English Debate: Who Will Anchor Arsenal's Midfield?

When talking about summer signings, Wenger recently said he would be in the market for ''one defence-minded player, and one creative player.'' One of the questions on Arsenal fans' lips this summer will surely be who then, will be anchoring their midfield? Alan Dawson investigates...
With Mathieu Flamini swapping London for Milan, speculation has been rife as to whether Arsene Wenger will be replacing the tenacious, moderately talented heel-snapper with an incoming transfer, or promoting from within.

Flamini had been employed in a variety of positions during his four seasons at the club, and only rose to fame in the season just gone because of his consistent performances, high energy levels, tackling ability, and acute passing skills.

It is an ironic twist of fate that he will be playing for AC Milan in September, as he could have been sealing a deal to Birmingham City, this time last year.

‘Flatusso’, as he was endearingly called by his Arsenal team-mates, only gained a long run in the side due to Gilberto's fatigue and loss of form following an enduring Copa America tournament with Brazil, in the summer of 2007.

Will another unexpected force rise to prominence under Wenger's tutelage come August? Or will he instead turn to the transfer market for his holding midfielder?

Gilberto Silva

The man who Flamini ousted, is being re-considered for the role he had made his own only a few years ago. Dubbed 'Volante' or 'The Invisible Wall', the former World Cup winner would offer cover for attacking wingbacks, Clichy and Sagna, and also for when Fabregas roams further up the pitch.

Gilberto isn't the toughest tackler the Premiership has ever seen - he is more passive when he defends. At 6'3'' he would help aid the area Arsene wants to work on this summer - balls over the top. Do you think it is a coincidence that in Gilberto's absence the team suffered in this department?

Flamini was a better tackler on the ground, but at 5'10'' would not have been able to aerially man-mark a target man as effectively as Gilberto, after all, Flamini's main strength was his energy.

Likelihood: Retrograde. Didn't take the chances offered to him last season. His stamina may now be an issue, but he will remain the fall back option.

Miguel Veloso

This young defensive-midfielder from Portugal has recently been linked to North London, but mainly through his agent, Paulo Barbosa, who said: ''We have not had contact from the Arsenal board, but from a member of the technical staff at the club.''

If reports are to be believed then an offer of £23.7million would be enough to activate a release clause in his contract with Sporting CP.

Like Arsenal's former 'Running Man', the 22-year old is a utility man who has played all across the defensive line, as well as in the centre of midfield. After Veloso collected his winners medal in the Portuguese Cup at the end of last season, he said: ''I do not know if this is my last game for Sporting, lets see what the future holds for me.''

Likelihood: Unlikely, unless Sporting are willing to accept offers below the release clause.

Denilson Pereira Neves

The U20 Brazil captain was one of the brightest prospects at Arsenal when he first arrived at the club. He was touted, along with Lucas of Liverpool, as the future of the Brazilian midfield. Now, with the emergence of Anderson, and the regression of Denilson's form and ability last season, it is unclear where this leaves him. 

Arsene Wenger once described him as ''a mix of Tomas Rosicky and Gilberto Silva.'' Denilson has good playmaking ability, and if he were to make the holding role his own he would need to sharpen his defensive skills.

His passing is in shadow of Fabregas' at the moment, and if they were to operate in the centre of midfield together they would need to work in tandem, and this may limit Fabregas' ability to go forward and create.

Likelihood: Plausible. He needs to re-find his feet, first. And he does not seem to be tough enough defensively, at least not from what we saw in fleeting glimpses over the season gone by.

Mark Noble

Before the season came to a close, a Sunday newspaper claimed that an insider at Arsenal had said: ''Mark's name was certainly mentioned as a potential signing in January, when the midfield situation was discussed but there was no approach. He will become a big target if Flamini decides to call it a day.''

Flamini did call it a day. The question remains: has Noble become a big target? Alan Pardew has lavished praise on the England U21 international, describing Noble as the best prospect at the club, and went on to say: ''Mark is a capable holding midfielder, dictating games because he has the passing ability, the bite, and the will to the win.''

Whether or not Wenger respects Pardew's opinion remains to be seen, what with their decorated history.

Likelihood: Highly doubtful. Noble is a local Hammer, as are his family. What might swing the balance is Arsene's admission that he was looking at a player with 'Premiership experience', but this does not necessitate a move for Noble.

Vassiriki Abou Diaby

Diaby looked promising when Wenger snapped him up in the 2006 January transfer window, but he has never looked the same since he suffered a terrible broken and dislocated ankle.

From some sections in the media Diaby has been touted as Vieira's heir: they are both powerful and leggy, but the comparisons end there. Whilst Vieira revelled in the defensive role, Diaby looks preferable as an attacking midfielder.

To the frustration of many Arsenal fans though, Diaby was continually deployed on the left flank last season - presumably in a bid to build up his left foot. Since then, he has scored with his left peg, so to a certain extent, this aim has worked.

Likelihood: Unlikely, unless he suddenly decides to turn it up a few notches. Substitute appearances (more of them) may have to suffice.

Michael Johnson

Reports in May suggested that a trident of Liverpool; Tottenham; and Arsenal, were keen on the 20-year old Mancunian. Analogies have already been made between him, and Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, which may seem premature, but his energy, drive, and general midfield ability are worthy of praise alone.

A move for Johnson would also slot in nicely with Arsene's philosophy of recruiting young talent, and nurturing and developing it in his own, methodical way.

Likelihood: Improbable. The main question is: would he be able to take his game another level and perform week-in week-out under the spotlights at the Emirates? With Johnson next to Fabregas, the midfield would just get younger.

Alexandre Song Billong

The once maligned Cameroonian is now receiving praise for his coming of age. Recently rewarded with a long-term contract thought to be a four-year extension, it seems evident that he is a part of Wenger's long-term plans.

The 20-year old featured 15 times for the Arsenal first team last season, and played a starring role in Cameroon's march to the final of the African Cup of Nations, himself being awarded a place on the team of the tournament.

He is a strong holding midfielder, but operated as a defender for the last five matches of the 2007-08 season. He is composed on the ball, and, when playing centre back, he enjoys dribbling out of defence - much in the same vein as Rio Ferdinand, or Lucio.

Likelihood: Possible. Song will feature heavily next season, but where? Wenger's pre-season set-up will offer more clues.

Yaya Toure

Toure would be an ideal replacement to fill the void that Flamini left in Arsenal's midfield. The Ivorian is held in high regard and is considered among the top midfielders in World football. Yaya Toure, younger brother of current Arsenal defender, Kolo, has impressive physical attributes, can hold and protect the ball, and, like Kolo, is a capable passer.

He is widely seen as a box-to-box midfielder, so in this respect would presumably be a like-for-like replacement for Flamini. Txiki Begiristain, Barcelona's Director of Football, complicated a potential transfer a few weeks ago by stating: ''Yaya is not on the market... we want him to stay with us. Josep Guardiola considers him an important player in his new project.''

However, with the Catalan club's recent purchase of Seydou Keita, a hard-tackling midfielder, together with their active pursuit of Aliaksandr Hleb and Emmanuel Adebayor, a player plus cash deal might well be in the offing.

Likelihood: Plausible, exciting, but dependent on Barcelona's willingness to depart with a player they have only had on the books for one season, and Wenger's resurgence of interest in a player he had on a pre-season trial in 2002. Would be the ideal partnership in many ways if Arsenal can pull it off.

Marcos Senna


The Spanish international is the latest to be linked with the Gunners, and looking at the way he combined with Fabregas in the second half of the clash against Russia, the partnership would be perfect.

He has kept Xabi Alonso on the Spanish bench for a year now, and that should just about say it all for the Premiership fans. He has just the physique and attitude to stamp his authority on the pitch, and become a perfect foil for Fabregas. Like with Yaya Toure, though, a lot depends on Villarreal's willingness to let him go.

Likelihood: Plausible and exciting again, but unlikely. The Yellow Submarines have just qualified for the Champions League, so unless Wenger decides to cough up in excess of 15 million euros, this one looks like a dead end.

Torsten Frings

Arguably the toughest midfielder in this list, the German international has been linked with many European clubs over the last two years. However, he has remained keen to stay on at Werder Bremen through all this, rejecting the chance to move to Juventus as recently as last summer.

He is back fit, and would offer Arsenal just the steel they need, albeit he could hinder their passing game just a touch. Nonetheless, you need people to do the dirty work in midfield, and those do not come much better than him. He has a stinging shot from distance too.

Likelihood: Unlikely. Whether it is for family reasons or just loyalty to Bremen, he looks likely to see out his career there. It will be a massive coup if Wenger can convince him otherwise.

Kolo Toure

Kolo played in the middle of the park at the beginning of his Arsenal career, in early European games, and was even regarded as a utility man - much like Flamini at the genesis of his Arsenal journey.

He still has many of the attributes to be a success in that role. He is strong in the tackle, and playing further up-field will increase his opportunities of unleashing that beast of a shot we have all seen him revel in so many a time. He can also play clever passes; at the back end of last season he threaded a weighted pass through to Adebayor against Reading, and also for Van Persie against Derby, both in April.

Moving Kolo into central midfield could also solve the chink in the Gunner's defensive armoury of balls over the top if Gallas was partnered with someone like, say, Song, who has increased his stock of late, or even a new signing. When Kolo has played wing back, however, his stamina has looked suspect. And this would be a worry in the 80th minute of a game if he can barely track back.

Likelihood: Possible, but unlikely. If Wenger was toying with this idea then he would have experimented this tactic at the end of the season while he was giving games to Song, rather than wait for the beginning of a new campaign. Pre-season will be key, but smart money would be on him playing at the back.

Aaron Ramsey

The Welsh whiz kid's role at Arsenal is up for debate. Some see him playing a Cescy role but out on the wing, others see him as a defensive midfielder.

Bob Wilson, Arsenal's goalkeeping coach, said: ‘‘the possibilities of Ramsey and Fabregas in the middle are endless. Ramsey is athletic, quick, and already has brilliant quality on the ball.''

Likelihood: Unlikely. Grooming him into a holding midfielder would surely stifle his attacking prowess. On the other hand, he has played across the defensive line for Cardiff, as well as the midfield. Either way, he will be restricted to Carling Cup games, and the occasional league outing, so for next season anyway, he will not be Arsenal's anchor.

Conclusion

The more likely candidates appear to already be at Arsenal. This time last year it would have been widely assumed that Gilberto would carry on his duties in that position. If one put forth Flamini’s name for the role, your views would have rightly been frowned upon.

So to conclude, unless Arsenal sign Yaya Toure or Marcos Senna, expect Gilberto to do the job next season, with Diaby, Song and Denilson all getting their share of chances to earn a starting spot.

Alan Dawson