Critics of Arsenal and Manchester United are singing the same song as they have done for several years now; neither team has a strong midfield, let alone a strong midfield presence. Sam Gayton takes a look at why we should be lamenting the lack of the ‘Midfield General’ in recent years.
Fashion is a fickle thing. Gone are the days when you would search for a sturdy pair of jeans that would see you through thick and thin, cast aside only when your ever-expanding waistline could not squeeze into them. Now we want shiny, colourful clothes that may look good, but fall apart given a slight period of wear.
In this respect, football seems to be following suit. Nobody seems to want a player who will walk through fire for his team and bear the burden of responsibility for poor performances; we want flair and skill, dexterity over durability. In other words, we want a bright orange shirt over a simple grey sweater.
Maybe it’s not a case of whether teams don’t want these kind of players, but a case of football teams just not producing them anymore. Aside from Scott Parker, who is the last fierce, antagonistic midfielder you can think of that has had an impact on the English game, or indeed football as a whole? Without a doubt, the list you come up with will either be short, bereft of quality, or entirely non-existent.
Think back seven years to July 2005. Arsenal have just accepted a €20 million offer for Patrick Vieira from Juventus, and Roy Keane acrimoniously left Manchester United eight months earlier. For Arsenal, it began the slow-rot of their trophy-winning ambitions (they have not won a single major trophy since Vieira’s departure) and while United have remained successful, they have never signed nor produced a player of such influence since Keane’s exit.
If we look at Arsenal’s midfield three this season, none would strike fear into the hearts of attackers at home or abroad. Cazorla, Wilshere, and Arteta are creators and passers, not destroyers; they lack the ruthlessness and conviction to drive a team on from the back with strong tackling, surging runs and incisive passing.
While, as mentioned before, United have fared much better in terms of success than Arsenal since the departure of their midfield stalwart, the cracks have been papered over in recent honours-winning teams with tireless and selfless forwards willing to take part in their fair share of defensive-graft; think Ji Sung Park, Carlos Tévez, Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney. This season particularly has seen an increase in goals conceded for Ferguson’s team, as the midfield and forward positions have been filled with more forward-thinking players like Shinji Kagawa, Anderson, and Robin Van Persie, who are less defensively-minded than their predecessors. If a Keane-like figure is not found soon, Ferguson may come to regret his constant overlooking of the position.
There is no doubt the Premier League itself has also suffered for the loss of Keane and Vieira. The prospect of these two giants of the game going toe to toe in the midfield used to make Arsenal vs United one of the biggest games of the season. It is hard to believe that this fixture will ever bristle with the same tension it used to back before the two left England’s top division. The desire, the necessity the two felt to win – for the team, for the fans, for themselves – was what characterised the Premier League from the late 90s to the early 00s; grit, determination, and steel.
The way football has developed over the last five years in the wake of Spain and Barcelona’s success with tiki-taka, the game may not see another in the mould of the two retirees until the next significant tactical revolution. The only player who comes close to replicating the sheer ability to grab a game by the scruff of its neck á la Keane and Vieira at the moment is Yaya Touré, yet he is experiencing a dip in form at the minute and playing in a team that seems devoid of any clear identity, leaving him with no clear role in which to influence a game.
It is a shame, because it may be a while before we again see a man run the show in the most important match of his life through an uncompromising refusal to lose, as Keane did. Vieira himself summed up what is missing in his old club’s philosophy very neatly: ‘Sometimes you know you have difficult periods, even the best teams… You accept you have to suffer. We did it in the  FA Cup final against Manchester United. I’ve no idea how we won – United were all over us for 90 minutes… Some days are like this. It’s not your day. Accept it and find a different way to win. Fight for each other. It’s not the way you want, but what’s important is to win.’ No doubt it is hard to imagine Abou Diaby making a similar speech in a few years’ time.
Like the simple grey sweater keeps you warm, Keane and Vieira may not have been fashionable, but they did what they were made to do – win.