Just over a year ago Mikel Arteta was described by many as a panic buy. Now, Arsenal would be in a state of alarm if they had to do without him.
At first glance the Spaniard has been outstanding for Arsenal so far this season. Under closer inspection he’s actually been much, much better than that.
Nobody in the Premier League has touched the ball more often, made as many passes, or been as accurate with his distribution. Off the ball, only West Ham United’s Mark Noble has made more tackles. And stats, as always, only tell half the story.
Whether the cultured Spaniard was asked to step into the defensive midfield breach once Alex Song booked himself a flight to Barcelona, or whether he simply volunteered or accidentally stumbled into the role we’re not entirely sure, but Gunners fans are mighty glad he did.
Song may have been a potentially magnificent talent. He may have had fresher legs, and an uncanny ability to pick out Robin van Persie with a lovely chipped pass, but honestly, give me Arteta over Song any day of the week.
The not-so-dearly departed Cameroonian simply didn’t care enough about the team to concentrate on the boring, unsexy stuff. Preoccupied with how good he might look in the final third, there was a dereliction of defensive duty on his part that cost Arsenal time and time again when they didn’t have the ball; actions which were tolerated far too easily by those around him.
Funnily enough, when I remember Alex Song in an Arsenal shirt I don’t recall the cheeky unexpected dribbles or the many assists. I think of a player pictured with his shoulders slumped and arms hanging down his side, looking vacant, and wondering (for a second or two) just why the Gunners had conceded yet another goal. It’s unfair to pin last season’s shipping of 49 Premier League goals on him, but Song certainly didn’t do enough to stop it, or learn from the reasons why it was happening so often.
Arteta is a different animal. He cares about the greater cause. Constantly talking, pointing, probing and cajoling, the ex-Rangers star isn’t a player that concentrates solely on his own game. And that’s just what Arsenal needed when Arsene Wenger ‘panicked’ into making him the sides ‘poor man’s Fabregas’ in late August 2011.
Whether the Gunners boss knew it or not (and I suspect he did) Arteta’s character and willingness to unselfishly assist those younger players around him, was, and still is, worth twice as many Song assists.
This season’s transformation from all-round midfielder to chief defensive ‘sitter’ has been conducted quietly and typically, without fuss. Surrounded by immense forward-minded talent, and at 30, Arteta is a player that’s perhaps understandably willing to sacrifice his more than adequate attacking instincts for the sake of the side, in a bid to prolong his own effectiveness. And even that self-awareness impresses me.
Eight years or so ago, pre-Everton, Arteta was a genuine midfield pivot; the kind of guy who sat in front of the PSG and Rangers’ back fours and made things tick with his neat passing, firm tackles and intelligent positioning. And he wasn’t bad at it all.
Now in the twilight of his career he appears capable of mastering it.
His football intelligence is such, that Arteta just ‘knows’ where to be, and what to do, and that’s a trait no amount of money or record-breaking bleep test performances can buy.
When the returning Jack Wilshere comes back into the side, amid understandable jubilation from those inside the Emirates, you can rest assured there’s one midfield player that will definitely be standing by his side – and nowhere near the substitute’s bench – and that’s Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal’s new Mr Indispensable.
Listen to Adrian on this weeks brilliant Red White and Blue Football Podcast HERE