I don’t think anyone will argue against the fact that Arsenal are defensively weak down their left flank. And as far as mindless criticism goes, it’s hardly surprising that Clichy has taken over from the goalkeepers.
Having watched the game again and after looking at the facts there is no doubt the game against United was quite close and could have gone either way. The hosts shaded it because of some mistakes by the Arsenal midfield, especially Wilshere whose inexperience was exposed, and Arsenal lacked composure and quality in the final third.
Let’s look at the two best chances created by United in the first half. The first one was the shot by Nani that went just wide. It started with a long ball over the top.
Nani wins the header but it’s important to note that the run by Fletcher is not tracked. Wilshere is ambling around in loads of space completely unaware of his responsibility. As a direct result, Koscielny is forced to come wide and the defence was stretched.
When the cross comes in there is a huge gap between the two central defenders and neither of the defensive midfielders has dropped in to cover. Song does make an attempt to sprint back but Wilshere has barely moved five yards while Nani sprinted into the box. Clichy’s momentum was in the other direction when he went to challenge for the header so it would be impossible for him to regain his balance, turn, and then catch Nani.
There is an argument that Squillaci should have done better with the header but the cross had no pace on it so it was always going to be tough for him to head it away. The reason teams like United and Chelsea look strong and solid in such situations is that the midfielders drop into the defensive line as we’ll see later in this post.
The simple problem here was that Wilshere just couldn’t read the game defensively.
Now let’s look at the goal.
This came from another long ball off a goal-kick. Since the ball went to Fletcher, Koscielny was forced into coming out of position to challenge for it. Wilshere couldn’t challenge for the header (which is acceptable) but he doesn’t realize the danger of having a central defender coming out of place.
Arsenal only had Squillaci and Clichy between the goal and the dangerous pairing of Rooney and Nani. Given that we had plenty of time to get into shape as Van der Saar took his time over the goal-kick, it’s a shame we got into such a weak defensive position. Wilshere should have been much closer to the defence so that he could mark Rooney when Koscielny went for the header.
The defenders couldn’t get too tight because there was too much space in behind them. Rooney could easily find Nani who was alone on the wing. Again Clichy had no support.
Nani has acres of space and Clichy does well to slow him down so that others can get back in support.
By the time Nani gets to the box Arsenal have four defenders back but no one is tracking the run of Park. The bigger problem however, was that Wilshere ambled into a meaningless position when he should have sprinted back to provide cover for Clichy like Song does for Sagna. This would have forced Nani to pass backwards or we might have blocked his shot better.
Again it was a case of Wilshere lacking basic defensive awareness. But the worrying part is that this happens far too often at Arsenal. Wilshere/Denilson and Arshavin just don’t offer the kind of support that a fullback would need at this level. As a result Clichy is often having to deal with two attackers or has to cover large spaces on his own.
The contrast can be seen from the way Arsenal defend on the Right.
Nasri is right there when Sagna is closing down Park. Song and Squillaci are covering the pass to Rooney. This is just one image but if you watch the game again you’ll see Nasri and Song offer much better support to Sagna on a consistent basis.
We got a perfect example in the 16th minute when Wilshere lost the ball on the Right side. Sagna had moved into the United half and Park got a clear run. Squillaci did a good job of slowing his run down, just as Clichy slowed Nani down, while Song sprinted back to make this tackle.
Sagna is nowhere to be seen in that image but the right side is still well covered. On the left we would have been exposed and people would be blaming Clichy for being out of position. In this case it was not Sagna’s fault that he was up-field when Wilshere lost the ball, just like it’s not Clichy’s fault when he makes a forward run and someone else loses the ball.
The best approach to defending can be seen from the way United defended both flanks and the centre.
As we see in the image above, the United midfielders and defenders tracked their man perfectly. This is something they do really well and is one of the reasons for their general defensive superiority. Four Arsenal attackers are being tracked, the RightBack is holding his position and blocking Arshavin while Vidic is there behind him to cover if Arshavin tries to knock it behind and run past Rafael.
The snapshot above shows United had five men in the box when Clichy attempted a cross. So apart from the central defenders and Evra, they had Carrick and Fletcher dropping into the defensive line to deal with the cross. Anderson was just on the edge of the box to pick up the loose ball if someone headed a ball out. This is vastly different from Arsenal’s defensive midfielders ambling around on the edge of the box.
United and Chelsea look far more solid defensively because their midfield and wide players offer excellent support to the defence. Arsenal are very weak in this regard and our defenders have to work a lot harder because of that. It’s not that Arsenal get it wrong all the time, otherwise we would be fighting a relegation battle, but we do leave ourselves exposed a lot more often than the other big teams, especially on the left.
When we see these errors repeated game after game one has to wonder why we don’t have better defensive coaching and training. Running into the right areas, tracking players, and providing cover doesn’t need exceptional skill. It can be coached. That is the reason smaller teams with less skilled players can still do a decent job defensively. It’s about organization and awareness and to me it seems Arsenal don’t pay enough attention to this part of the game. Unless this is sorted we will continue to be thereabouts without really being there at winner’s podium.