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Arsenal's midfield muddle

'He comes from Senegal and he plays for Juventus...' It doesn't quite have the same ring does it? But, for a month, it has been true. For Arsenal, life without Patrick Vieira has begun with two defeats, both to Chelsea, in the space of three games.

Having expended so much time and energy keeping Vieira over the years, Arsenal let their captain leave with barely a whimper; this time his annual display of restlessness drew a swift response from Arsene Wenger.

In 1996, fresh-faced and blessed with boundless energy, Vieira symbolised a new era at Arsenal; few imports have been better suited to the peculiar demands of English football. So when, then, did he become part of the ancien regime at Highbury?

His signing was the first indication of Wenger's faith in the restorative powers of youth; his sale the most recent and further proof of Wenger's revolutionary instincts.

The responsibility of captaincy has been transferred to Thierry Henry, but Gilberto Silva shoulders a far greater burden. Because, besides the Brazilian, the only central midfielders in Wenger's squad are Mathieu Flamini, 21, and 18-year-old Cesc Fabregas.

Robert Pires took his turn in the middle during pre-season but, unsurprisingly, was rapidly deemed too lightweight. Given the role of a second striker on Sunday - to pay particular attention to Claude Makelele - he was swiftly shifted to the right wing when Freddie Ljungberg was injured.

Which leaves Wenger to perm two from three. In the first half of the Community Shield, Flamini and Fabregas were his choice; thereafter, the Spaniard has been paired with Gilberto.

The Confederations Cup restricted the Brazilian's build-up to the season but, after seeing Arsenal overpowered in the first 45 minutes in Cardiff, Wenger had to revert to the World Cup winner.

Dating back to the days of Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, Wenger has favoured a partnership of equals in the midfield, a physically imposing duo who presented a barrier to opposition attackers. Even with Flamini and Gilberto together, that option is no longer available.

Fabregas, a slight and delicate creature, does not have the stature of Vieira or Petit though he has something of the latter's fondness for flowing locks. The Spaniard is now donning an alice band, something no self-respecting midfield hard man would wear; someone educate this boy about Nobby Stiles and Billy Bremner or, at the least, David Batty and Dennis Wise.

But much as he admires Josep Guardiola, Fabregas does not yet emulate the former Barcelona captain in his positional play at the base of the midfield. And the deep-lying playmakers - like Andrea Pirlo and Michael Carrick - need to be paired with a ball-winner.

More pertinently, he is an attacking midfielder. His strike in the Community Shield was the product of the sort of well-timed run that has become the hallmark of Pires and Ljungberg. Similar bursts into the Chelsea box on Sunday were less rewarding, but his continued willingness to break forward indicates a more attacking ethos.

After a second setback to the capital's big spenders, Wenger berated his side for a lack of self-belief. But, after the first half in Cardiff, those defeats were more products of Didier Drogba's physicality and faulty first touch than losing the midfield battle.

In between, Arsenal struggled past Newcastle who, like Chelsea, Charlton, Everton, Bolton and Blackburn, now opt for three central midfielders; it only adds to the workload for Wenger's duo as opponents attempt to smother Arsenal.

Newcastle are recent converts to 4-5-1 (only having one available striker rather restricts their choice of formation), but both goals they conceded at Highbury came long after Jermaine Jenas' unfortunate red card.

After being thwarted in his bid for Julio Baptista, who opted for Real Madrid, Wenger appears to have abandoned his quest for a new midfielder. He has shown an admirable reluctance to spend on short-term replacements; not for him the repeated and plaintive pleas for new players, the willingness to use a lack of resources as an excuse or the illusion that that elusive addition would cure everything.

So quality is a pre-requisite. But what about quantity? Vieira's sale was preceded by Edu's move to Valencia. Injury made Arsenal's two Brazilians bit-part players for much of last season but confronted with similar long-term absentees in midfield now, what would Wenger do?

Lauren arrived at Highbury as a midfielder, before being converted to right-back; the all-action Kolo Toure would surely approach a new role with characteristic enthusiasm; Pires, Ljungberg or Alexander Hleb could leave the flanks for a more central role. But a reliance on any would give the midfield a makeshift look.

For a decade, two men have dominated Premiership midfields. Replacing Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira was never going to be easy, as Sir Alex Ferguson can testify. His attempts to find a successor to his captain include some of his worst signings in 30 years in management.

Wenger has taken a different, and arguably braver, approach but it is a lack of central midfielders, not a shortage of talent, that endangers Arsenal.

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