Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium is a fitting venue for the inaugural match of West Ham’s philosophy re-boot, but if the dusty conservatism of the Allardyce era is to be brushed aside then their new midfield pair of Pedro Obiang and Dimitri Payet will need to hit the ground running. Against a Cazorla/Coquelin partnership which strengthened as the season progressed, the Slaven Bilic revolution may take an early hit.
Bilic will predominantly utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation, with two holding midfielders supporting three versatile, positionally fluid attackers. This system relies on a box-to-box midfielder who provides the engine, and a visionary playmaker in the No.10 role; West Ham’s acquisition of Obiang and Payet perfectly fits the description.
Obiang, signed from Sampdoria, is a gangly central midfielder known for his agility, strength, and tackling – only five players in Serie A attempted more tackles than him (153) last season. Comparisons to Yaya Toure have been made, but he is closer in style to a young Alex Song or Fabian Delph.
Note the number of interceptions (diamonds) made in central areas, and the variation in his distribution of the ball.
Payet arrived at Upton Park to great excitement. The central attacking midfielder made 17 assists last season, averaging 3.7 key passes and a useful 2.4 accurate crosses per match. Possessing great strength, dribbling speed, intelligence, and crossing ability, Payet will be the lynchpin of Bilic’s first XI.
There is no doubt that Bilic’s success hinges, in part, on the impact of these two players on a team currently sculpted to the power-based strategies of Allardyce. However, their first head-to-head battle is one of the most difficult in English football.
The re-emergence of Arsenal’s title-challenging credentials is almost entirely due to Arsene Wenger’s discovery of an unlikely central midfield partnership. Francis Coquelin, averaging an incredible 3.2 tackles and 3.7 interceptions per match (the league’s highest), transformed the Gunners into a cohesive and balanced unit overnight; last season, they averaged 1.4 points per match without the Frenchman, and 2.35 with him.
Meanwhile, Santi Cazorla was shifted into a deeper central midfield role in September, adding a dribbling quality vital to any modern central midfield. Together, these two players maintain Arsenal’s composure in possession while adding defensive grit and creative movement – to transition the ball into attack with greater speed.
The evening kick-off will provide an invaluable glimpse at two central midfield partnerships that, in entirely different ways, will be crucial to implementing success at their respective clubs. As the more established pairing, Coquelin and Cazorla should be able to dominate West Ham. But if they don’t, Bilic’s new signings will make themselves instant favourites with the Hammers faithful.
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