‘Away from the numbers’ Paul Weller once sang, ‘I am free’.
It’s a sentiment that Jack Wilshere might certainly bear in mind next season if, as widely reported, Arsene Wenger shuns new signings in deep midfield in favour of ‘training up’ the long-term Gunner for the role.
No sooner had the professor’s cunning (and typically parsimonious) plan been announced than it’s detractors appeared, brandishing statistics.
In his article ‘Stats show Wilshere would make a rubbish holding midfielder and Bender is the man for Arsenal’ the Metro’s Massimo Marioni puts forward just such a case.
As Marioni’s article (link here) shows, while the England man played in deep midfield more often than in any other position last term according to whoscored.com, he lagged well behind teammate Mikel Arteta, as well as potential recruits Lars Bender and Morgan Schneiderlin in terms of tackles, aerial duals won, interceptions and blocks.
Yet those numerical manifestations of the ‘holding’ art don’t paint the whole picture of what is required, after all, no Gooner worth his salt is besieging the message boards to demand the signing of Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak, the Premier League’s biggest tackler and interceptor by volume last term.
There is a more cerebral element to the position, one which Wenger believes Wilshere has.
After all, Claude Makelele hardly defined the role that, for some time after his arrival at Chelsea bore his name, through his dominance of the airwaves.
Last season saw Josep Guardiola fashion his own ‘holding midfielder’ from an existing squad member, in his case stalwart FC Bayern right-back Philipp Lahm, to widespread success typified by the way the 5ft7in World Cup winner bossed Yaya Toure at the Etihad in the Champions League.
Lahm’s tackles per game average over the Bundesliga season (1.2) is less than Wilshere’s league quota of 1.3 (according to whoscored.com), despite Wilshere often having been employed in more advanced positions, yet few would argue that Guardiola’s conversion job was a successful one.
Wenger’s would-be Makelele announced himself to the world in Arsenal’s 2-1 Champions League victory over the Spaniard’s Barcelona in 2010/11, playing in the deeper two of a 4-2-3-1.
At the tender age of 19 he was more than a match for a midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta on it’s way to to winning the tournament for second time in three seasons.
Yet he made just one tackle, two interceptions and one clearance during the game.
Injuries and resulting inconsistency have intervened since to undermine his development, just as they did for Aaron Ramsey, but it’s this Wilshere that the Gunners coaching staff are alluding to.
Granted a prolonged run of fitness he can scale those heights again.