patrick Vieira bullying opponents into submission, Brady would have free reign to show-off his cosmopolitan array of skills. Bertie Mee handed him his debut as a 17-year-old beyond his years and no doubt the calls from youthful Arsenal fans for the inclusion of a far more recent teenage debutant - Cesc Fabregas - would be drowned out by the roars of support for Brady from still-swooning still-cursing fathers. Those fathers for whom the North Bank will always be home still curse, with regret not opprobrium, Brady's atom bomb announcement that he would be joining the Old Lady of Juventus for the start of the 1980-81 season. That he went on to become one of English football's most successful exports, winning two Serie A titles in Turin, only rubbed salt into their wounds but, it did confirm his legendary status within the game. And his return home to become head up the club's youth development system has salved those wounds and is now exposing some of the game's outstanding teenage talent to the man who possessed a left foot that "could open a can of beans", to quote journalist Tom Watt.
ALEX JAMES Midfield Arsenal 1929-37, 261 appearances, 27 goals
"Are you coming along for a bob's worth of Alex?" Herbert Chapman signed Scottish international inside-forward Alex James from Preston in 1929 and in today's market fans would pay a lot more than a bob to watch the rheumatic wizard grace the Emirates' turf. James was instantly recognisable with his bandy legs and baggy shorts but it was his intuitive passing that really caught the eye. The baggy shorts hid the long-johns he wore to protect against his rheumatism - the only chink in his armoury of talents. James' arrival at the club as a replacement for Charlie Buchan transformed Chapman's revolutionary counter-attacking system from a thing of temperamental beauty into a coherent whole. The aftershocks of the offside law changes, implemented at the start of the 1925-26 season to stop fans from pouring out the turnstiles, were still being felt but James was to become Chapman's perfect link in the rapid transition of squeezed defence into wide-open attack that became the Arsenal manager's enduring hallmark. Cliff Bastin, Ted Drake and David Jack were the chief beneficiaries of his footballing munificence and it is only the desire for a more fluid frontline that means James' passes will be threaded through to Thierry Henry and Ian Wright, rather than the imposing centre-forward giants of yesteryear.
IAN WRIGHT Striker Arsenal 1991-98, 288 appearances, 185 goals
Although Ian Wright was a late-starter in the game having only signed professional terms with Crystal Palace three months shy of his 22nd birthday, he spent the rest of his career making up for lost time. Wright played the game like a kid with attention deficit disorder locked in an abandoned but fully-stocked Woolworths and his unbridled glee at scoring for Arsenal was shared by 38,000 fans on an almost weekly basis. George Graham signed him in 1991 for a then club-record £2.5m, a move seen as a massive gamble for a 27-year-old with little top flight experience, but after scoring on his debut in the League Cup, followed up by a debut hat-trick in the league, he was well on his way to Cliff Bastin's scoring record. He rounded off the season with another hat-trick, in true Wright fashion this one came in front of the North Bank as it bid farewell to the game - not only that but the three goals also stole the Golden Boot away from Tottenham's Gary Linekar. For many years he was the one in "One-nil to the Arsenal" but he also reserved a special place for the magical number three; on 13 September 1997, just six years after joining the club, he scored a hat-trick against Bolton to break Bastin's record and cement his place in Arsenal folklore.
THIERRY HENRY Forward Arsenal 1999-2007, 380 appearances, 226 goals
Thierry Henry arrived from Juventus as a £10.5m replacement for Nicolas Anelka in August 1999, at the time many were mystified but, in hindsight, it looks as an astute a switch as swapping a mica for a devil's eye in the school playground. Despite failing to score in his first eight games, Henry went on to repay Arsene Wenger's faith in his ability to play as a striker by finishing the season as Arsenal's top-scorer with 26 goals. The two worked together at Monaco, but Wenger initially deployed Henry as a winger but all the while the striking seed was germinating in both men's brains. Once he opened his account the seed blossomed into the sort of creation sighted only in the fertile depths of the Amazonian rainforests. Henry played like Ian Wright on Ritalin; they possessed the same élan and eye for a delicate finish but the Frenchman's assurance meant he played the game in a different time zone to his opponents. While defenders searched in vain for a clear tackling opportunity, Henry would dance the ball into space, normally after gliding inside from wide left, and finish by clipping a curling right-foot shot beyond an unsighted 'keeper. Not only did he smash Bastin and Wright's scoring records, he also collected the 'Double' to go with another league title and two further FA Cups.
DENNIS BERGKAMP Forward Arsenal 1995-2006, 423 appearances, 120 goals
Dennis Bergkamp becomes the third Ajax player to date - joining Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten - to be selected for a second dream team, a testament to Ajax's famed youth system as well as Bergkamp's singular ability. With Alex James already in the side, Bergkamp's inclusion may look like a luxury but by adopting the same totaalvoetbal system employed by the great Ajax side of the seventies - a system evolved from Herbert Chapman's own W-M revolution - David O'Leary could play as a libero and permit such indulgences. Like James before him, Bergkamp made the game look easy and his team-mates look better. If Ian Wright and Thierry Henry were penalty-box pickpockets of the first degree, Bergkamp was the footballing equivalent of a master art thief - cultured, adaptable and concerned principally with the value placed on artistic merit. Along with Gianfranco Zola he elevated the standard of English football that the last few years has struggled to match and by the time he retired in 2006 he had three league titles to match his three FA Cup winners' medals.

The last time Arsenal had a midfield which was unambiguously better than this one was 2003-04, the famous Invincibles season. Then, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto anchored in the middle with Fredrik Ljungberg and Robert Pires on the wings while, of course, Dennis Bergkamp dropped in between midfield and attack.

Asked whether the current stable of midfielders was quite that good, Arteta demurred, but he did say the fight for places was good for everyone. "I don't think we are at that level yet. Competition makes everyone work harder. So it is a great thing, it raises the level of training, and that will raise the level of games." So no Arsenal midfielder can afford to rest or let his level of performance slip if he wants to stay in the team. "I think it's not possible. If you don't perform for one or two games, you get dropped.

"And we have a few to get back, like Santi, like Abou, a few others. So it's going to be really tough but that's what we wanted. When it's tough, everyone is 100 per cent every game, and that is a big difference."

Arteta was particularly keen for Arsenal to sign big in the summer, and is now delighted that they did. "It was a great message from the club, and he [Özil] lifted everyone. Not only us, but also the crowd at the Emirates. You can see the people are excited again to come and watch us."

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