Today is the third in a series of posts reviewing Arsenal’s 2008/09 season. Last week I reviewed the performances of our goalkeepers and defenders over the course of the season and today it’s the midfielders turn. Enjoy, and be sure to let me know what you think at the end by commenting.
When Mathieu Flamini, Gilberto Silva and Alex Hleb all left in the summer eyebrows were raised at Arsene Wenger’s decision to replace only one of the three players before the transfer window slammed shut. Indeed, while Samir Nasri was brought in to account for the loss of wide-man Hleb the manager took a huge gamble with his decision to refrain from bringing in a central midfielder to replace Flamini, who had been immaculate alongside Cesc Fabregas throughout last season, or Gilberto.
If the papers are to be believed then the manager was a whisker away from luring Xabi Alonso away from Liverpool but the fact remained that the club entered the new season with Denilson, Abou Diaby and Alex Song as the realistic options to partner Fabregas. And while none of the three were disgraced over the course of the season the stark reality was that neither performed anywhere near the levels achieved by Flamini and the absence of an enforcing, energetic, defensive-minded midfielder was one of the major weaknesses of the Arsenal team this season.
Despite playing more minutes than most of his teammates over the course of the campaign it is my opinion that Denilson was one of the weakest links in this side. It is harsh to criticise an inexperienced midfielder for being so poor, particularly when the team’s talisman and now captain Fabregas was injured for such a long period, but Denilson’s efforts were a huge difference to what Flamini gave the team last season. A neat passer he may be when on form but the Brazilian lacked the leadership and physical presence to boss games from the middle of the pitch and it cost our team badly in the early part of the season. Perhaps the most worrying thing about Denilson is that, to me, he appears the exact same player who ended last season and has made no notable progress over the course of the year.
Song the improver
In complete contrast, Alex Song had a season of real progression and was clearly Arsenal’s most improved player of 08/09. Some might still see the Cameroon player’s best position as at the back but he has developed into a really strong defensive-midfielder and ended the season as first-choice alongside Fabregas. While he struggled to cope when paired with Denilson, the return of the captain from his knee injury galvanised Song as player who is not only strong in the tackle and willing to work hard, but someone who can play a clinical final pass as well.
Despite being handed the captaincy from William Gallas, it’s fair to say that Fabregas did not have the season that he would have hoped for. He was slow to get going after an extended Euro 2008 campaign with Spain and struggled to express himself effectively next to Denilson in the early part of the season before tearing knee ligaments against Liverpool when on the brink of finding form. Fabregas returned after five months out to be played out of position in the hole behind the striker and despite hitting two goals against Middlesbrough, failed to dominate in the same way he did so many times last season.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest difficulties Fabregas faced this season was attempting to be the same player he was last season whilst carrying a less effective partner. The trust between Flamini and Fabregas last season was immense, so much so that the Spaniard had no fear rushing forward because he always knew the Frenchman would mop up for him at the back. Likewise, Flamini – as well as Tomas Rosicky and Hleb – were so good at maintaining possession and moving off the ball that it made things much easier for Fabregas to have an impact.
With Denilson alongside him he struggled to act with the same confidence and it was only once the more defensive Song started to establish himself that Fabregas became effective again. Fabregas will hope for better next season but with a full recovery from his knee injury now achieved and a fresh summer to look forward to, it would be foolish to think he won’t come back stronger. I do suspect, however, that his impact would be even greater if the manager was to sign an experienced, fully-established defensive-midfielder to give Cesc the freedom that he deserves.
Depth and consistency in attack
In terms of attacking players and wingers this season was largely a success. Nasri established himself as another Rosicky with his ability to keep the ball ticking over and scored some lovely goals, while Theo Walcott took a significant step forward from last season. The Englishman still has a tendency to make wrong decisions and give the ball away too often but his raw pace and an increasing ability to finish clinically caused problems for many opposition teams.
Emmanuel Eboue performed as a virtual utility player over the course of the season, covering at both wing-back positions and both wing positions as well as at central midfield in a couple of the early games. And while he was booed off at The Emirates against Wigan and I openly criticised him after that ridiculous red card against Spurs, Eboue responded with some decent late-season performances and *shock, horror* even a few goals towards the end. It was a typically bizarre season for Eboue but as long as he is happy to be used by Wenger as a utility man then he remains a valuable squad player for the club.
Marked as one of the players likely to play alongside Fabregas in the middle of the pitch, Abou Diaby played mostly as a support-striker or left-winger and endured a relatively difficult season. I still like the Frenchman immensely as a player and think he has the close control and inventiveness to make it at Arsenal, but he was caught with the ball far too often and had too many poor performances. He remains a favourite of Wenger but with an abundance of attacking-minded midfielders at the club it is getting more difficult to see how he can establish himself going forward. Next season will be an interesting one.
Although Alex Song was the big improver of the midfield this season it’s undeniable that Andrey Arshavin was the best performer. Brought in during the January transfer window, Arshavin immediately looked at home in England, making up for a lack of fitness with an abundance of skill and consistently committed performances. Wenger has often spoken of his reluctance to bring in experienced players in fear that they will kill off the younger players, but the signing of the Russian showed that this is not always the case.
Arshavin is proof of the impact that established players can have on the younger players around them and his signing was a huge factor in the squad’s ability to turn around a poor first half of the season and notch up a 21-game unbeaten run. His on and off-field manner suggests he is one of the true good guys in football and that combined with that amazing four-goal haul at Anfield has practically established him as an Arsenal cult-hero.
Looking to next season
In summary, our current midfield situation at the end of this season is largely the same as it was at the start of the season. We still require an established, hard-as-nails defensive-midfielder to guide the much-improved Song and Denilson and provide Fabregas with the partner he needs to become the effective attacking player he was last season. Someone like Momo Sissoko from Juventus would be perfect, although he might be understandably difficult to lure away from Juventus.
In terms of attacking midfielders things are looking good. Arshavin has been a revelation, Nasri has been a consistent performer, Walcott has improved and Eboue and Diaby remain very decent back-ups. Add to that the fact that Rosicky is likely to start the season ready and raring to go and we certainly have the quality in this area of the pitch.
Looking at our overall playing style the main improvements I would like to see from this season to the next is an increase in the pace of our build-up play and an increase in the amount of runs into the box made by the midfield players. Players of the past like Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires perfected this to an art-form and while it would be unrealistic to hope that the current crop of midfielders could do it to the same effect, it would be great to see a few more players making an attempt next season. Too often we were left pinging crosses into a lone man in the box and with a side as attacking as ours, it simply wasn’t good enough.
Anyway, that’s it in a fairly long and detailed post. I hope you enjoyed it and stay tuned for Part 4 of the Season Review tomorrow. Cheers.
Have your say on Part 3 of the Arsenal Season Review by leaving a comment.