On Saturday, Arsenal conceded another ridiculous goal. Thankfully, It didn’t affect the outcome but brought back painful memories of other howlers in the recent past. Now the easy option is to blame Mertesacker and move on. There is no denying the fact that the German should have shown greater strength and could have passed the ball towards Santos or headed it back to Szczesny if he so intended. Bulk of the blame falls on the big man and he will have to learn to use his size to resist such opportunistic fouling that is almost always deemed legal in the Premier League.
Having said that, I believe there is more to this goal than just Mertesacker’s mistake. Let’s take a look at the sequence of events. The background was that Arsenal won a corner in the 15th minute and the defenders had gone forward. It was wasted and resulted in a goal-kick.
When Ruddy kicked it forward, Mertesacker won it unchallenged and headed it back into the Norwich half. A few headers were exchanged before Tierney hoofed it forward.
The first snapshot shows the German’s header. The bold red line below Song marks the area where I believe Arsenal’s high line would have been at the time the long ball was played from the back (moments after this snap was taken). It is just behind the centre circle, so around 12 yards inside Arsenal’s half. The yellow oval marks Morrison.
The second snap shows Tierney kicking the ball from at least 20 yards inside the Norwich half. Considering the fact that Mertesacker and Morrison duelled just inside the Arsenal penalty box, this ball must have traveled 55-60 yards if not more.
An interesting aside is that Arsenal have put decent pressure on the ball. In the past it has been said that the Gunners didn’t press well while playing a high line but in this case that does not seem like a valid complaint. So it would seem that even though a key issue has been addressed, the goal could not be prevented. It must be noted that due to the pressing, this wasn’t a measured ball over the top but more of a hopeful punt under pressure.
The third image is the most interesting one. I could not get a less blurry one, apologies for that. But based on the previous images (or you can check the replays) the players’ positions are clear. Mertesacker is marked by the Red oval while Morrison is in the Yellow one.
It seems safe to assume the players would have covered a couple of yards since the ball was kicked and the camera panned around. This provides a rough idea of their starting positions, which should be somewhere along the line marked below Song in the first image.
From here on we don’t need any more snapshots as the events were fairly clear.
Apart from the Mertesacker mistakes discussed above, one could ask why Szczesny didn’t come for the ball. When the ball was 20 yards inside the opposition half, he must surely have been a few yards out of his line. That means he’d have to travel around 15-18 yards to get to the ball while facing all the play.
In contrast, Morrison probably sprinted close to 30 meters from his position wide on the touchline about a dozen yards inside the Arsenal half. He ran at an angle and came in from behind and across the German defender. Mertesacker too would have had to cover 25 yards or so. Based on this evidence it can be surmised that Szczesny could have been closer to the ball than the attackers. Why then should the goalkeeper not take charge of the situation?
Don’t get me wrong, the point is not to blame Szczesny. That is a pointless exercise. The idea is to discuss the events and consider various possibilities. From that point of view I believe valid questions can be asked of the Keeper’s role in this scenario.
Regular readers would recall in the past I have observed that Arsenal’s keepers looked worse than they actually were because they were asked to come for almost everything. Szczesny has been relieved of that burden and the defenders have taken more responsibility over the last couple of seasons. But even then there have been a few incidents when the young Pole came out and botched it. Could it be that he now has strict instructions to stay on or near his line?
I have a feeling the coaches and the players haven’t been able to form a clear decision making process for such events. Of course, it’s not easy and remains a judgement call for the Keeper to make but training should hone his instincts. Recent events and disasters of past might have forced this policy of asking the Keeper to stay back even in cases where coming out would be the better choice.
Without knowing the details of what goes on behind the scenes in training, it’s hard to definitively say whether it’s a training issue or an individual’s lack of judgment. Considering the numerous bloopers that we have seen in recent years with a similar theme but involving different players resulting in various freakish goals, the balance tilts towards a coaching problem.
And since we are talking about this goal, it’s worth mentioning that when Mertesacker got near the ball Vermaelen could be seen gesturing towards Szczesny to stay back. The Belgian himself slowed down and didn’t stay in line with the German. One could also argue that if Vermaelen had anticipated a mistake (like many fans did!) he could have continued his sprint back and got in a position to tackle Morrison or get between the striker and the goal.
Again don’t mistake this as an effort to blame Vermaelen. In fairness, he probably thought there was no danger and eased off. That should have been the case if Mertesacker dealt with the situation.
So in conclusion, I do agree with most people who primarily hold the German responsible for the goal. But when there are three or four defenders around the ball and the solitary attacker manages to score such a goal, further questions need to be asked. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into redeveloping the team but such events do shake the confidence. Can anyone say when next or how often similar errors will frustrate all Gooners (including the manager and the players)?
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