“We have many midfielders. But we don’t have many physical midfielders,” Wenger said, rueing the loss of Diaby to a three week injury. It looked like we would be heading to Upton Park with a smallish, physically vulnerable midfield. Not good against a Sam Allardyce side. But as it turned out, we bossed the game anyway. Saw 69% of the ball, won 21 tackles, and had 21 shots (to West Ham’s 9 attempts).
Well, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. They did beat us 58 – 42 on aerial duels. That’s the key stat that defined the game. All game, but the first half especially, a rejuvinated Andy Carroll won 68% of aerial challenges, even with Mertesacker back in the side. He caused us all sorts of problems and West Ham had a host of half-chances from his knock-downs.
And although some may find it ironic that their only goal came from a sweeping move along the floor, it was Mertesacker’s obsession with Carroll that ultimately gave Diame a clear chance to score.
But generally we dealt well with the aerial barrage. Even if Carroll was winning headers, we were picking up the second balls. And when we won the ball, we didn’t give it away, we made things happen.
Arteta completed 111 passes and made 5 tackles. Even won a 100% of his aerial duels. It was, once again, an all around brilliant performance from him. He had a subdued game against Chelsea, which affected our rhythm, but here a much improved Ramsey (who also made 93 passes) created enough of a distraction to allow Arteta to play his game. And those two together built a great platform for Cazorla, Giroud, and Podolski to create.
Wenger has often been criticized for fielding teams that are too small, too technical for the Premier League. The post-invincibles teams were often considered to be too easily bullied. But in adopting a more technical approach all those years ago, Wenger had the right idea. Technique is more important. But he was never able to execute his plan like Barcelona, whose tiny midfielders dominated Europe under Guardiola, and put to rest the idea that speed and strength were more important than technique.
But in the fast paced, physical Premier League, Wenger has always felt the need for taller, more physically robust players. Sometimes even at the expense of technique, as Alex Song’s continual presence in the side showed. But maybe he underestimated the value a technique a bit. Wenger said he didn’t sign Luka Modric because he was too weak for the Premier League. Over the years, the Croatian has developed into a complete midfielder, strong enough for the Premier League. He may not have had the strongest body, but technique and intelligence, coupled with a fighting spirit, meant he was able to dominate most midfields in England.
With the departure of Song (whether forced or not), Wenger has now a more technically solid midfield. Arteta, Ramsey, and Cazorla are all capable of hogging the ball and creating chances. Without Diaby we may have struggled against West Ham, but Arteta’s intelligence and dogged determination in winning his battles more than made up for his lack of height. The same with Ramsey, who is never shies away from tackles (maybe sometimes he’s actually too eager to dive in). And with Cazorla in front of them, who is always buzzing and harrying defenders, we never looked troubled in midfled.
We don’t have any physical midfielders remaining, but if Wenger puts his faith in technique, we may not need any. It wasn’t a perfect performance from our midfield. At times Ramsey left Arteta too isolated, with a sea of space around him for West Ham to exploit. But with games Ramsey will improve, so will Coquelin. Even if Diaby is continued to be sidelined by injury, our diminutive midfielders will do just fine.
(All stats from the brilliant @Whoscored.com).