By Tim Todd, Sr. Transferologist
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to fans. It is a dimension as vast as Roman Abramovich’s wallet and as bottomless as Sheikh Mansour’s warchest. It is the ground between agent and club, between May and September, and it lies between the pit of Twitter and the summit of unveiling day. This is the dimension of fantasy. It is an area which we call the Transfer Zone.
Today we present to you the case of a young man. A man with many go-faster stripes shaved into a very sharp hairstyle, a verbosely tattooed man, a man many people in North London want to call their own. This young man is about to play in the biggest game of his life, the “Champions League” final. But before kickoff, this man, named Arturo Vidal, is about to have his whole world turned upside down. For he is about to enter the Transfer Zone.
Reports are now widely circulating, including The Guardian, that Arturo Vidal has already agreed to personal terms with Arsenal. Juventus have also agreed to terms of around £25m. But for some unknown reason, Arsenal will wait until after the Copa America to unveil their new star center mid.
For many Arsenal fans, the team never truly recovered after they lost talisman and captain Patrick Vieira. Vieira was a towering physical presence in an otherwise artistic Arsenal team. But Patrick Vieira wasn’t just a meat shield, far from it. He mixed physicality with artistry and like a master painter had to get those pigments right every time.
The goals Vieira scored for Arsenal typified his approach to the game. Vieira would make a lung-bursting run from his deep, protective position, and use his sheer strength and will to get on the end of the ball and score. He did this several times against Chelsea and most famously against Tottenham: on that day, Arsenal won the League, at White Hart Lane.
Since Vieira left in 2005 to go to Juventus, Gunners have fairly consistently called on their club to “buy a defensive midfielder”. This “defensive midfielder” is a bit of a contentious tag because Wenger hasn’t deployed a true defensive midfielder since around 2008 when the Gunners lost three defensive mids in one season.
And the call for Arsenal to buy a “DM” has been so consistent that it is now a knee-jerk reaction from the fans. Ask nearly any Arsenal fan who their club needs to buy and they will say [pick one or two: a keeper, a forward, a winger, a defender] and a defensive midfielder.
It doesn’t even matter that a true defensive midfielder, not a box-to-box player but rather a bonafide meat shield in front of the Arsenal back four, has emerged for Arsenal this season in Francis Coquelin. Coquelin leads Arsenal in tackles and interceptions. He also throws in a fair number of clearances, blocks, and defensive aerial duels won. He’s fairly conservative with his passing and doesn’t turn the ball over a lot. This ticks every single box for traditional DM.
But Arsenal fans still staunchly believe that Arsenal need a “defensive midfielder.” Though now the story switches from needing just one to needing two, “in order to give Coquelin some healthy competition.” What I suspect is that Arsenal fans want someone more like Patrick Vieira: someone who blends the defense and attack seamlessly. Someone who could play along side Coquelin.
Aaron Ramsey was that sort of player last year. He was second on the team with just 0.1 fewer tackles per game than Arteta, Arsenal’s most defensive midfielder on a team without a true defensive midfielder, and he scored 10 goals, second on the team as well. But this season, Ramsey has pushed himself further up the pitch in search of goals and his tackle numbers have dropped off considerably.
Enter Arturo Vidal. There is no doubt why the rumor that Arsenal have already signed Arturo Vidal has Arsenal fans excited. Vidal is tagged as a defensive midfielder by some fans but he’s actually deployed as a box-to-box midfielder at Juventus. If there is any player in the world who most closely matches the Patrick Vieira mold, it’s Arturo Vidal.
Vidal leads Juventus in tackles and has led the Old Grey Lady in tackles every season he has been there putting up some eye-popping numbers like his 5.4 tackles per game in 2011/2012. These numbers aren’t just the best at Juventus, they are the best in the Serie A and he often led all of Italy in tackles – just like he did when he was at Bayer Leverkuzen in the Bundesliga. Despite his small frame of just 180cm, he is an imposing physical presence in any midfield. He doesn’t win a lot of headers, he doesn’t intercept the ball a lot, but he does boss the midfield with his constant work rate and no-nonsense tackling.
He is also a high energy player like Alexis Sanchez, his Chilean teammate and possible future Arsenal teammate. This, along with the tackling, endears him to fans of the English game with its’ up-tempo style and in your face style of play.
But Vidal is more than just a tackler: he also scores goals. He takes some of Juventus’ penalties, he scores goals from distance, and he even scored a header in Juventus’ match against Sampdoria. Along side Paul Pogba, Vidal plays that box-to-box role perfectly for Juventus.
And tactically, where he fits at Arsenal is fairly simple. He can play in the Coquelin role and add more offensive output — he had 4 assists last year and averages about 1.5 key passes per game. He can also play along side Coquelin when Arsenal need a more defensive set up. And he could play along side Ramsey when Arsenal need a more attacking lineup.
If Arsenal are buying Arturo Vidal, it’s not just as competition for Coquelin, he will push all of Arsenal’s central midfielders for a starting role. Well, all but the creative players like Ozil, Alexis, and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
If the rumors are true and Arsenal have signed Arturo Vidal, I suspect that Arsenal fans will be very happy this fall. They will have finally replaced the “defensive midfielder” they have been asking for since Vieira left.
Now, if the Gunners could only sort out that ‘keeper situation that has plagued them since Jens Lehmann left…
Stats today from Opta via whoscored.com