Date: 4th November 2008 at 9:39am
Written by:

As I have watched the team at times struggle to rediscover the midfield balance that for the most part we had found last season I have felt for sometime that contrary to the popular view that we have lost something in central midfield our biggest struggle has been in the wide areas. It is in rebalancing midfield to adapt to these changes and using those players we have now that, in my view, has caused us to stutter at times.

A week or so back Ray Parlour appeared on a Sky program and spoke of his time in Arsenal`s midfield. He described his role as largely defensive with the encouragement to express himself in an attacking sense when he felt free to do so. He recalled his partnership with Vieira and Petit with Overmars making up the 4th midfielder. Parlour thought that Overmars midfield role was only a nominal one as he didn`t track back and played more of a direct and individual role. As Overmars moved forward he, Vieira and Petit would move across to cover his position and Bergkamp would drop deeper.

That role involved Parlour, Vieira and Petit limiting their attacking play in order to provide the security for Bergkamp to play as the attacking midfielder and Overmars and Anelka to play as forwards. None of that midfield trio were ever great goal scorers in their time with the club and certainly not in that midfield set up. Yet now we tend to expect more goals from the existing midfield than we accepted from them.

Overmars left and found as many do that at least 60% of his success was due to the contribution of the players supporting him and the way that others utilised his skills. Meanwhile Pires replaced him, an altogether different player with greater ball skills and passing ability relying more on his skill at fashioning chances for others than others having to adapt to him. In similar forms, with some variants, that general midfield pattern has persisted ever since. Until now that is.

With the departure of Hleb, the indisposition of Rosicky and the need to accommodate Walcott midfield is once again looking to embrace the pattern of play adopted to get the best out of Overmars. Finding this pattern has proved more elusive as the other midfielders have to adapt their ‘natural` game (or at least the style they played for much of last season) and nobody yet quite meets the level of Bergkamp in playing as an attacking midfielder in that pattern.

There are other factors. Even with the understanding to play the midfield role as Petit, Vieira and Parlour did the current midfield options, with the exception of Eboue, aren`t yet at the same stage of physical development. Walcott himself doesn`t yet have either the physical strength or the match experience of Overmars though in many ways he is a far more explosive player with an erratic but often great touch. At the same time van Persie is also more of a striker in a Henry/Anelka mould than he is Bergkamp with what he is missing in their electric pace compensated for in his sublime skill.

No one could be Bergkamp but we need to find someone to play a similar role effectively if we are to get the most from Walcott and at the same time use van Persie as surely we should attempt to do with someone of his quality. Find the right link player to create a left/right forward combination involving those two creates an interesting proposition. At present Adebayor offers different qualities that might not comfortably accommodate him and Walcott other than along something like Toshack/Keegan lines – a tactic that sits less comfortably with our playing style.

Those that mourn our failure to replicate the midfield of last season perhaps need to consider that we are having to find a pattern of midfield play more along the lines of 10 years ago in order to better suit the players we have now. That balance hasn`t yet been found and depending on how long Walcott is out maybe that particularly search will be postponed. But if Walcott is here as an integral part of the team for the long term it won`t be long before we again need to find a balance that makes the most of his abilities. The eventual return of Eduardo, and to a lesser extent Rosicky, may allow some interesting options as we seek that balance.

The challenge for us though is that in order to find Overmars we may first have to find Bergkamp.

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