I thought it might be a good idea to read what I wrote while analyzing the problems and weaknesses in defence at the end of last season. A quick glance told me that I could just copy paste some parts of that article and it will still be just as relevant.
…many of our top players have made big individual errors in important games. At times it’s been an error in positioning, on occasion it’s been poor awareness, sometimes they’ve panicked or had a lapse in concentration, and some are just painful bloopers.
The other problem we have defensively is on set-pieces. Too many of our players just don’t have the ability or physical attributes required to win the ball in the air. This has forced us into a tactic where we put 7-8 men in our own six yard box and hope that the bodies will block the goal.
The full backs have been left exposed on a regular basis, especially on the left with very little help from Arshavin.
It is not hard to see why many fans feel nothing has been done about the defence and the same issues are harming our chances every season. But I think that is an unfair opinion that doesn’t do justice to the work that has been done over the last year because it trivializes the whole debate.
This season we did see some critical changes,
- The goalkeeper didn’t come out to gather/attack crosses or set-pieces as often as last year. As expected this made Fabianski and Szczesny look a lot more reliable than anyone custodian did last season.
- Directly related to the point above was the fact that the central defenders and others took a lot more responsibility (Blackburn and Sunderland away are excellent examples). If the Keeper wasn’t going to come for the ball someone else had to deal with it. Unfortunately, this hasn’t solved the problem but the blame has shifted from the Keeper to the defenders.
- The number of counter attacking goals conceded has reduced. There were some lapses on that front which resulted in some defeats (West Brom at home, United in FA cup, and so on) but the problem was controlled better than last season. This change enabled the Gunners to halt and conquer the embarrassing run of results against some of the big sides.
- The number of suicidal reverse clearances has gone down. Last season the Gunners were hesitant when it came to knocking the ball out for a corner or throw in the defensive third. This season they were more willing to take the safety first approach with Koscielny making a key contribution in this regard. This hasn’t been completely eliminated as we saw when Clichy attempted a crazy clearance against Sunderland early on in the season. But the improvement is noticeable and worthwhile.
- The rotating triangle in midfield has evolved into a better system than the solitary, designated DM from last season. This could be one of the key changes that led to the reduction of counter attacks. I do feel there are games when Arsenal should play with two distinctly defensive minded midfielders. More on this while discussing the midfield.
These observations tell us that a lot of work has gone in on the training pitches. Clearly, that is a positive change. Evidently, it isn’t enough.
I am not a believer that buying a big, tall, commanding, central defender who can lead and organize will solve all or most of Arsenal’s problems. Such a player doesn’t exist. If you don’t believe me, just watch John Terry and Rio Ferdinand playing for their national team.
The single most important factor in creating a solid defence is the system. Barcelona have evolved a system wherein they don’t let the ball reach their defensive third that often. Most other teams focus on defence ahead of attack. Arsene has been in a limbo and hasn’t been able to create an attacking system that suits his vision while having defensive solidity.
Part of the problem is definitely in the size of the players. In England, no team can win major trophies purely on technical merits. That does not mean players of the calibre of Cesc, Wilshere, Nasri, Arshavin, et al. should be discarded. The trick lies in finding the right balance.
Analysis of this season’s performances is not straightforward because the final few weeks have been awful in an unprecedented way (haven’t checked the facts but I don’t think Arsenal have had a run of 11 games under Wenger when they’ve managed only 12 points). It’s difficult to ascertain the contribution of individual errors, systemic problems, and mental issues in this collapse.
At the start of the season and during the January window I’d mentioned that buying a versatile defensive player should help. With the benefit of hindsight that seems like one of the areas where we missed out on. A stronger player suited to the English game could have contributed a lot to this season especially when Diaby was struggling with injuries, Rosicky lost form, and Denilson regressed. There is no guarantee that it would have led to trophies but the number of mistakes might have gone down and who knows how that would have affected the mentality of the players.
Transfer dealings can always have an impact but I don’t want to speculate at the moment as the possibilities are endless. I have never been against buying quality players but don’t be under the assumption that those who are successful in other leagues will deliver in England. Squillaci too had won titles in France and Spain before coming to Arsenal! Similarly, there is no guarantee that a player, like Cahill, who looks good in a smaller team will succeed at a big club. There are plenty of examples where big money signings from English clubs have been flops. Since the fans don’t really have anything remotely resembling detailed information it seems foolhardy to raise hopes based on lazy and ignorant pundit opinions. In this regard I completely trust Wenger’s knowledge, the information that he collects, and his judgment/method.
On the whole, I think the defence has moved in the right direction. The work will have to continue in pre-season training. I think this is an area where Arsenal can use a fresh voice with a different perspective. A new coach can do wonders for the squad but finding the right person – in terms of knowledge, mentality, and ability to integrate with the current staff and players – will not be easy. For now we can only wait and watch.