Part 2: Arsenal’s Defensive solutions for 2014/15. Khedira vs Bender vs Schneiderlin!!
In the previous article I mentioned that there are two problems that Arsene Wenger needed to address in order to get Arsenal back to the levels that their fans expect of them. I suggested that their attacking style was highly predictable last season; now however, with the purchase of Alexis Sanchez they should opt for a more aggressive style in the form of a 4-4-2, or 4-2-2-2 depending on how you look at it. And with the signing of Debuchy confirmed, there is only one void in the starting line-up that needs to be filled.
The second problem was the defensive vulnerability they showed to counter-attacks, especially against high quality oppositions. It does not take great amount of analysis to convince anyone that this was a major problem, which cost them in the big games and ultimately the title. You don’t have to tell many Arsenal fans how important a proper holding midfielder is to this attack minded squad. While, Arteta is a quality technical player and did they best by his ability in the role, you have to say that it’s not exactly what Arsenal need to reach the top. He lacks the general physicality to perform the job effectively, due to his lack of pace, as well as 50/50 strength in duels. You can, get away with 1 of your 5 defensive players lacking pace, and unfortunately Arsenal have used that token up with Mertesacker. Arteta also lacks the mentality of a proper holding midfielder; to understand this you would only have to imagine what he would honestly answer to the question “Does a saving tackle really mean as much as a goal to you?”.
Not many do, but the midfielder Arsenal need would answer “Yes” to that last question. This article is meant to look at players that Arsenal have been linked with, and to evaluate the best option for the role. We will also look at solutions for how Arsenal will set themselves up defensively against counter-attacks.
Option 1: Sami Khedira
Khedira has been heavily linked with Arsenal for a few reasons; he is now a world cup winner, offers muscle and work rate in midfield, and he would be part of a growing German influence in Arsene Wenger’s camp. The fact that he only has a year left on his contract makes him a viable target for most top clubs. He is a favourable choice among the among the Arsenal fans; and for that reason, I will spend a little more time evaluating him than his 2 competitors for Arsenal’s defensive midfield spot.
Here is the truth: as much as he is a fantastic player, he is NOT what Arsenal are looking for. And now, here are the facts:
In the handful of appearances that Khedira made (due to injury and tactical reasons) for Real Madrid last season, he was mostly deployed in a Box to Box role, with Illaramendi preferred in the holding position. The graphic above shows his average position of influence in a game against Malaga; this was more or less where he found himself whenever he played last season.
This second chart shows his stats from the same game. As you can see, he likes to get forward a fair bit, with a lot of his passes made from further up the pitch. The one successful tackle that he did make in the entire game was in an advanced position as well; and anyone who watched him in the world cup knows that he is a player who likes to leave his position in midfield and press fairly high up. Schweinsteiger is the holding midfielder in that squad. While it is true that the Bayern man was allotted that role, it still takes an incredible amount of discipline to not get carried away when you are 7-0 up against Brazil in a world cup semi-final. The graph below shows Bastian Schweinsteiger’s average position in that game. It’s the kind of discipline Arsenal need; unfortunately he is not a viable target.
If you compare Khedira’s and Schweinsteiger’s average position against Brazil, then we know that they are two players who play completely different roles; and it is because both, Khedira’s international and club, managers feel he is more comfortable and suited to the advanced role. Arsenal already have Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Chamberlain and possibly Diaby to fit into that box to box role. Funnily enough Aaron Ramsey has better defensive stats for 2013/14 than Khedira; including around an average of close to 3 tackles a game in comparison to Khedira’s average of just over 1 tackle per game. Perhaps his lack of prowess in the tackling department is a part of the reason why managers tend to play him further up.
Conclusion: There is no doubt that Khedira is a fantastic footballer, but he is no more suited to the pure holding role than Arteta. While the Real Madrid man might offer more physically, his tendency to get higher up the pitch could leave Arsenal exposed: a problem which we are trying to solve in the first place. So for what Arsenal need, I would say no to Khedira. Rating for the role: 5/10.
Option 2: Lars Bender
Lars Bender is another German that Arsenal are linked with for that role. As a possible understudy for Schweinsteiger’s position, he was unfortunate to miss out on the world cup through injury. He is a tenacious midfielder who loves a tackle and is the best at it, of the three options that we are looking at here. Leverkusen preferred to play 4-3-3 for most of the season; with Simon Rolfes in the holding role, Bender in a Box to Box role, and another midfielder, usually Emre Can (now of Liverpool), slightly further up. Against the bigger teams, they did switch to a 4-2-3-1, with Bender joining Rolfes in front of the defence to offer more protection. Regardless, there were only a few occasions all season when Bender was used as the deepest holding midfielder. To really understand Bender, we have to look at him from a statistical perspective even though he was deployed as a box to box player.
The above picture shows Lars Bender’s involvements in Leverkusen’s game vs Dortmund in the Bundesliga. In this particular game, he played in a slightly more advanced of the “2” in a 4-2-3-1. He and Rolfes were obviously flexible in switching sides on the pitch, but Rolfes was generally the deeper player. In comparison to Khedira, Bender’s involvement is only slightly deeper, and there is no denying that the Leverkusen man does occasionally get forward. What sets him a notch above Khedira, however, is his tackling which stands at 5 in this encounter (Nearly all in his defensive half), which nothing short of remarkable. The man quite clearly has a knack of putting his foot in and coming out with the ball; even against top teams.
His average positioning and involvement was similar even when playing in a 4-3-3. This is to say, Sami Hyypia felt Rolfes offered more in the holding position, and justifiably so. Rolfes reads the game very well and recovers the ball with timely interceptions, whereas Bender is more of an aggressive tackler.
Conclusion: Bender possesses all the attributes to bring about balance in the Arsenal midfield and allow Ramsey and co a little more freedom. But don’t get me wrong, the Leverkusen man is technically sound, and a good passer of the ball too. However, if Wenger were to switch to a 4-4-2, he needs a defensive midfielder who is an athlete, and a natural defender. Bender fits that mould; whether Wenger can turn him into the defensive shield (where he has rarely been used last season) is the big question. I, personally, can see him succeeding. Rating for the role: 8/10.
Option 3: Morgan Schneiderlin
Last, but definitely not the least, is a Frenchman. What sets him apart from our other two candidates is his undoubted experience in English football. He has come through the ranks at Southampton, which gives him Home-grown status: another added bonus. His displays last season earned him a call-up to the French world cup squad, where he played, even if it was just for one game against Ecuador, in the role that Arsenal are trying to fill.
For Southampton, over the course of the 2013/14 season, he played as part of the “2” in a 4-2-3-1. Unlike Bender and Rolfes, however, Schneiderlin and his midfield partner, Wanyama, sat tight together in between the defenders, allowing full-backs Shaw and Clyne (or Chambers) to get forward. Depicted below is one of Schneiderlin’s best games of the season; ironically against Arsenal at the Emirates.
As you can see, this is where the Frenchman found himself for most of the season. He rarely ventures forward despite having a similar midfield anchor beside him. Only when he sees a glaring opportunity to drive through midfield does he get forward to add a different dynamic in attack; which only happens occasionally. His primary goal, however, was to protect the defence.
In the same game, we can see his contributions in the match. He managed a grand total of 6 tackles and few interceptions. In accordance to his average position, you can see that most of his passes came from within the Southampton half. While his tackling stats in this game were outstanding, his average at under 3 tackles per game for the season was short of Lars Bender’s average of over 3. This might have to do with the Frenchman having Wanyama, who is a similar sort of tackling midfielder, next to him; the workload was, perhaps, being shared. Whereas, at Leverkusen Rolfes was a positional interceptor and Bender was the tackler.
Conclusion: Schneiderlin, like Bender is an Ideal candidate for the role Arsenal need to fill. Schneiderlin offers the defensive solidity that the North Londoners need for their attack to concentrate on doing their job. He comes with premier League experience, has home-grown status and is technically sound. Whether he can handle the defensive responsibility on his own without someone like Wanyama around him is the only question mark. He did find himself in that role in his only appearance for France against Ecuador in the world cup. On that occasion he spent most of his time playing passes from in and around the centre circle; looking very comfortable. Rating for the role: 8/10.
The choice between Bender and Schneiderlin is a tough one to make. It is the matter of Bender’s slightly better athleticism (pace and work-rate wise, Schneiderlin is probably physically stronger of the two) vs Schneiderlin’s experience in the position as well as in the League. I really have to sit on the fence for this one; but if I only had enough time to save one of them from drowning I would pick LARS BENDER. He has Champions League experience, where his tackling stats were up through the roof last season. His higher work-rate and pace might be a bigger asset to nullify threats from counter-attacks, which is the problem we had in mind. The team-talks at the Emirates are probably conducted in German by now, so he won’t have a problem fitting in! That said, Arsenal fans should be no less excited if Schneiderlin were to come in instead!
Defensive shape in the Attacking phase.
With Bender sitting tight between Koscielny and Mertesacker, Arsenal would look solid from a defensive persepective. Koscielny and Bender are both relatively pacey in comparison to most defensive players, which will allow Arsenal to hold a higher line when attacking and in turn, ensure to keep pressure on the opposition when attacking. This would not work with Arteta in there, as we found out last season; Koscielny was the only one who could get back in time, while Arteta and Mertesacker were chasing shadows, prompting Arsenal to drop deeper and deeper.
Option 1 should be used against the bigger or more attacking teams. The only clear difference is the positioning of one of the full-backs; in this example it is Debuchy. This allows Bender, Koscielny and Mertesacker to stay compact against teams that tend to leave more than 1 forward upfront (e.g Suarez and Sturridge last season) when defending. If Arsenal switch play to the right flank, Debuchy can move forward and Gibbs can drop. This will give both added numbers and pace to nullify counter-attacks.
Option 2 should be used against oppositions that tend to stay very deep and leave only 1 forward in an advanced position when defending. In such scenarios you can see Cazorla picked ahead of Walcott, as the Spaniard’s creativity would be more of an asset against incredibly deep and tight defences than the Englishmen’s pace. With 2 wingers who drift in to play more centrally, Arsenal can take more of an initiative and push both full-backs right on to pile on the pressure. While leaving only 3v1 at the back; and although the full-backs in this scenario would be afforded more time to drop back, they must do so nonetheless.
That sums up how I think Arsenal should play in the 2014/15 season. If they were to implement these solutions I have provided for their predictability in attack (in the previous article) and also for their vulnerability to counter-attacks, they would surely be right up there challenging for the trophies that their fans deserve for their patience.
Comment and let me know what you think about my choice for Arsenal’s DM position and how I expect them to set up!