A sharp increase in TV revenues should supplement an active summer transfer window this year, and with activity already well underway, this could well be the highest spending window of all time.
The activity of England’s top four teams will naturally invite a greater sense of intrigue. Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea all have new managers who will make the changes they deem necessary, while Arsenal chief-executive Ivan Gazidis has publicly stated on multiple occasions that this will be a ‘big summer’ for the Gunners.
While every squad has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, all four of England’s top four teams arguably need to strengthen their midfield. City have already addressed this issue with the acquisition of the excellent Fernandinho, but Arsenal, Chelsea and United are still yet to make any significant moves.
The prominence of the 4-2-3-1 is perhaps the best explanation for the weakness of this zone in each respective squad. With top teams intent on playing attractive football, clubs have chosen to splash out the ‘big money’ on technically adept attacking midfielders (Cazorla, Hazard, Silva), hence neglecting the two deeper players within such a system.
Arsenal’s midfield combination has been relatively inconsistent this season. Injuries to Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere have meant Tomas Rosicky and Aaron Ramsay have had more opportunities. In their excellent end of season form, they set up most frequently with Ramsey and Arteta supporting Rosicky- and the team only conceded 5 goals in their last 10 matches.
Hence, its somewhat difficult to properly assess where Arsenal need to strengthen based on that 10 match run. But if Wenger has the funds Gazidis publicly states that he has, then significant investment in the link role occupied by Ramsey would be most beneficial.
While Ramsay is still young and always improving, he is perhaps the weakest of Arsenal’s midfield three. With Abou Diaby seemingly completely out of the picture with his latest long term injury, a dynamic physical player to accompany the less energetic Arteta would give Arsenal the complete midfield variety they need. Arsenal’s midfield combinations have been discussed in detail before on this blog, but its also worth remembering that Arteta is now 31 and Francis Coquelin is not the most experienced cover. The issue of Arteta has not been significant this season because the Spaniard has managed to start 34 times. Yet it is unlikely the Spaniard will be able to maintain such consistency in seasons to come, and if Arsenal seek genuine Premier League glory then perhaps a huge investment to a younger player would take them to the next level.
Marouane Fellaini has been heavily linked so far, and he would be an excellent acquisition. Fellaini has played mainly behind a striker at Everton, but would often find himself starting as a holder if Moyes wanted a greater defensive cover, especially during his early years at Goodison Park. Hence, his ability to contribute to both attack and defence, as well as provide some much needed Vieira-esque muscle in midfield would make him a definite purchase.
Roberto Di Matteo’s controversial sacking could be put down to a number of reasons. But if the Italian made one obvious mistake, it was the way he neglected the defensive midfield area, especially when it needed to support such a fluid and defensively naive attacking quartet. Prior to the start of the 12/13 season Raul Meireles was sold and Michael Essien was sent out on loan, meaning Chelsea only had one genuine defensive midfielder- the inexperienced Oriol Romeu. Granted, John Obi Mikel is a decent player, but it is often forgotten that he was naturally a number 10- that was the role he took up before he joined the Blues. Ramires and Frank Lampard are not holders, despite their individual excellence.
The key to Chelsea’s midfield is that a creative deep lying playmaker is entirely unnecessary. The intelligence and guile provided by Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard in the final third means the supporting players behind them need only be defensively adept and dynamic.
With Mr. Mourinho taking charge- primarily a defensive coach- there should be some investment here. In his debut 04/05 campaign, he guided Chelsea to the title conceding just 15 goals, an incredible feat. This season, Man City conceded the least amount of any team with 34- a clear sign that while attacking standards have improved, defensive responsibilities have been compromised. In Mourinho’s previous reigns players such as Costinho (Porto) and Esteban Cambiasso (Inter) have received considerable acclaim for their roles in excellent defensive systems. Claude Makélélé became the iconic bedrock of that Chelsea defence; Mourinho will surely be searching for another big player of that mould.
City’s £30m acquisition of Shaktar’s Fernandinho is the club’s acknowledgement of problems in this area of the pitch. But interestingly, the defensive midfield area had been the defining tactical issue in recent years.
At first it was an issue of creativity- Nigel de Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure lacked guile from deep, and a number of pundits recognised this as the main reason for their disappointing performances in Europe.
Mancini tried to rectify the situation with the signing of David Pizarro on loan last season, and then settled with Benfica’s Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell last summer. Garcia, theoretically, was supposed to offer additional intelligence with the same defensive strengths, but in reality was an inferior player.
The acquisition of Fernandinho should change the complexion of City’s midfield. Based on the Brazilian’s tendency to get forward from deep, it is likely Pellegrini may adopt a ‘double pivot’ system which allows for a more flexible midfield. Instead of playing a designated holder and a designated link player, both Fernandinho and Yaya Toure would alternative in either staying back or getting forward. If they can replicate the standards of Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira operating in the same system, their midfield should finally have the variety and quality to strike a fine balance between defensive cover and attacking creativity.
While Arsenal, Chelsea and City all roughly play 4-2-3-1’s and have reasons to strengthen in order to build upon their positions from last year, the case is quite different at Old Trafford.
For sometime now the central midfield zone has been seen as United’s weak point, with Michael Carrick in need of a playmaker or an outright destroyer next to him. But given how Ryan Giggs, Phil Jones, Anderson, Tom Cleverley and even Wayne Rooney have filled might suggest that investment is unnecessary.
How Moyes will choose to act in this market will be interesting. On one hand, investment here would stamp his authority on the team and signify a change in direction. On the other hand, based on Moyes’ tendency to play a similar 4-4-1-1 formation to that of Alex Ferguson, investments may again be wholly unnecessary. Also consider that there is arguably no need to change an already established winning formula, and it could be unlikely that he’ll be forced into pressure signings. Although capturing either Thiago or Strootman could be quite useful and may deem to the difference maker.
The 2013/14 season will be an interesting season, and marks the beginning of a new era. With Ferguson gone, City and Chelsea galvanized, and Arsenal financially empowered, this could well be one of the most competitive seasons of all time. Perhaps- therefore- it is not unreasonable to think that the team that invests most astutely in the defensive midfield role could be in with a genuine chance of success.
The groundbreaking, most influential signing of the 2012/13 season? Undoubtedly Javi Martinez; the Spaniard was a catalyst for Bayern’s historic treble winning season. England’s top teams will surely be looking to replicate such an inspirational piece of business.