Watching delayed coverage of yesterday’s Champions League match between Villareal and Arsenal, I have to say I was very impressed with ‘the yellow submarine’. In Giuseppe Rossi, Matias Fernandez and Marcos Senna they have three truly world class players, and while Senna is coming towards the end of his career, Rossi and Fernandez have very bright futures ahead of them. However, what impressed me most was the overall team performance of Villareal.
Arsenal too, are a team that play very much as a unit. For many years now English football fans have been envious of the football that is played week in-week out by Wenger’s men and even though it perhaps does not bring them success, Arsenal’s style of play earns them a lot of plaudits and much favour with the neutral fan.
However, this season, and indeed, for the past few seasons, Arsenal have struggled to maintain their form consistently enough to mount a genuine title challenge, and many believe that since the loss of the influential Patrick Vieira, Arsene Wenger’s side has lacked a little bit of muscle, a bit of grit in the midfield, and thus have been too lightweight to compete properly in the Premier League.
Villareal, on the other hand, have that grit. In Marcos Senna they have a classic ‘Vieira’ type player. He plays the holding role as well as anyone (even Makelele, for whom the position is often named) and also has a similar flair and talent on the ball which so earmarked Patrick Vieira’s play. He is an enforcer with a deft touch, great vision and the ability to surge past players, and as he showed with aplomb last night, some skill at striking the ball.
Senna is arguably, the sort of player that Arsenal have been lacking since Vieira’s departure. They had Gilberto Silva doing that job for a while, but Silva, while a telented player, was neither powerful nor skillful enough to fill Vieira’s boots. And last season Mathieu Flamini took over the role and was for the most part, a success. Not quite as much of an enforcer as Vieira or Senna, he had enough craft and guile to form a formidabble partnership with the mercurial Fabregas, but alas, he left on a bosman.
This season has seen the rise of Denilson, the highly rated prospect making the step up to the first team and producing some impressive performances. However, he lacks the imposing stature of Vieira and Senna, and while he is a very skillful player with great vision, does not bring the grit and muscle that Arsenal perhaps require. Alex Song and Abou Diaby are potential fillers of the role in future, but are as yet, a little underdeveloped to perform the task full time.
So last night’s match was interesting indeed, to witness Villareal dominating Arsenal in terms of possession was a thing of rarity for me. Usually Arsenal’s players are the ones to stroke the ball about with ease and comfort and to almost taunt the opposition with every pass they play. This time though, it was Arsenal doing the hard work, the futile chasing and endless closing down. And while Arsenal had their moments, notably the spell in the second period leading up to Adebayor’s equaliser, they couldn’t quite get their natural game going.
Much credit for this must go to the combative elements of Villareal’s midfield and defence, indeed their full backs did a great job of almost completely nullifying the threats of Walcott and Nasri on the flanks. While each side had their flair players, Arsenal couldn’t upset Villareal’s rhythm as well as Senna could do to them, and so in the end, the midfield battle was decided largely in favour of the Spainiards.
It will be intirguing to see how Wenger sets up for the second leg, at the Emirates, in light of last nights performances. I felt that Arsenal were a touch fortunate to come away with an away goal and a draw from last night’s match, so doubtless Wenger will be both delighted and a little nervous. They will need to learn to contain Villareal’s threat which means essentially that they have to win the battle in midfield. Whether they have a man who can step up to the plate and compete with Senna in there though, is the big question.
Finally, I am intrigued to note the similarities between the positions of each side in their respective domestic leagues. Both occupy fourth spot, yet while Arsenal are only slightly off the pace (albeit probably too far to mount a title challenge) of the Premier League leades, Villareal sit a massive distance behind Barcelona, the leaders of La Liga. Both are obviously quality sides, and arguably, the respective leaders (Manchester United and Barcelona) are of similar quailty too, so I am a little perplexed to see that Arsenal seem to be in a much healthier league position.
This confusion stems largely from the fact that Villareal have what most English fans and probably all Arsenal fans would concede that Arsenal need, that is, a top class holding midfielder. For some months now BBC’s 606 football phone-in has seen constant calls for Wenger to sign such a player, with popular opinion seeming to suggest that such an addition would give Arsenal’s title credentials a serious boost.
To see that Villareal, a team that plays a very similar style to Arsenal, at a similar level and against opponents of similar quality, are so far off the pace despite possessing a player that Arsenal would probably give an arm and a leg for, is mystifying. I can’t put my finger on why it is that Villareal are certainly not title contenders in Spain while Arsenal probably are in England. One could conclude that perhaps Arsenal’s squad is superior in every other facet but last night’s match suggests instead that they are very evenly matched.
Rather, I feel that maybe the difference lies in the balance of the squad. Wenger has spent many, many years at Arsenal developing a very distinct style and a very unique atmosphere and I feel that the way he selects his players specifically to fit into this environment is a key part of Arsenal’s success. Not only do the allow Wenger’s vision to progress, they share it, and believe in it too. The same perhaps cannot be said of Villareal, and perhaps this is why they do not achieve such success as Arsenal do in their domestic competition.
If Wenger can therefore find a Marcos Senna all of his own, who fits in perfectly with his football ethics and the rest of the squad, then Arsenl may well make the leap that many have predicted and go from perennial title also-rans to genuine challengers. However, the more pressing problem for Wenger at the moment, may be to identify someone to fill that role for next weeks return leg against Villareal, to keep alive Arsenal’s major hope of silverware this season.