By Ewan Roberts at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal cruised to victory against a limp and lacklustre West Brom side on Saturday, earning three points courtesy of two penalties (one more legitimate than the other). It was all so very un-Arsenal, who exercised a degree of control rarely seen at the Emirates this season. Going into the match, the Gunners had picked up just three wins from their previous ten home matches (13 points from a possible 30).
But they dominated Steve Clarke’s Baggies on a bitingly cold afternoon in north London, dictating possession (with 59 per cent), limiting the away side to just one shot on target and creating a host of chances themselves - many of which were spectacularly spurned by Messrs Gervinho, Olivier Giroud and even Lukas Podolski in a red-faced cameo off the bench.
West Brom were undoubtedly hampered by the late withdrawal of Claudio Yacob (absent with “a little hamstring problem,” according to his manager), which meant the Gunners faced a more meek and mild midfield than they otherwise would have. The Baggies’ Argentine enforcer, the type of player who is so often like kryptonite to Arsenal, has arguably been their stand-out performer this year, creating an almost impenetrable barrier alongside Youssouf Mulumbu in front of the defence.
In the ex-Racing midfielder’s place was James Morrison, a more timid player, a puppy dog compared to the snarling, rabid Rottweiler that Yacob is. With Zoltan Gera anonymous in an advanced role, Arsenal outnumbered and overawed the Baggies’ midfield, leaving Mulumbu to fight fires in vain.
In uncharacteristic fashion, West Brom unfurled the white flag after Mikel Arteta’s second goal and never mounted anything resembling a fight back. With the solid, tenacious Yacob-Mulumbu pivot broken up, the Baggies lost their edge. But Arsenal are unlikely to face such brittle and accommodating opposition again this season, and question marks remain over their ability to overcome tougher, meaner, more uncompromising sides.
As a central midfield trio, Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere are fluid, cultured and creative, but they’re also lightweight, contributing to a soft core that hasn’t been solidified since the departure of Alex Song to Barcelona (perhaps longer even, since Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva moved to pastures new).
Ever so briefly, Abou Diaby had appeared to fill that void after impressing at the start of the season. A more physically imposing foil for Arsenal’s slight technicians, he was a major contributor to Arsenal’s resolute defending and compact core – in the 344 minutes Diaby played in the league, Arsenal conceded just once. They’ve conceded over a goal a game without him.
But Diaby, it turns out, is as fragile as the little magicians that populate Arsenal’s squad and whom he is supposed to protect. The rangy French midfielder has been out of action since September, and didn’t start a single match for Arsenal for the entirety of the 2011-12 season. The Gunners cannot rely on him and instead need a fitter, stronger, faster version, a Diaby Mark II. Step forward Mohamed Diame.
West Ham’s Senegalese powerhouse has been in impressive form for the Hammers this season, and the revelation from chairman David Gold that the French-born midfielder has a release clause in his contract has alerted a number of clubs, not least Arsenal. As exclusively revealed by Goal.com, Arsene Wenger considers Diame to be a good value January target.
The 25-year-old possesses the qualities Arsenal’s midfield currently lacks: power, directness, strength, aggression. Like Diaby, he can anchor the midfield and protect his defence (he’s averaged 4.1 tackles per game, the second most in the league), but he’s also confident in a box-to-box capacity, energetically striding up and down the pitch. He’s comfortable in a possession-orientated side too, having spent three years with Roberto Martinez at Wigan.
Diame, more substance than style, would offer an alternative type of player for Wenger, whose squad is criminally one dimensional. Arteta has been forced deeper in Diaby’s absence, while the defensive midfield alternatives only consist of Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, neither of whom can dominate the middle third in the manner Diame can and offer little variation. There are no angry men, no ball breakers.
There is no plan B for Arsenal in midfield, simply more of the same. But Diame’s more direct, lateral, Sam Allardyce-inspired route one style would offer a different kind of threat for opposition defences to try and contend with – but Wenger must be prepared to embrace a player somewhat at odds with his philosophy, a gritty, tough-tackling, “anti-football”-stylised hard man. He showed against Chelsea what a blustering, all-consuming ball of energy he can be off the bench, inspiring West Ham to a 3-1 win with his zealous performance.
The imperious Iron could also bring greater freedom to Arsenal’s attackers. Arteta has been shackled in his deeper role and has recorded just one assist in his last 14 games. Likewise, Cazorla has one assist from his previous 12 games. Arsenal are lacking central penetration, their attacking midfielders are positioned too deep and have become wrought with a sense of responsibility to defend. Diame would enable them to get forward with greater abandon.
Bewitching craft and sustained possession alone do not win football matches, and Arsenal are woefully short of the bullishness, aggression, passion and directness required when that isn’t working. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and Diame is the Humpty Dumpty-crushing, shell-shattering punisher that can bring more steel to Arsenal’s flaccid midfield while all the king's horses and all the king's men struggle to put Diaby back together again.
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