For Arsene Wenger, central midfield rotation is key to success in 2013/14

Blog by: Onenildown Twooneup

Arsenal have an abundance of riches in midfield (Getty Images)

Over the years, I have generally railed against over-loading our (Arsenal) midfield with new additions because I believ we have too many good players already competing for the three positions at the centre. In 2011/12 we used 10 players in the centre of the midfield in the Premier League alone, whilst City won the league using four. My argument in the past has in truth, been about not signing players better than the ones we have.

Of course we need to improve, but we must not forget players themselves can improve dramatically. I don’t need to be the 30th Arsenal blogger to write an article on Aaron Ramsey this season to drive that point home! No, my problem with having 7 or 8 true first team squad members competing for 3 berths was centred more around whether they would be needed. This is based on a belief that in the main games, barring injuries, Arsene Wenger simply does not rotate like other top flight coaches do.

Other managers rotate large squads weekly and with success. Sir Alex Ferguson was the master at this, but I have always felt that Wenger tended to stick with a team that was performing, thereby declining to rotate. After all, if I asked you to name the starting 11 of the’ Invincibles’ season, I virtually guarantee that you will all have the same 11 players. The evidence from the first four games of this season, even without Mikel Arteta, is that Wenger is looking to rotate the central positions and if reports are true, is still looking to add to his depth in this area with Yohan Cabaye a possibility.

This got me thinking about why we actually might need Cabaye. The answers, as you would expect, were that we need more quality and better depth which would give Wenger the option to rotate and rest without weakening the side. I agree with all this, but a firm feeling kept coming back to me that Wenger does not rotate. So I decided to research and prove myself right or  wrong when it comes to rotation and my conclusion is that I am wrong in my conviction and this is a firm and successful precedent for healthy rotation in the central midfield.

What I wanted to do was look at successful campaigns rather than consider recent seasons, where we have perhaps not had the quality to rotate and/or have had horrendous injury problems. What I was looking to prove or disprove is that if we rotated the key area of central midfield with success, it was more so due not to injury but by design.

The 2003/04 unbeaten title winning season seems a logical place to begin as it was our last truly successful campaign. The first obvious point to make is that we are only talking about two positions in central midfield given the more traditional formation Wenger used in those. On the face of it one could argue that we used four top class central midfielders in that season in Patrick Vieira, Gilberto, Edu and Ray Parlour; so we must have rotated. Just in the league, these four players clocked up 32, 32, 30 and 25 appearances respectively.

The actual reality is however very different, because the truth is that unless injured, Vieira and Gilberto started. Both started 29 of the 38 Premier League matches. Edu did start on 13 occasions but always covered for one of the two first choice players. Parlour started more often than 16 occasions, but most of these were on the right covering for Freddie Ljungberg. So there is not much evidence even in 2003/04 despite at first glance the stats suggest otherwise that Wenger rotated the four players.

Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit formed a key core to Arsenal’s title winning campaigns (Getty Images)

The previous campaign to assess, and my personal favourite under Wenger, is the double winning season of 2001/02. We scored more goals than in 2003/04, won the league with only one point less and added the FA Cup for good measure. Interestingly this is the campaign where some detailed analysis gives us a better precedent for what I hope will see proper rotation and squad usage under Wenger in the current campaign. The previous campaign was the first without the all conquering Vieira/Petit partnership and Wenger had brought in Lauren as Manu’s replacement with limited success. In reality the berth alongside Paddy has been shared by Gilles Grimandi, Parlour and Lauren and with no one truly staking a claim.

In 2001/02 Wenger had settled on the right back position for Lauren, but Edu had his permit sorted and Giovanni van Bronckhurst had been signed from Rangers. So Wenger had four potential partners for his skipper in Parlour, Grimandi, Gio and Edu. All 4 perhaps offering different attributes, all to a degree proven, but would Wenger settle on one main partner for Vieira or would he rotate? Well I am pleasantly surprised to say that my memory was incorrect and he genuinely did rotate his central midfield partnerships in 2001/2. Of course, Parlour as captain played all most every game but the honour of staring alongside him was fairly evenly shared. My recollection was that Parlour and Vieira and played most matches in tandem.

I looked at the starts for all 5 players in the main three competitions, the league, the FA Cup and the Champions League. It made interesting reading – Vieira started 51 games which was no surprise but the obvious rotation of partners was more than I had recalled.

Starts in Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup:

Gilles Grimandi – 15

Ray Parlour – 15

Van Bronckhurst – 14

Edu – 11

By the end of the campaign there was still a huge variation of starters with Edu and Parlour taking precedence and of course the Romford Pele famously got the Cup final gig. Only Gio was not being given game time in central midfield by the latter part of the campaign.

So having dispelled my own misconception why is this significant today and for this season?

– We have subsequently changed our system and whilst 4/5 central midfielders was sufficient in 2002 and 2004 it is obviously not in 2013. However for 3 positions 6/7 competing is more than sufficient if all are good enough to be rotated.

– Between 2007 and 2013 it would be fair to say whilst we have had 7 or more bodies in the squad we have not had 7 fit and genuinely good enough

– With Ramsey, Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere and Arteta when fit, we have 5 players all of whom I believe are good enough to rotate at the top level of this league.

– Much as I don’t want to I will leave Abou Diaby out of my thoughts for now.

– I feel Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when fit again, has a long term future at CAM but again perhaps not for this season.

– So when Arteta returns we have 5 competing for 3 berths so is it fair to say that we need a 6th top level player to add into the central midfield equation. Is Cabaye that player?

– If he is, that suggests Wenger will continue with a double pivot and ask two players to share the defensive midfield responsibility, rather than buy an out and out defensive midfielder, the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin.

– In Arteta, Ramsey and Wilshere we certainly have 3 who can comfortably operate in the 2 deeper roles.

– I am desperate to see Cazorla continue at CAM so with Podolski’s injury the need to strengthen on the flanks is greater than the need to strengthen in central midfield, but we do need one more truly top level player to give us a 4th option at pivot. Cabaye is certainly good enough and I would happily see us meet the Newcastle price even thought it pains me that we did not pick him up when he left Ligue 1.

Arsene Wenger is not a manager who is very keen on juggling squads (Getty Images)

I hope the above thought process makes a degree of sense and it is all relevant based only on the premise that Wenger will rotate more this season as I have proved he has in the past. This is certainly dependent on there being 6 or 7 players at Top 4 Premier League/International level and not 3 or 4 as we have seen in the past 6/7 years.

One final thought/suggestion and your thoughts on this would be interesting. Our short bit of historical research throws up another possible dynamic for me. We know that Petit had famously never played in midfield before he joined Arsenal and within a season he has won a domestic double and the World Cup as a DM. We know have been reminded that in 2001 and 2002 after he left quite often Wenger’s go to holding midfielder was Gilles Grimandi, also signed having played his whole career as a centre-back. So what?

Well we have 5 top class players in my opinion in Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey and Arteta, none of whom is an out and out defensive midfielder in the sense that many supporters want. We also have two international centre-backs in top form and an international and experienced right-back playing centrally as if he had played there all his life.

On top of this we are being linked with Toby Alderwerield who can play at centre-back or right back, as well as Ashley Williams still. Does this potentially create an opening for our skipper Thomas Vermaelen to operate in front of the back four as a genuinely defensive midfielder? Given the fact that Wenger has done this so successfully with Petri and Grimandi and according to Vermaelen wanted to do it with him, is this such an outlandish suggestion?

It was fascinating doing this research and it sent me in a direction I was not expecting. Suffice to say, I am of the belief that we need one truly top class central midfield addition to be able to rotate effectively without the performance level of the team dropping. It may be Cabaye but it just could be TV5!

Lastly for those who scream for superstar individuals please remember it is a team game and it is the chemistry of the collective in the engine room that will determine if we challenge not necessarily the stellar name. If you don’t believe this I will leave you with the 2001/02 double winning midfield once more and then give you the midfield they beat to the title, winning it in their own Manchester back yard.

Arsenal CM 2001/02 – Vieira, Parlour, Grimandi, van Bronckhurst and Edu

Manchester United CM 2001/02 – Keane, Scholes, Veron, Butt and Beckham

I rest my case.

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