The Midfield General
In my time watching Arsenal, the team has gone through two clear cycles in terms of player profiles. Under Arsene Wenger, the team went through a drastic evolution before my very eyes. The initial squad, largely inherited from George Graham, had its own unique depiction. Big, tall powerhouses not afraid to get stuck into a tackle, seemed to be the key descriptors for an Arsenal central midfielder. Sprinkled around the edges were cute technicians capable of the sublime, in Paul Merson and Nicolas Anelka.
Prior to the move to the Emirates Stadium, Wenger seemed wedded to this formula. Steely and powerful players capable of winning their duels were the foundation of central midfield and the defence. In Wenger’s three Premier League titles winning sides, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Gilberto Silva were key cogs. Surrounding this stiff core were the likes of Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. All of these players were capable of combining the physical aspects of the game with incomparable technique and flair. A winning amalgamation of style and physical power. Wengerball v1 was born.
Once it became 2005 however, it saw the sale of the lismanic Patrick Vieira . This allowed for the emergence of a generational youth prospect by the name of Cesc Fabregas. This turn of events would be became eternally enshrined in Arsenal folklore as the moment the archetypal Arsenal central midfielder looked like the ‘diminutive playmaker‘.
The Diminutive Playmaker
The Arsenal engine room went through a chrysalis period. What emerged, similarly to a butterfly exiting its cocoon, bore no resemblance to what had come before.
Fabregas, did not have the long legs, tireless engine, and ability to transition up the pitch in a few short strides, like his predecessor. However, he did possess the uncanny ability to scan for space and pop up in whatever spaces the team seemed to need. He had unbelievable passing technique and could find teammates with short and long passes. Despite lacking a real physical engine, he was able to stay away from opposition players with ease and dominate the centre of the park.
Subsequently, this meant Wenger’s outlook on what a typical Arsenal midfielder looked like shifted drastically. This is best exemplified by the state of Arsenal’s midfield following the signing of Mesut Özil in 2013. Arsenal’s midfield options in the aforementioned period comprised of the following:
- Mikel Arteta
- Abou Diaby
- Jack Wilshere
- Mesut Ozil
- Aaron Ramsey
- Santi Cazorla
- Mathieu Flamini
With the exception of Mathieu Flamini , none of these players could be described as defensive minded. A lack of “two-way” players meant the midfield profile was a far cry from the Arsenal title winning sides of yesteryear. Wenger chose to go down a different path that led to high volume chance creation and domination of possession. We witnessed the genesis of Wengerball v2.
In recent years we’ve seen the number of this type of playmaker in the Arsenal squad drop and become a mishmash of profiles. This can be pinned down to the number of people fighting in the vacuum of power as Wenger’s reign would wind down.
Arsene Wenger, Ivan Gazidis, Raul Sanellhi, Sven Mslintant and Unai Emery each had strong claims to being the cause behind some of the signings that comprised Arsenal’s midfield at the start of last season. Its composition was as the below:
- Granit Xhaka
- Lucas Torreira
- Matteo Guendouzi
- Dani Ceballos (loan)
- Mesut Ozil
- Joe Willock
Excluding Mesut Ozil and Joe Willock as key exceptions, the rest of the midfielders can be grouped as “behind the ball” midfielders. The majority on this list like the game in front of them and would rarely be involved in final third action.
The likes of Ramsey, Cazorla, Rosicky and the other names above were phased out from the team. More importantly though, without replacements. As a result, Wengerball v2 began to suffer a slow and painful death. What was left was a team with no real discernible style of play and no real creativity. This is best exemplified with some useful statistics to compare season on season progress.
|Premier league season||Goal Scored||League rank for goals||Goals scored p90||xG p90||Shots p90||Big chances created|
As you can see from the past 2 seasons, Arsenal have lacked the “playmaker” profiles. The team has lost its ability to score goals and compete with the best in the division on that front.
Solving the problem
Arsenal went into this season with no creative midfielders available to play, with the exile of Mesut Ozil. It can be argued that having no replacement for Ozil is the main factor for the lack of goals this season.
Recent weeks have seen the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe, the team’s marked improvement in chance creation going along with it. As mentioned above, Arsenal’s ability to be creative under Wengerball v2 was heavily reliant on multiple creators in the team at once. With this in mind, Arsenal could not go the rest of the season with the entire creative burden on young Emile’s shoulders. It would not be enough to fill the creative gap left by the long list of players who have exited the club in recent years.
It was essential that Arsenal looked to bolster their midfield with more creativity. Not only to allow Smith Rowe an occasional breather, but also to play alongside him and provide multiple creative outlets in the team.
From Ö to Ø
Arsenal’s latest loan signing 22 year old Martin Ødegaard, joined in January on a 6-month deal. He has clearly been signed to alleviate the burden of creation and propel Arsenal forward from a goal scoring perspective.
Arteta has described him as “a player that we followed for some time and we believe that he’s got some special qualities that we need, that we have been missing,” and given his age and reputation, he seems to fit the exact profile of midfielder Arsenal should be looking for in that position.
In profiling him against some of the players probably more familiar to the average Arsenal fan, it will help develop an idea of how he can slot in to the side and be effective.
ESR vs Odegaard
Emile Smith Rowe appears to have many strings to his bow. He often drifts into space and plays a lot of his passing with either one or two touches, looking to combine with the other forwards on the pitch. He does not tend to play a lot of risky passes, which is demonstrated by his high pass-completion rate and low number of turnovers despite playing in an advanced position on the pitch.
A lot of what Smith-Rowe does well is difficult to capture statistically as I believe a lot of his best work is done off the ball. He is capable of being pressing trigger as demonstrated when Arsenal went down to 10 men against Wolves, he occupied a ‘False 9’ role as Lacazette was substituted. He also likes to drift around the pitch to wherever it seems the team need him the most. His heatmap for this season shows he often pops up in the left and right half spaces to combine in wide areas and is not shy to get into the box if required.
Odegaard has some similar traits to ESR but comparing his own heatmap, he rarely drifts over to the left hand side of the pitch. He plays in central areas a lot more than Smith Rowe and likes the right half space, where he can see most of the passes he loves to play with his left foot.
Odegaard tends to be more of a final ball player than ESR, highlighted by his higher xA and shot creating actions per 90 figures. Whilst ESR is a big mover off the ball, Odegaard tends to move with the ball, completing almost 2 whole dribbles per 90 more than ESR.
Given the fact that these two players have some different abilities and skill-sets, I believe they can work together as 8s in a 4-3-3, as well as being like for like replacements as 10s in a 4-2-3-1 formation. We saw a glimpse of the two players on the field together in midfield for a brief period following the injury to Thomas Partey in the Aston Villa game. ESR, Saka and Odegaard managed to combine for one moment, which led to probably Arsenal’s best chance of the game.
Lacazette vs Odegaard
In the search for creative solutions, Mikel Arteta’s attempted trial and error method mostly ended up in the latter. Lacazette and Willock were used in the number 10 position in various league games this season, to varying degrees of success. Joe Willock hadn’t played enough Premier League minutes at the time of writing to draw up a visualisation so I’ve left him off this article.
Lacazette was definitely deployed more as a second striker instead of a creative outlet. He tends to play best when he has runners off him and I touched on what makes him tick in another piece earlier this season. Besides link up play in quick combinations. Lacazette is very ineffective as a number 10.
Odegaard completes more dribbles, passes into the box and completes more pressures per 90 when compared to the Frenchman. With this in mind, bringing Odegaard into the fold could see Lacazette dropped to the bench as many of his own strengths can be replaced in the side.
Maddison vs Grealish vs Odegaard
Yet, even with all this excitement over his arrival, it cannot be forgotten that Odegaard is only a loan signing. Some thought must be taken as to whether someone else might be a better long term replacement. James Maddison and Jack Grealish are likely to cost upwards of £70m to prise them from their respective clubs, making it unlikely they’ll headed to the Emirates any time soon. However, both have been excelling in attacking midfield roles this season and would be great profiles for Arsenal to look at in the summer if the loan move for the Norwegian isn’t extended.
Both are adept at winning free-kicks for their teams, Jack Grealish being the most fouled player in the division. Maddison and Grealish have been chance creation monsters this season. This is partly down to their quality on set pieces. Likewise, Odegaard was the main set piece taker for all of his previous clubs last season.
If we observe James Maddison’s heat map, he looks to travel across the whole width of the pitch. He, like Smith Rowe, looks to move to wherever the team needs him in the final third. Maddison has been a more efficient goalscorer this season and has therefore stepped up to be a consistent outlet for Leicester this season, in the absence of Jamie Vardy. He has scored 6 league goals already this campaign, one less than his previous best return.
Similarly to Odegaard, Maddison does not take that many touches inside the opposition box. Most of their work seems to come just outside the box linking play and threading through balls to split defences. Neither are particularly shot shy and are both very capable of scoring from set pieces.
Both Maddison and Jack Grealish have increased their output this season. Jack Grealish’s main “super power” would be his ability to carry the ball long distances up the pitch to dangerous areas. Odegaard also excels at carrying the ball and both complete a similar number of dribbles per 90. Grealish physical power is one of his main weapons. An outstanding question mark on Odegaard will be his ability to handle the physical requirements of the league.
Grealish heat map is almost a mirror image of Odegaard on the left side of the pitch. Grealish on the other side of the pitch loves to pop up in the left half space and view the bigger area of the pitch he can either pass or drive into with a dribble.
One key difference is the willingness of Grealish to enter the box and create situations in the opposition penalty area. Grealish has almost 1 more pass into the opposition box every 2 games and creates 2 more shot creating actions per 90 than Odegaard. This is also supported in the Expected Assists and Assist numbers Grealish has been able to generate this season.
Jack Grealish creation numbers this season has been right up there with the best in world football and it would be difficult to expect a 22 year-old Odegaard to compete with him in this respect. However, it should be noted that Odegaard was a big creative outlet for Sociedad last season creating 54 chances in La Liga in 19/20. Only one behind Lionel Messi and 3rd highest in La Liga as a whole.
So what can we expect…
Arsenal have been craving some creativity for some time. It is clear to conclude that, on paper, Odegaard seems to fit the bill. After a short cameo in the second half against Aston Villa, there are some encouraging signs. Not only can he provide some much needed cover and competition for Smith Rowe but they can be dovetailed as a partnership, complementing the Arsenal engine room.
Odegaard is a pure playmaker in every sense of the word. His ability to pop up in the left halfspace and slide balls into the right channel will be very popular with the wide forwards Arsenal have at their dispoal. I am sure the likes of Aubameyang, Pepe and Saka are licking their lips at the prospect of linking up with the new signing.