Let’s get one notion out of the way right off the bat: even at 31, Arteta is not about to fall from the starting line-up, at least in my book. However, at 31, we should be looking around for how to transition from his leadership in the defensive midfield. He has shown little sign of his age yet, but we’d be remiss to assume that he can keep this up forever.
With that in mind, I’m excited at the prospect of bringing in a true defensive midfielder, the likes of Luiz Gustavo. Arteta and Ramsey have developed into solid defensive midfielders, but both are by disposition more attack-minded players who have needed time to understand the defensive responsibilities they were asked to take on.
Arguably, Arteta, as a more-seasoned veteran, more quickly mastered the transition; Ramsey, still only 22, took a bit longer. Because of this learning process, we sometimes struggled as one or both of them either pushed too far forward, exposing our back four, or sat too far back, creating a gap between defense and attack that opponents could operate in. The understanding that they have forged together has gone a long way in addressing these issues, contributing to our form in last season’s run-in.
However, the double-pivot that they’ve formed continues to pose dilemmas for joining defense to attack, especially as we look to make more room for Wilshere’s attack-minded approach. With Ramsey and Arteta paying closer attention to defensive responsibilities and Wilshere pressing forward, we could often find ourselves with that gap.
Bringing in a true defensive midfielder like Gustavo could see us start in a 4-3-3 that operates as more of a 4-1-2-2-1 in practice, with Gustavo in front of the defence, Ramsey and Wilshere patrolling the center-midfield, and Cazorla and Walcott as attacking midfielders. The continuity from defence to attack and back that such an arrangement allows might, at the risk of overstating it, be just as important as signing a pricey striker. Let’s remember that we did have a prolific offence over the course of the season; our problem lay in too many scoring orgies and long droughts and in conceding an early goal, frequently through individual errors.
Many of those individual errors could be attributed to playing a high line to close that gap I mentioned earlier, which exposed our defence to being caught out on counter-attacks (think of Swansea’s second goal), or which gave opposing midfielder time to probe for a through-ball (think of the 2-1 loss to Spurs). With a truly defensive midfielder in Gustavo, we might see a more-confident defensive line, one less worried about pressing too high up the pitch or sitting back too deep.
That middle-road between aggressiveness and caution could further stabilize our defence while also creating quicker transitions from defence to attack. It would also allow us to more-thoroughly dominate the midfield, not just for the sake of inflating our possession-stats but for launching actual attacks.
Of course, I don’t mean to leave Arteta out of this. It’s too soon to put him to pasture by any means. Arteta has melded Ramsey into an admirable protégé; they regularly contend with each other to lead the team in tackles, interceptions, passes, and passing percentage. Seeing the two of them come to understand each other and their roles has been one of the feel-good stories of the past season. The addition of Gustavo, or that of a similar player, would simply add depth and versatility—a three-man rotation of Arteta, Gustavo, and Ramsey, depending on the opposition and match.
Adding a Gustavo, then, shouldn’t be a replacement or an upgrade so much as a reinforcement. When Gustavo partners with Ramsey or Arteta, the latter two could reprise their original roles as creative playmakers—a role that earned Arteta many awards while at Everton, and the kind of role many have envisioned for Ramsey since his arrival. The service each could provide from a slightly more advanced role could be something to behold: witness Ramsey’s pass to Walcott for the first goal against Man City as a recent example.
In short, then, this may not be the “marquee” signing we’ve been clamoring for, but it could be the kind of signing that’s even more instrumental to building an actual squad that can contend for silverware. We’ve whipped ourselves into a frenzy (and, to be fair, we’ve been strung along and burned more than a few times), but that shouldn’t force us to focus too exclusively on signing someone in the £30m-40m range. If Gustavo can offer the quality that he seems capable of, by all means, bring him in! At £14m or so, we’d still have plenty left over to splash on a striker à la Jackson Martinez, Robert Lewandowski, or Karim Benzema.
With international friendlies looming, I don’t know if this gives Arsène more time to swing deals or less contact with players. We have a few injuries already to stress over with Ramsey, Walcott, and Sanogo picking up knocks and with Wilshere still coming back to full fitness. We’ll have to cross our fingers and hope that their respective managers have the good sense to rest them.