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In defense of Mikel Arteta

Mikel Arteta has been criticised in recent weeks, but such criticism is very unfair

Hair: Perfect.
Hair: Perfect.
Jamie McDonald

In this rather dispiriting season, it seems as if almost every single Arsenal player has taken some sort of harsh and unfair criticism. Olivier Giroud has been labeled a "donkey", Lukas Podolski has been accused of being lazy, Aaron Ramsey has had his share of idiotic criticisms, as has Theo Walcott, Gervinho, Wojciech Szczesny, Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen. Perhaps the most unfair criticism has been that leveled at Mikel Arteta, who, in the absence of Arsenal spending money on a defensive midfielder to replace Alex Song, has been the primary defensive midfielder for Arsenal all season. This has seen a restriction on Arteta's attacking duties; of his 5 goals, 4 have been spot kicks, and he's taken .7 shots per game as opposed to 1.4 shots per game last season. By playing deeper, Arteta has become more of a passing influence, routinely completing over 100 passes as he tends to initiate Arsenal attacks. Yet, that's one of the facets of his game that's been criticised; in recent weeks, before Arsenal's form improved, his passing was said to be slow, unambitious and backwards--it was almost as if Arsenal fans had dusted off their "101 ways to criticise Denilson" handbooks.

Arteta's passing had taken on a degree of slowness and lack of ambition. There's a couple of reasons for that; first of all, Mikel Arteta will rarely, rarely force a pass, which is why his overhit free kick in the final minutes of the second leg against Bayern Munich was so surprising. Instead of forcing play, Arteta will retain possession; this is how Arteta, educated at Barcelona, learned to play the game. Before Arsenal's run of form, there was a lack of options, as teams closed down options after realising that Arteta wouldn't, upon receiving possession from Per Mertesacker, rush play. Perhaps Arteta could be more amibitious, but, given the deeper nature of his possession, it's better that he doesn't needlessly give the ball away. And he couldn't pass the ball in a more threatening manner because of this pressing and because of Arsenal's lack of movement. In recent weeks, the movement, the classifying feature of Wengerball, has begun to return, and Arteta has generally taken on a more attacking influence.

Arteta's defensive play has also been criticized, and, like his passing, there was a period where it got worse before returning to previous standards in recent weeks. Last season, Arteta was not the primary defensive midfieder; he was in the double pivot with Alex Song and rotated exceptionally well; when Song went forward to influence play, Arteta invariably provided cover. At other times, Arteta used his excellent game-reading skills to intercept higher up the pitch and then set Arsenal on attacks, perhaps no better exemplified than his winning goal against Manchester City, where he won the ball back from David Pizaro 30 yards from goal and then fired past Joe Hart.

This season, Arteta has been the primary defensive midfielder; he's had to stay deeper, and has been less influential. While Arteta is an excellent reader of the game and a good tackler, he isn't the physical machine that Alex Song was; he doesn't cover ground as well as Song used to, which means space can be better exploited by opposition teams. This wasn't as much as a problem earlier in the season when Abou Diaby was Arteta's midfield partner: Diaby kept position well before breaking forward, and thus helped Arteta cover ground. In recent weeks, Aaron Ramsey has done much the same; the Welshman has the energy to be a box to box midfielder and close down opposing midfielders, but he also has the discipline to hold position. When Jack Wilshere was Arteta's partner, though, his enthusiasm to press and win the ball back, commonly referred to as the Steven Gerrard Play The Hero syndrome, meant Wilshere often broke position, and then left Arteta too much space to cover.

Arteta was superb at organizing as Arsenal went down to 10 against West Bromwich Albion, and was more involved in the attacking play at home to Reading. His passing has been more purposeful in recent weeks; he helped set up Arsenal's first goal at WBA, and it was a feature of his play against Swansea, where a surprising number of his passes, 70 % (just 54% were forward passes against Spurs), went forward. It is perhaps fair to say that Arteta hasn't been as influential or consistent as he was last season, but, he has been asked to play a different, unfamiliar role, and on the whole, has done a fairly good job. Like most players, it is about partnerships; if Arteta doesn't have the sort of midfield partner that suits him, he suffers. That is not Arteta's fault; after all, he hardly picks the teamsheet. This is not to vilify Wilshere, who showed in 2010/11 that he could play the double pivot well; there were a number of factors in Wilshere's indiscipline, chief among them being his admirable love for the club and desire to always be influential. A lot of it was consequence of circumstance, and unfortunately, Arteta was the recipient of the ensuing blame. But it's not entirely fair, and in recent weeks, Arteta has been influential in Arsenal's return to form.