Thursday, 15 March 2007

In praise of...Julio Arca

All we need is Julio Arca

Gareth Southgate made few transfer moves during the summer but rescuing Julio Arca from his mackem hell has got to be one of the most inspired moves by any manager last summer. Arca had been known as Sunderland's best player, as dubious an honour as any footballer could be given. While Arca had demonstrated excellent technique and, gallingly, impressive free-kick taking skills, most expected him to fill in as cover down the left-hand side. Like Boudewijn Zenden, the man we have so struggled to replace, Arca has provided an accidental yet compelling solution to the central midfield conundrum.

The opening games of Arca's Boro career did not bode well. His debut was something of a disaster, breaking his foot in the early stages and struggling desperately to contain Reading as they erased Boro's two-goal advantage. With defeat clutched from the jaws of victory, Southgate and Boro struggled in Arca's absence. He returned for a truly awful 2-0 defeat at Watford, that possibly represented the nadir of Boro's dismal pre-Christmas form. Arca filled in on the left wing against West Ham in a crucial six-pointer at the Riverside. Although Massimo Maccarone (remember him?) scored a late winner, Arca struggled to make an impression. His lack of pace was being exposed on the flank.

Arca was shifted into one of three central midfielders at Villa Park - the result was a much improved performance. A solid away point and a more suitable role for Arca's undoubted talents had been found. The idea of Arca as a central midfielder had arose in Gareth Southgate's mind while watching reserve matches. Patience was surely running out with Fabio Rochemback, who could generously be described as mercurial (although most people have setttled on crap). Arca moved into the middle and with every game has looked more assured. The team have not looked back.

Julio seems such a natural central midfielder, it seems bizarre that anyone would have considered playing him anywhere else. While Rochemback seems capable of losing the ball from the simplest of situations, Arca has an uncanny knack of emerging from a tangle of legs with the ball somehow under control. His fleet of foot in front of his own area may put a few hearts in mouth but reflects a desire to never waste the ball. Playing alongside the increasingly erratic George Boateng, that can be no bad thing. While lacking pace by Premiership standards, an impressive speed of though and slight of foot enables Julio to wriggle his way out of tight corners. His vision has brought the best out of his attacking colleagues. Mark Viduka has reaped the benefits of more quality service into feet. The pass which cut apart Manchester United's defence to set up Stewart Downing's early chance demonstrates his ability. He has even been able to weigh with a couple of goals, including one in the vital 3-1 win at Charlton in January.

Most contemporary Premiership players seem to be selected on the basis of pace and physical power. This is what makes Arca such a refreshing change. To paraphrase Alan Hansen: pace, power, height - this boy's got f*** all. What he does have is increasingly rare qualities - vision, technique, control and tenacity. His immense quality on the ball and competitive spirit is proving a successful combination. While Woodgate, Yakubu and Viduka are regularly singled out for Boro's huge improvement in 2007, fewer plaudits have been directed at Arca. This does him a disservice. One incident against United summed up Arca's qualities, as he chased back, harried Ronaldo before dispossessing him, beating him with a sublime nutmeg and picking out a team-mate. Efficient, practical but very stylish - exactly why the man who only a year ago was sporting mackem colours is quickly becoming the Riverside's new favourite player.

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