Mikel Arteta: The artful grafter

Posted by Sam Limbert

Mikel ArtetaPA PhotosMikel Arteta has excelled in a holding midfield role for Arsenal

As another tedious international break begins, a significant number of the Arsenal squad are jetting off around the world for friendlies and qualifiers. Most are important first-teamers, and injury to them could be damaging to Arsenal's season. However, there is one key man who will be able to take a well-deserved break after an impressive and vital start to the season.

Mikel Arteta has become the holding midfielder that Arsenal fans have craved for since the summer of 2008 when Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva left the club. Denilson and Alex Song have had stints in the role with varying success, but Arteta has comfortably eclipsed both of them.

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Many were worried that the sale of Alex Song in the summer would damage the team more than the loss of Robin van Persie but, although Song was a good player, he wasn't overly disciplined as the holding midfielder, often leaving the Arsenal back four exposed. He did provide some spectacular assists, but his overall game wasn't as strong as Arteta's has been this season. A glance at some statistics backs this up.

The primary role of the holding midfielder is to break up opposition attacks to protect the defence and, last season in the Premier League, Alex Song averaged 1.6 interceptions and 2.9 tackles a match whereas Arteta has averaged 2.4 interceptions and 4.6 tackles a match this season. Considering that Song made less tackles, he still conceded the same number of fouls per game as Arteta. Too many of Song's challenges were bad enough to get booked, with the Cameroonian getting roughly one yellow card in every three games last season, but Arteta only has one in seven this season.

Arteta's impressive defensive statistics stem from actually being in position to make the tackles and interceptions. All Arsenal fans like the fact Arsene Wenger gives youngsters a chance, but Song was still learning his trade and couldn't read the game as well. The more experienced Mikel Arteta is a master at it. He was signed as an attacking midfielder who was known for his flair, but it seems Wenger signed a determined ball-winner who doesn't shy away from the less glamorous defensive side of the game.

After winning the ball, the other main function of a top quality holding midfielder is to distribute the ball well and keep the team ticking over without conceding possession. It's here that Mikel Arteta's statistics look really impressive.

This season, the Spaniard has averaged 94 passes a match (the best in the league), completing 93.8% of those (second best in the league). In 2011-12, Alex Song averaged 66.1 passes in a game with 84.3% finding a team mate.

It's important to note that Arteta played alongside Song for a lot of last season. This often meant Song wasn't expected to be the lynchpin that Arteta has become, but he was still the primary holding midfielder and neglected some of the associated roles. In comparison to the rest of the league from last season, Song's facts and figures are impressive, showing Arteta isn't just an improvement on Song but the best in the league at what he does.

We all know that there is more to football than the raw statistics. For a relatively short destructive midfielder (especially when lined up next to Per Mertesacker), Arteta has a commanding presence in the Arsenal squad to go with his impressive numbers. He was deservedly named vice-captain in the summer, and justifies this with the amount of midfield responsibility he takes on when playing.

The international break throws up another intriguing side to Arteta. The Spaniard must be the best player in the Premier League never to have represented his country at a senior level. This is something that bemuses fellow players and fans alike. It's unfortunate for Arteta that he's been at his peak at the same time as the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Cazorla and others, but given how vital he is for Arsenal, it's hard to complain at not having our midfield pivot also being at risk of injury in the coming weeks.

Arteta isn't a traditional defensive midfielder. He looks like he should be on a painting, he has hair that is seemingly impossible to ruffle or displace, he used to only be known as an attacker and he doesn't look built to be a midfielder destroyer. However, Arteta is the perfect experienced midfield lynchpin who can pick a pass, keep possession and disrupt the opposition. When Arsene Wenger sold Alex Song, I was concerned that Arsenal wouldn't sign a proper holding midfielder; Wenger knew that he already had the perfect man in the squad. Arteta does the hard midfield graft to win the ball, but also typifies the Wenger philosophy of beautiful football when in possession.

Statistics from whoscored.com

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