As Arsenal fans there are times when we just want to see the team shut out a result. On other occasions we hope the defence can remain solid so that we don’t concede soft goals as the opposition defence is stubborn and tough to break down. Now for large parts of the season, the team does deliver in defence and that can be seen from the fact that Arsenal reached the final of the Carling Cup, when other big teams failed to, and are still in the other three competitions including a better position in the League than many expensively assembled sides.
However, there are some singular cases where this defence fails woefully. Birmingham’s winning goal was a classic example and it wasn’t a rare occasion; certainly not as infrequent as I’d like it to be.
The most obvious response from the pundits and some misguided fans is to blame it on individuals.This has led to some annoyingly astonishing U-turns in opinions in the last few years.
Almunia was virtually faultless in 07-08 but became a clown after that. Fabianski was supposed to be the worst keeper ever in his early days but was hailed a very good one this season. Szczesny started as a prodigy and one who would solve all problems but is now being questioned by some geniuses.
In terms of central defenders, Arsenal have had so many over the last few years, it’s difficult to accept all were useless. Senderos was amazing in 05-06, yet completely useless by 09. Under Vermaelen and Gallas the team conceded a lot of goals, many really infuriating ones, but nowadays in his absence Vermaelen is seen as a great defender who will come back to save Arsenal whereas Gallas is the one that got away. Djourou was deemed shaky at the start of the season, Koscielny was dismissed as lightweight and not good enough. Both have formed an excellent partnership off late.
When I see the same players being considered good and bad over short durations of time it tells me a few things. Firstly, it highlights the short term memories of most fans and pundits. Secondly, it shows the thankless nature of the job. If the game had been 1-0 and RvP had botched a sitter at the other end with two minutes to go do you think he’d have been criticized as much as the defenders or the keeper? But more importantly, it tells me that the problem Arsenal have is more fundamental and goes beyond the individuals.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not singling Arsenal out. Every team has problems and even one that sweeps all trophies will have certain areas of improvement.
Arsenal’s main problem seems to be with the aerial ball and the physical game. The easy and lazy solution is to buy a big, dominant central defender. Let’s leave aside the staggering oversimplification in that and look at the 2001 FA Cup final.
Arsenal had big, dominant central defenders in that one – Keown and Adams. We also had the likes of Vieira in midfield along with Pires and Ljungberg. Henry was leading the line. Do you recall what happened in that game? I do because it was shown here last night by FSC and I’m thankful for that.
The first half was as boring as a football game could get. Liverpool maintained their shape and defended well, Arsenal had a lot of the ball but didn’t create enough. I could easily have been describing the Birmingham game, couldn’t I? What was noticeable was that the Scousers didn’t show the kind of planning and work rate that Birmingham showed, which only highlights how far the game has come over the last 10 years.
In the second half the game opened up a bit as Liverpool showed more ambition. That gave Arsenal some room to play and they created plenty of chances. Ljungberg scored one, Henry missed a couple of sitters, two shots were cleared off the line, and so the game went. With ten minutes to go Arsenal were leading 1 – 0 with no real threat against the Arsenal goal.
Then came a set-piece. Keown headed it straight up and it fell inside the six yard box. Adams lost the physical battle with Babbel who headed it back across goal for an unmarked Owen to level things up. Sounds a lot like the current team, doesn’t it?
Arsenal went forward in search of a winner. When Liverpool cleared a set-piece the ball fell to Berger on the edge of their box. He was unmarked and was able to hoof it forward. Owen got in behind Lee Dixon and Adams wasn’t able to cover him well enough. Seaman couldn’t save the shot despite getting fingertips to it.
Arsenal blew a one goal lead in the final 10 minutes with poor defending in a Cup final. Only difference was there were plenty of leaders on the pitch; some really big, dominant defenders; pacy strikers; and so on.
The advantage for that team was that there wasn’t enough competition and they could get away with these mistakes more often than the present side can. Another difference is that there weren’t as many ignorant opinions floating around on the net in those days.
This again tells me that the problems Arsenal have are not individual and it’s silly to think that buying one big defender and/or a goalkeeper will solve anything.
So what is the real problem? Why can’t Arsenal defend like United or Chelsea?
There are two related issues here. One is the basic mentality towards the game and the second, which is kind of a subset of the first, is the approach to defence.
Recent United and Chelsea teams have been excellent ones but their primary strength has been their defence. They could/can go out to play a 0 – 0 with anyone and build the rest of their game around that.
The recent Wigan – United game presents a classic example. Even against a team like the Latics, no disrespect, United sat back and played on the counter right from the start. Some might say it was an intelligent approach and those who prefer results to performance all the time will certainly love it. I don’t and it’s not difficult to see that Wenger doesn’t either.
What is even more interesting is that Wigan created plenty of good chances in that game, certainly more than they did in their 2 – 2 draw with Arsenal. Even then one result is 0 – 4 while the other was a 2 – 2, baffling eh!?
The advantage for United was that they were set-up to defend and had plenty of bodies behind. When those bodies failed the Keeper was able to read the game and close the attacker down. Arsenal failed to stop a counter that led to a penalty and then struggled on a set-piece. In both cases the Keeper was put in a helpless situation and even the defenders couldn’t do much.
This, and many other such examples, tells me that when Arsenal do dominate the ball they can reduce the number of chances the opposition creates. But when the Gunners do concede a chance it’s normally a very easy one for the opponents. Obviously, the guy at the back, whether it is the Keeper or a defender, looks like a clown but in reality the problem is not with that individual.
The way I see it, the real problem is with the way Arsenal are tactically set-up to defend against the Premiership hoof tactics and set-pieces.
In the latter case, we see the Gunners pull 10 or 11 men back into their own half and defend by crowding the opposition out. If people don’t get enough space to run and jump, or aren’t able to win the second ball, their effectiveness on set-pieces goes down. It works quite often as we saw most recently against Stoke.
The problem is that by pulling these many players back it leaves no room for a counter attack. Moreover, the opponents get a chance to have men around the Arsenal box to pick up the clearances and it sustains more pressure on the defence. If at any point any Arsenal player does lose concentration or makes a mistake, it can leave the goal exposed as we’ve seen on numerous occasions.
People claim that having a big centre-back will ensure that Arsenal don’t need to pull everyone back but that is a hard to digest. One or two defenders cannot cover the whole box and mark all the players. Arsenal’s problem comes from the fact that the midfielders don’t offer any presence in the box and even the wide attackers aren’t that useful in the air. When a starting eleven has 6 or more players who can’t defend the high balls it’s not easy to get the strategy right. Even Song doesn’t contribute to the aerial presence. How often have you seen the Cameroonian win the first ball? On the other hand, I can recall a number of occasions when he fell asleep and let his man score.
Should Arsenal let go of players like Cesc, Wilshere, Nasri, and Arshavin in order to bring in some brutes? That would be extremely daft and put Arsenal at the level of mid-table teams at best.
Clearly, Wenger has to find alternate solutions and we can see him trying. Buying an odd strong, versatile defensive player might help. But what if that guy gets injured? Or ends up like Song who is not that effective on defending set-pieces? The point is there is no simple solution.
Similar issues can be seen while defending from open play as well. The midfield would have to stay really close to the defence to win the second balls when the opponents have a striker who can win the first. But there are only 11 players on the pitch and pulling the midfield back affects the shape of the team and the quality of attacks that Arsenal can create.
This becomes a tricky issue of finding the right balance. The Gunners have done that with the first team but when two or three key members of that starting eleven are missing it’s not so easy. No team can really maintain their high level if three of their best players are missing but teams that base their games on defence can still hold out much better. For Arsenal it is difficult to achieve that.
In my limited years of watching Arsenal, I have rarely seen them shutting out a strong opponent while looking unlikely to concede. Even though the 2005 FA Cup final was based on defending it needed a lot of luck, something we didn’t get against Birmingham. That Champions League run was the closest Arsenal came to a consistently solid display but the attacking quality was quite poor in that and relied a lot on the pace and trickery of one man.
One of the main reasons for this is that Arsenal’s defence is based on chasing the ball. If you see the other big teams like United and Chelsea, they get into shape and work really hard to maintain that. They track runs diligently and try to avoid conceding clear chances in front of the goal. They also have enough bodies behind to attack crosses.
Arsenal on the other hand, chase the ball in defence. The shape at the back is often lost as two or three players go chasing a ball only to be beaten by simple one-twos. This pulls other defenders out of position and stretches the defence. It takes a lot of hard work and concentration for Arsenal to defend this way and a mistake by one player often gives a clear opening to the opponents.
This is the reason I feel Arsenal need a different defence coach, another perspective. It won’t be easy to integrate the two styles but Arsenal have to find better balance between their attacking, free-flowing style and a functional approach. There are enough times in the season when injuries and form issues demand subtle tactical modifications to the system to get the best out of the players. For most parts Wenger is able to achieve it, as we can see by the reduced number of counter-attacking goals conceded this year, but a small, yet critical, element seems to be missing.
I don’t expect Arsenal to defend like United or Chelsea, which will only come if the manager goes and I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time to come, but with some tactical adjustments this team can win a lot more. Can Wenger achieve it soon enough or will he get help on that front before it’s too late remains to be seen.