He is a quiet hero for us because he always gives you a certain level of quality. He is always 100 per cent focused and committed. He brings the best out of other players. – Arsene Wenger on Mikel Arteta
There are many qualities which one can point to to argue that their favorite should be player of the year; goal scoring, scoring important goals, overall defensive contribution, important saves, and just plain winning games are probably chief among the reasons cited. But, metronomic passing? Tackling? Not turning the ball over? Leadership? I say “it depends”.
It depends on how much they pass the ball, how consistently they pass, how selflessly they lead, if they take tackles which stem the flow of the opposition’s play, and if they can make the other players around them truly better. I think Arteta does all of those things and that’s why he’s my pick for player of the year.
It wasn’t an easy choice. Santi Cazorla is my favorite player to watch. He’s just so eager to create goals and goal scoring opportunities and so endlessly creative with the ball that I love seeing him in possession. In my imagination this scene is playing on loop every time I think of Santi with the ball: Cazorla will pick the ball up (probably a long pass from Arteta!) on the wing and start his dance, dribble past a man, fake a shot, get his marker to commit, then play a neat little splitting pass to Gibbs, move to the top of the box, wait for the return ball, and stroke home a masterful goal on the volley. My natural inclination is to give that guy the award.
But my counter inclination is to step back from the obvious choice and ask if there is a foundational player upon which Cazorla’s creativity is given the chance express itself. Who is doing the dirty work, keeping possession, and cleaning up after Cazorla when he fails to create? That guy is Mikel Arteta.
There was a strange moment toward the end of this season when a number of people started pipping Michael Carrick from Manchester United for player of the year. He ended up winning the United Player’s PoY award but Wenger actually tipped him for the League gong calling him “underrated” and saying that he could fit in at Barcelona with his passing style.
Carrick does represent a new style of somewhat defensive midfielder whose main job isn’t to be a destroyer but rather to hold possession and then to act as a bridge to the offense and occasionally as a shield to the defense. I looked at overall passing numbers for the top five Leagues and came up with the top six guys who make the most passes, Xavi, Arteta, Yaya, Pirlo, Carrick, and Schweinsteiger – I omitted Busquets because I didn’t want two Barcelona players, but he fits the mold here as well. I then compared their numbers and, no surprise, they are all slightly different but all do several things the same: they pass at a high rate, they turn the ball over at a very low rate, they make long passes at a high rate, and most of them tackle at a high rate as well.
As you can see, Arteta, Carrick, Pirlo, and Schweini are eerily similar in their numbers here. Pirlo is more of a deep lying playmaker which is why his key passes and long passes numbers are so high but his other numbers are similar to the top four there. Yaya and Xavi are the outliers in that they don’t really play defense and Arteta is more defensive minded than any of them in the top group.
Arteta led the Premier League in passes per game, was near the top in passing percentage, made an incredible 87% of his long passes and led Arsenal in tackles, interceptions, and fouls committed. He was in almost every way as good if not better (statistically speaking) than the other players in that group above.
Four of those players won their respective leagues this year and it’s as clear an indication that top teams demand this type of cultured passer who rarely turns the ball over and can also get in a tackle when needed. If Arteta posted his same numbers and Arsenal had won the League, we would be easily talking about him as player of the year – at least as easily as Wenger did for Michael Carrick, who is made to look a lot better than he is because no one ever pressures him in midfield whereas teams have tried to mark Arteta out of the game on many occasions.
But what makes Arteta even more special than just the numbers he posted is that he voluntarily took on the deeper role in midfield this season with the departure of Alex Song to Barcelona. We tend to forget that last year Arteta was second on Arsenal for key passes (shots created for others) with 60 and he scored six goals for the club from open play, whereas this year he has just the one (v. QPR all his other goals come from penalties). Arteta gave up that role to Aaron Ramsey and in so doing helped to transform the young Welshman’s Arsenal career.
That selflessness is the hallmark of a great leader which is the other reason why I think Arteta has to be player of the year. In the depths of Arsenal’s season, when all seemed to be falling apart around the club, Arteta became the clew by which Arsene Wenger led Arsenal out of the labyrinth.
He was seen marshaling the players on the field, organizing the defense, and off the pitch there were several videos of team training in which Arteta and Wenger were seen talking, rather animatedly, about the team. So, when Vermaelen was dropped, Arteta was marble-constant and he took the armband easily, no questions asked, no fanfare. He just assumed the role. Keiran Gibbs put Arteta’s influence on this team thusly,
There are players like Podolski, who’s a bit of a joker, and there’s Arteta, who’s more the father of the group and tries to nurture the young ones and make sure they’re behaving.
In a way I see Arteta as an extension of Arsene Wenger on the field. He epitomizes Arsene’s desired playing style with his tidy little passes and busting a gut tracking back to break up the opposition attacks. But he is also expansive and expresses himself with pinpoint long passes and perfectly timed forays forward — the few that I remember almost all seemed to result in an Arsenal goal at a crucial time. For example, he scored the winner against QPR in the first meeting and set up the winner in the second. He also took all of Arsenal’s penalties, thus winning the West Brom match and the Wigan match.
He’s calm, professorial with the players, leads by example, and someone who puts his body on the line day in and day out for the Arsenal. He made others around him better, most notably Aaron Ramsey, but also gave Cazorla the platform from which he could create, and the back four the player in front of them who wasn’t going to go off in search of the Hollywood pass as Song had the year before giving them the confidence they needed to make one of the best defensive run-ins I have ever seen.
He was the first player that Arsene Wenger went to when Arsenal beat Newcastle to secure fourth place and their embrace was one of teammates who had worked out the plan together and seen it executed perfectly on the field.
For all of that, I pick Mikel Arteta as my player of the year 2012-2013.