Arsenal vs Manchester United analysis: Gunners' lack of defensive midfielder could prove costly, writes Danny Higginbotham

TALKING TACTICS: Former Premier League player Danny Higginbotham analyses Arsenal's clash with Manchester United

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The Independent Online

I can’t begin to imagine how frustrated Arsenal fans must feel about their team. Not only because of the one trophy in ten years, which isn’t good enough, but because they are so close to having a team that will challenge and actually win the Premier League. One or two players: that’s all Arsenal are missing. One of missing components is at the cog of the team and Arsene Wenger’s failure to accept that - his stubbornness - could be the finishing of him in the end.

Arsenal are missing  a genuine defensive midfielder – the lynchpin, the destroyer, call him what you want. Wenger has had some of the best of them that the Premier League has known – Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Gilberto Silva – though for some reason he seems to be against the idea of using another. It means that while Arsenal’s fantastic midfielders are all forward-thinking players. The defensive side of that unit is forgotten and it shows. Arsenal have kept three clean sheets out of 11 games this season. Everyone talks about Manchester United being poor defensively but Arsenal are just no better. The table doesn’t lie: United have conceded one goal more than them in the current campaign.

The impact of this weakness is felt right throughout the team. Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez are being expected to do more defensive duties than they should. The full-backs are not given the license to attack, in Wenger’s 4-1-4-1,that they would in a 4-2-3-1 with real stability in front of the defence. It’s a tragedy that Wilshere is limited in a way that he would not be if he had h the equivalent of a Nemanja Matic, or perhaps a Nigel de Jong, alongside him. Wilshere could and should be delivering in the way that Cesc Fabregas is for Chelsea. With Matic alongside him, Fabregas has provided the most assists in the Premier League his season – from a position in that holding two. Solving this is not a matter of rocket science. Matthieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta are just not the kind of defensive midfielder Arsenal need. Wenger doesn’t get that. He only seems to want ballplayers in the middle.

That weakness at the heart of the team makes Arsenal desperately vulnerable to the counter attack, too. You particularly need a dominant midfielder if you are operating a 4-1-4-1, so what we might well see at the Emirates against United tonight is Louis van Gaal’s team getting through them on a break-away. The onus will be on Arsenal, as the home side, so United’s pace going forward could work for them, if Angel Di Maria is fit.


The puzzling part of this hole in Arsenal’s armoury is that is existed for so long. When they came to Stoke, we always knew we could bully the life out of them at the Brit. The game I remember is our 2-1 win over them there when we had just come up to the Premier League, in 2008. We were ahead inside 15 minutes, scored again and their goal came right at the death after Robin van Persie had been sent off. There was always 100 per cent less foreboding when they came to play us than when Chelsea were up at The Brit. It took us two and a half years just to get a point off Chelsea, home or away. Chelsea have always been able to mix it against us.

I always think great teams – the ones that can compete for a title - have a spine. Do Arsenal have outstanding centre backs? No. A beast of a midfielder? No. The quality of their finishers is up there, but that’s immaterial if getting through them is like putting scissors through paper.