Arsenal's defensive midfield still vulnerable
What happens in the Community Shield each year is rarely indicative of how the upcoming season will pan out. Last year, Wilfried Zaha started at Wembley and Anderson appeared from the bench as David Moyes comfortably led his new Manchester United side to silverware; the year before, Fernando Torres and Ryan Bertrand were Chelsea's goal scorers as they lost to a Manchester City side that went on to win no other trophies that season; in 2011 United came from two goals down to beat their rivals thanks to a Nani brace, but it was City that would go on to dramatically usurp United on the final day of the Premier League season.
Nonetheless, as the domestic season's curtain is raised at Wembley on Sunday, judgements will be passed and conclusions will no doubt be made.
One conclusion that is likely to be made and glare all too strongly for Arsenal fans is their team's failure, despite strengthening so incredibly wisely in other areas of the field, to buy a defensive midfielder of sufficient quality.
The Gunners' fans hark back to a time when they had Patrick Vieira or Gilberto Silva in their central midfield with heavy hearts, longing for the kind of combative dominance that led them to unrelenting glories. Adding a player in the mould of Vieira or Gilberto last season probably would not have won Arsene Wenger's team, who had all too many shortcomings, the title, but after the summer signings they have made thus far in 2014, a true leader in the middle of the park could genuinely take Arsenal that step further.
Oh, how Arsenal must yearn for a player of Yaya Toure's athleticism and authority. Or one who can screen the defence, tackle and score like Fernandinho. Or a player who is as agile, tireless and dogged as Fernando. Still without having adequately filled that part of the pitch, Arsenal could come up against all three this weekend.
Quite how City will line up this season remains to be seen. They have such strength in depth that it is likely only two of the aforementioned trio will play together at any one time, meaning a top quality defensive midfielder that Arsenal could really do with will be warming the bench at the Etihad each week.
Fans' grievances at the lack of investment in front of the defence at the Emirates has not been hidden, but it looks like the Gunners will begin their campaign on Sunday with Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini as the more defensive-minded player in the double pivot of their 4-2-3-1 formation. Both are perfectly good in the role, but they are ageing and were all too often overrun and caught out of position by better teams last season.
Flamini's all-action approach excites fans because he flies into tackles and exudes passion, but it also means he charges out of position too regularly and leaves those behind him exposed. In doing so, he averaged a tackle every 41.1 minutes -- almost half as frequently as Arteta (every 22.9 minutes) -- and thus wasn't quite the defensive screen Wenger had hoped when re-signing him. Furthermore, in an era when central midfielders at the best clubs have everything, Flamini offers far too little with the ball; he made just seven key passes in 27 league appearances last season.
Arteta, meanwhile stacks up much more impressively: 3.4 tackles and 2.0 interceptions per game while maintaining 92.1 percent pass accuracy all makes for impressive reading, but his inadequacies have left holes in Arsenal's defensive setup. In their possession-based game, Arteta is at the base of the attacking play, providing an out-ball if the team need to come out and start again, but he is often drawn too far forward as he tries to involve himself in the play. When possession is surrendered, with Arsenal's fullbacks high up the pitch, Arteta can be left in no-man's land; he was dribbled past the fourth-most times per game (1.7) in the Premier League last season. Lacing the pace, athleticism and know-how (as a converted attacking midfielder) to patrol the space in front of the back four, Arteta is still not the answer.
There have been suggestions that Wenger might consider using Jack Wilshere as the deepest-lying of his midfielders, but the Englishman lacks the discipline to play the role. He is best when coming deep to collect possession and driving forward (1.9 dribbles per game last season), but if you ask him to remain as the last man, you are sacrificing a huge and arguably the most effective part of his game. His reading of the game (0.4 interceptions per game) isn't good enough, while he is a feisty tackler (1.3 tackles per game) but he certainly isn't strong enough to perform the role adequately against the best.
And so on Sunday, Arsenal begin a new season with the weight of a trophy drought lifted from their shoulders and with new signings bolstering a squad already brimming with quality. They are stronger both mentally and physically now and yet their most glaring inadequacy remains. The sight of Yaya Toure marauding through the heart of the pitch, knocking down anything and anyone that crosses him, is a frightening one, and one that Wenger's team may struggle to contain at Wembley. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and this one might be that it convinces Wenger to sign a destroyer of his own to stop the Yaya Toures of this world.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.