By Chris Davie
Robin van Persie may have gained the plaudits for a barnstorming campaign but almost as vital to Arsenal's cause this season has been the contribution of Mikel Arteta.
The 30-year-old was a £10 million deadline-day signing sanctioned by Arsene Wenger last August, in a bid to help fill the cavernous void created by the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas.
As things stand with three games remaining this season, the Spanish acquisition from Everton has more than compensated for Arsenal's losses last summer.
With Arteta in their midfield, Arsenal have already secured 65 points this term - just three less than their total haul of last season when Nasri, Fabregas and the now-injured Jack Wilshere were rampant.
The balance of dependence at Arsenal has rapidly shifted towards Arteta, as underlined by the fact that the Gunners have yet to win a Premier League game without him in the side since he arrived.
But how has the Spaniard successfully integrated into a midfield slot vacated by Fabregas, and enabled Arsenal to sustain their challenge for a place in the Champions League?
| MIKEL ARTETA'S STATS THIS SEASON
Arteta, meanwhile, has consistently played far deeper in Arsenal's midfield throughout this campaign. During the club's 1-0 victory over Manchester City earlier this month, the Spaniard, who netted the winner, was positioned alongside Alex Song for the majority of the match, at times even further from goal than the Cameroon international.
But the positioning of Arteta has been key for Arsenal this season. His deep-lying role enabled him to get on the ball more than any other player on the pitch against City and his accurate distribution, a statistic which currently stands at 90.7 per cent this term, means Wenger's men have an orchestrator who can lay the foundations for their attacking play.
The importance of Arteta is also emphasised in his absence. In Arsenal's stalemate against Chelsea last Saturday, Aaron Ramsey was tasked with performing a similar role alongside Song and, while the Welshman's passing was precise, he lacked the urgency of the Spaniard and was caught in possession on a number of occasions during the game.
Arteta's arrival was met with scepticism from some quarters due to his age and a previous knee injury which required surgery in 2009. However, Wenger took a calculated risk, and £10m for a player who boasts six years of Premier League experience always represented good value considering the inflated transfer market.
Wenger also pinpointed Arteta's strengths and utilised them in such a way that his side would not miss the dynamism of Fabregas. At Everton, the Spaniard operated in an advanced midfield role following the arrival of Marouane Fellaini in 2008 but, since his move to the Emirates, he has been allowed to display his composure and exemplary ball-retention skills in a position just ahead of the back four, which creates an outlet for Arsenal's defenders and a platform for the team to build on.
Song has also had a hand in easing the blow of Fabregas' departure to Barcelona by significantly upping his assists tally and getting more involved in Arsenal's attacking play. The effective pairing of Song and Arteta also creates an interesting dilemma for Wenger when he eventually has Wilshere at his disposal again.
|"With Arteta in their midfield, Arsenal have already secured 65 points this term - just three less than their total haul of last season when Nasri, Fabregas & the now-injured Jack Wilshere were rampant"|
The 20-year-old has not featured this season due to an ankle injury, but when fit, Wenger will possess one of the best midfield trios in the league. The only concern for the Arsenal manager will be selecting the player who would advance furthest out of the three.
Song has stepped up in his role to support Van Persie with direct passes to the Dutchman, but the Cameroonian still operates primarily in the middle third of the pitch and subsequently only has one goal to his name all season. Arteta has never scored more than nine in a single league campaign throughout his entire career, while Wilshere too has yet to exhibit any tendencies to regularly get himself into threatening positions in the opposition box.
For now, Wenger looks set to guide his side into the Champions League for a 15th consecutive year, although with the important Arteta ruled out for the remainder of the season, it may not be a smooth ending to Arsenal's campaign.
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