Arteta vs Carrick: the modern Vieira vs Keane

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to assess the battle of the 'tacklers' as Arsenal face Manchester United

Manchester United versus Arsenal was once the biggest fixture in the Premier League season. The two shared the title between 1995/96 and 2003/04, and their meetings became highly anticipated – not simply for the quality of football, but because of the sheer hatred between the two.

There was the fallout from Ruud van Nistelrooy’s penalty miss at Old Trafford, for example, or the controversy when Sol Campbell was dismissed for elbowing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Perhaps the most famous squabble, however, was Roy Keane’s bust-up with Patrick Vieira in the narrow Highbury tunnel. Those two were both combative, tackling midfielders, but were mobile enough that they came into direct conflict. Their clashes – both on and off the pitch – summed up the fierce rivalry.

Anyone expecting something similar this weekend will be disappointed. Keane and Vieira have long since departed, of course, and neither club regularly field a similar type of player. Whether you defined their type as ‘holding midfielders’, ‘defensive midfielders’ or simply ‘central midfielders’, the simple truth is that in 2012/13 both clubs lack a reliable ball-winner.

This is partly due to the widespread change in the characteristics of central midfielders. Ball retention has become more vaunted than ever, while increasingly strict rules on tackling means players have to be cleverer at winning possession – intercepting more than tackling, and focusing upon minimising the space between the midfield and the defence.

This tactical trend has meant Michael Carrick and Mikel Arteta have become these clubs’ default holding midfielder. Ten years ago, such passers would have been fielded in conjunction with a proper tackler – but look at the line-ups of the two clubs last week, and both were tasked with the defensive role in midfield, while young bucks Tom Cleverley and Jack Wilshere were given licence to roam higher up.

In basic terms, Arteta and Carrick are similar. Both are in the Premier League’s leading trio in the ‘passes per game’ statistic so far this season – Arteta leads the way with 93.4, while Carrick is third on 86.7, with Yaya Toure splitting them. Notably, those same three players finished in the same positions last season by this measure, underlining their consistency.

In 2011/12 they finished with extremely similar pass completion rates, around the 90% mark. But while Arteta is still patient with his use of the ball and has completed 93% of passes, the highest for any midfielder in the league, Carrick has become less assured – an 81% completion rate is extremely low by his standards.

United and Arsenal have only played the same fixture once this season – both have travelled to Anfield to face Liverpool. The contrast between Arteta and Carrick is surprisingly stark – Arteta always keeps the ball short and generally plays sideways balls, while Carrick attempts much more forward and diagonal passes.

Arteta was also more active in a defensive sense, as demonstrated below.

The defensive statistics were affected by the different situations in those particular games – Liverpool went down to 10 men against Manchester United, so Carrick had relatively little defensive work to get through.

Still, overall the statistics support the theory that Arteta is more directly involved in ball-winning. Both players have started all nine Premier League games so far this season, but Arteta leads the way in both tackling (38-11) and intercepting (20-12). The statistics might be skewed by Carrick having played two matches at centre-back this season, but he is evidently a calmer player – preferring to position himself intelligently rather than diving in.

Interestingly, these two have yet to face each other for their current clubs. Arteta hadn’t signed by the time of last season’s 8-2 at Old Trafford, and then missed the reverse fixture through injury. They haven’t squared off since February 2010, when Arteta’s Everton overcame United 3-1.

Saturday’s match will probably be decided elsewhere – Arsenal’s defence is a particular concern – but these two have the most responsibility for both keeping the ball, and winning it back.

Stats Zone is a free-download app from FourFourTwo powered by stats from Opta, updated LIVE in-play, and pre-loaded with all data from the 2011/12 and 2010/11 Premier League and Champions League. Stats Zone is brought to you in association with FFT's bet partners Coral.

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