All of last season and even at the end of the summer transfer window I was one of the few who maintained that Arsenal didn’t need a new Keeper. Almost halfway through the season many fans have come to accept this while some still go on about a Keeper signing with complete disregard to facts and what actually happens on the pitch.
The main argument in my support of the Keepers was that the defence in front of them is not very good and our custodians have to come for pretty much every ball that’s put in our box. With the signings of Squillaci and Koscielny, and the return to fitness of Johan Djourou, coupled with a clear tactical shift, this has changed.
We can see that most of the balls put in our box are dealt with by the defenders and not the Keeper. If you don’t readily recall this I encourage you to watch the away games at Blackburn and Sunderland once again.
As a direct result, Fabianski has been able to focus on his positioning and making saves. There is much less pressure on him and he has undoubtedly won the team a few points so far this season. Based on what I’ve seen Van der Saar and Reina have both made a lot more errors than the Arsenal Keepers.
The key points to note are – the goalkeeper has been performing at a high level and the defenders are taking a lot more responsibility.
To me, Squillaci, Koscielny, and Djourou are a marked improvement on Gallas, Silvestre, and Campbell. By the end of November last year, Arsenal had conceded 18 goals after 13 games. This year we have conceded 18 after 16. In the same period in 2009 Arsenal had conceded 19 after 15.
In contrast, Chelsea had conceded 6 and United 10 at the end of Nov 2009 and last season their numbers were 8 and 13 respectively. Both those teams have conceded more this season and given the way the results have been I’m inclined to believe the league is much harder and more competitive this season.
With that in mind, the marginal improvement by Arsenal over the last two seasons seems a lot more significant.
Having said that, I do agree that Arsenal look shaky at times and there is a ‘feeling’ of vulnerability. A great deal of this comes from the constant noises in the media and from the Misery Brigade. Part of it also comes from the horrible atmosphere at the Emirates. But we cannot deny the team has given up on leads in a very soft manner on more than one occasion thereby contributing to this feeling.
There has been criticism of the Arsenal defence right from the time the signings were made and even before they were given a chance to play and show what they can do. Subsequently, every minor error has been magnified and often blame is attached just for the sake of it with utter disregard to the facts. For instance, how can anyone blame the central defenders for the first two goals conceded against the Tiny Totts?
Anyway, right now I don’t want to dwell on this sinister anti-Arsenal campaign. As I acknowledged, Arsenal have contributed to this feeling with some asinine mistakes. But the defenders are not the real culprits here.
As I did while talking about the Goalkeepers last year, I’m going to shift the blame one line forward.
This season we have seen Song play a different role. The Cameroonian has been more a box-to-box player rather than a defensive midfielder. While I like this transformation and believe that it will be extremely beneficial in the long run, in the short term it has left Arsenal exposed and vulnerable.
Yes, we do have an additional midfielder covering when Song moves forward. Most often that has been Wilshere or Denilson. Unfortunately, neither of them has the physical abilities or the sheer endeavour of Alex Song. As a result there have been times when the midfield cover for the defence has not been very good. Let’s look at the following image for the goal scored by Partizan at the Emirates.
As we can see, there is a huge hole between the midfield and the defence. This happens quite often because Song is still learning his role and the second midfielder doesn’t do the job well enough. Arsenal have 4 players around the ball but the man on the ball has three simple passes available to him. None of the midfielders or wide attackers are marking a man, closing a player down, or blocking a passing channel.
Now this sounds awful but it is not. It happens when a tactical change is a work in progress. For the purpose of discussion it is very easy to say Arsenal should play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1 or anything of the sort. It doesn’t mean much. A manager cannot just say some numbers to his players and hope that everything will work out.
In order to create or modify a tactical system a lot of work has to be done on the training ground and we also need actual games to see how it works. Football is such a dynamic game that every situation cannot be predicted. Obviously, when we have the Songinho transformation in progress and add the Van Persie midfield role to it without having much time to train on that, there will be some chaos. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. We have to do it, that’s the only way to learn and to get better. But we also have to be prepared for some chaos on the pitch.
Needless to say, we cannot do this in big games and I’ve no doubt we won’t do it. If you cast your mind back to the Chelsea game, Arsenal played a very different style in that one. The midfield was much closer to the defence and the defence didn’t look vulnerable at all. This is also the reason Wenger said we should not transpose games and that different games have different shapes.
Based on this I’d say it is a real strength that we can actually try all these changes in such a game and still come away with a good result albeit with some nervous moments.
Right now Arsenal are dealing with a number of issues. The central defenders are new to the club and league and haven’t had a run of games in a partnership. The best defensive midfielder we have is undergoing a transformation. We have constant changes to the starting line-up.
All these put together make the defence look much vulnerable than it is. I’ve no doubt technically this defence is better than the one we had last season. As long as we don’t repeat stupid mistakes there is a good chance we will have real proof at the end of the season.