To say the Gunners were woeful in defence against Milan will be an understatement. It was a shocking performance. The 8-2 debacle at United earlier in the season didn’t occur completely by accident either and we can be fairly certain this isn’t the last time Wenger’s side have crumbled defensively.
Before going further, it’s necessary to unequivocally state that this isn’t a doom and gloom piece. Arsene Wenger is an excellent manager but like all individuals, he has his set of strengths and limitations. This article is an attempt to explore the details that make Arsenal such a weak defensive unit but it must be read in the context that the Gunners have consistently been in the top five defences in the Premier League and have fared much better than many sides that rely primarily on defensive tactics.
Before criticizing, one must acknowledge that there are phases, often large ones every season, where the side does really well. For instance, at the end of 28 games in the Premier League last season, Arsenal had conceded fewer Premier League goals than Manchester United, and were going strong in all competitions. A significant portion of that run also came with Djourou and Squillaci in the centre of defence and Fabianski behind them. Obviously, something was being done right and, in such periods of domination, the quality of personnel doesn’t seem to be as big a factor as it is routinely made out to be.
Having said that, it’s impossible to deny it all went pear shaped after the Carling Cup final as the season ended with a disastrous collapse. To an extent then, the issue at Arsenal seems to be one of consistency. But consistency isn’t a quality that can be taught or bought. It’s borne out of a combination of tactics, efforts put in training, and other individual qualities like concentration, awareness, discipline, etc.
Furthermore, football is one of the most intrinsically linked team games. Having a poor attack or a disjointed midfield could easily make the back four look like a bunch of clowns. In that regard, defending is always a team effort where all the eleven players have to pull their weight.
Recently, there was an interesting piece by Omar Chaudhari comparing certain passing trends in the Premier League. The following chart borrowed from that piece shows the number of successful final third passes needed to score a goal against each side.
Not surprisingly, this year’s five best defences thus far are in the top six positions. Swansea are the only side in the top six of that chart that are not a part of the best six defences in the League. It seems fairly intuitive – if a side is defensively solid, opponents will need more passes to break them down and such a team will concede fewer goals as a direct result.
Sadly for Gooners, Arsenal are languishing near the bottom of that list along with most of the relegation candidates. This year, in particular, has been a significantly difficult one for the Gunners and they are in 11th place when it comes to goals conceded, but even that is still too big a difference from their 19th place on that table.
Based on those numbers one could also say the other teams have a greater ability to sit back and absorb pressure. Certainly, it corroborates well with the general observation that United, Chelsea of the recent past, and City this season look a lot more comfortable when they drop deep. There is a degree of composure and assuredness about their defending. In contrast, Arsenal’s aren’t always convincing at the back and one gets the feeling a lot of the defending is desperation stuff that does tend to work but not as often and rarely in the big games.
Indeed, the recent defeat against Milan was a classic example. Arsenal had greater possession and made more passes but the hosts seldom looked under pressure. They were able to get into a solid defensive shape and kept all the play in front of them. In stark contrast, the Gunners were caught on the break often, and even when they were deep they couldn’t really defend well as was seen with the kind of time and space available to the Milan players for the first goal.
Essentially, this provides a fairly strong indication that it is relatively much easier to score against Arsenal than it is against the other bigger clubs in England, or around Europe if we extend this argument based on observations from the Champions League games.
Unfortunately, while it is easy to say the Gunners are defensively weaker than comparable clubs, a clear-cut solution doesn’t exist because it isn’t a straightforward problem. In order to discuss this we need to look at the problem areas in detail. Before doing that though, it will be helpful to look at some of the general principles of defending.
Basic Principles of Defence
The following list is neither comprehensive nor authoritative but is my abridged interpretation of some of the fundamentals of defending that one is likely to see in coaching manuals. Hopefully, it will be fairly illustrative and will help us while discussing specific examples and some of the broader defensive patterns later in the piece.
1) Pressure: A player who is closest to the ball looks to close down the opponent in possession. Often teams try to apply pressure not only on the player in possession but also on the teammates who can receive a pass. This is a crude definition of pressing, which is usually done with an aggressive intent of winning the ball back. Pressure can also be applied simply to force backward passes in order to give the defensive players some time to get back in their positions. Such an approach is a conservative one and is used when teams don’t want to push or retain too many bodies up the field, especially when they don’t have the ball.
2) Delay: It’s important to slow the opponents down. When a team is in possession their attempt is to stretch the play and thus many of their players are spread over the length and breadth of the pitch. It’s very difficult to defend from many of these positions so these players need time to get back into areas where they can make a meaningful defensive contribution. Slowing down the opponents by applying pressure and by taking up positions to cut passing channels is called delay.
3) Depth: Good defences work in layers. That means if a player makes a mistake, or is beaten by the skills or pass-and-move combinations, others are present to provide cover. The most common allusion that you might have heard from pundits is “two banks of four”. Having depth helps slow down the opponents even further and provides fail-safes. Imagine a side defending with a deep-lying defence and midfield just in front. If an opponent get between the lines in a central area, one of the central defenders will likely move up to put pressure on the ball. The associated full-back will look to tuck in and provide cover for the space vacated by the centre-back. The idea is to have sufficient bodies between the ball and goal.
4) Balance: The defence has to be balanced around the ball. The players who aren’t immediately pressing the ball must be in a position to cover passing channels, to track runs, or to provide cover for others moving out of position. So if the ball goes wide on the left, the right-back will tuck in and come inside the box. That might leave the right flank empty but it doesn’t pose any immediate threat. Leaving the back post free would be a lot more risky.
5) Compactness: A key objective for any defence is to limit time and space for the opponents. It cannot be achieved if players are spread all over the field. Depending on tactics chosen a side could choose to make different areas of the field compact. For instance, Barcelona press really high up the pitch and like to win the ball back early. Their defenders spend a lot of time around the centre line. Many teams make the midfield congested with a relatively high line of defence. Then there are cases, like the approach Inter adopted against Barca, when teams drop deep around their own penalty box. In such cases the back four or five usually starts off around the edge of the penalty box and drops even deeper as the ball goes wide. Dropping deep is probably the most commonly used approach towards achieving a compact defensive structure but even then the exact positions taken up by defenders vary based on the tactics that their managers favour.
6) Individual Judgment: While coaches can design training drills and provide general instructions, it’s up to the players to make the decisions on the pitch. When to press, when to back off, when to double up, when to tackle, when to clear, when to hold, when to drop deep, and when to step up are just some of the choices that players have to make in a fraction of a second on a constant basis. It might not be right to classify a player’s decision making as a basic principle but it’s vital to the appropriate execution of any defensive system that the team plans on using.
As a culmination of tactics and individual decisions, teams end up in different defensive shapes. There isn’t a clearly defined shape that a side must take up as a lot depends on the quality and tactics of the opponents and the given situation in a game. But the purpose of the shape is to facilitate the proper execution of the above mentioned principles while providing a guiding structure to the individuals on the pitch. Players must be in good positions to delay the move, provide depth, maintain balance, and remain compact. Through that they must then be able to either force an error like a misplaced pass, make a tackle/interception, or force a shot from a position that is less likely to threaten the goal. Having the ability to launch a counter-attack can be an added bonus.
It’s important to note that any defensive shape, while broadly rigid, has to be flexible and must constantly adapt in order to account for the movement of the attackers. Just forming two lines of four, for instance, is therefore not sufficient to make a solid defence.
A Caveat: The following snapshot based analysis is not an ideal approach for looking at defensive shapes/issues as it’s possible to find frames in almost all the games that can make a solid defence look porous or, just as easily, give a compact feel to a disorganized one. But the examples chosen should give us sufficient evidence to elaborate on the aforementioned principles and for the broader discussion that follows. That said, if possible, watching the videos of these incidents is highly recommended.
1) Valencia’s goal for Man United on Jan 22nd 2012 (Arsenal 1 – 2 Man United).
Most Arsenal fans reading this piece will not have forgotten United’s opening goal in the recent home defeat. Lasting memory of that goal was a 2-v-1 on the wing that led to Giggs’ assist when Djourou was too narrow and Ramsey couldn’t cover Nani and the Welshman at the same time. Some might also recall Vermaelen’s failure to put in a strong challenge at the back post as Valencia rose high to head it in.
There is nothing wrong with those observations but it’s worth rewinding the play back to look at the previous attack and its contribution to the eventual build up of the goal.
Michael Carrick had the ball around ten yards or so inside his own half. There was no pressure on him so he had ample time to pick out a pass.
Van Persie and Oxlade-Chamberlain are pressing high up the pitch but their teammates aren’t pushing up. Rosicky can be seen just inside the Arsenal half but he is at least 10 yards away from the ball.
Carrick then picks out a long pass and as the camera pans around, it captures a very insightful image of Arsenal’s organization.
All three midfielders are in or around the centre circle. Vermaelen is relatively high up the pitch and almost in line with Song and Walcott, presumably to track Valencia so that he can’t receive the ball with ease. Walcott is closer to the Right touchline and is also at least 10 yards inside the Arsenal half.
In the frame above, Rooney is seen receiving this long pass, it would be harsh to label it a long ball, from Carrick. A few observations immediately stand out. Mertesacker is not tight on the forward but is holding his position. In itself there is nothing wrong with backing off, especially against a skilful player who could turn the defender and get through on goal.
The two red lines show big gaps between a) the midfield and the back line, and b) the left-sided central defender and the left-back.
We can also see that a simple long pass has bypassed Arsenal’s first line of defence – in other words, the depth is easily negated and there is hardly any delay – and now the central defence is under tremendous pressure. Furthermore, the defence is unbalanced because there is a big gap on the left side. Rooney has so much space he can afford a poor touch or he could just play it away from himself so that he can turn on the ball and face the goal.
Once Rooney knocks the ball a few feet away from him, either deliberately or due to a poor touch, Mertesacker moves up to put some pressure on the ball. Not doing that would have been instant suicide as the striker would have large gaps to pick passes or time to have a crack at goal.
Welbeck’s diagonal run has taken Koscielny away. The German defender is pushing the English striker away as Song comes chasing back. An even bigger gap has opened up on the left side of Arsenal’s penalty box. Valencia is looking to get into this space while Vermaelen is tracking that run.
There is some pressure on the ball but hardly any depth or balance. And even the kindest of souls can’t call it compact.
Rooney tries to find the run of Valencia but Vermaelen has done well to get back. It’s worth noting that while the Belgian does make an interception, he’s been forced into a desperate lunge. This means he couldn’t really control the ball and it rolled away towards the penalty spot.
All the six Arsenal players in that frame are chasing back and looking at their own goal. Many are out of position. One long pass, a couple of touches from a striker, and an attempted through-ball have completely destroyed Arsenal’s defensive shape. Since it wasn’t a great move the problem has to be with the way the Gunners defended. It includes the positioning of a number of players and the choices they’ve made.
As the ball rolled away to a very dangerous spot right in front of goal, and Welbeck was in a position to attack it, Vermaelen didn’t have much of a choice but to hack it clear. Since he isn’t really looking to pick a pass, and has been forced into hoofing with his weaker foot, the ball doesn’t find a teammate. Walcott’s inability to put in a better challenge didn’t help either.
Evra won the ball and played it forward to Nani with Giggs making an overlapping run on the flank.
Again there is little to no pressure on the ball as the players were sucked in towards the centre and left. Three defenders are within two yards of each other in the red circle. Djourou is narrow for a right-back but the positions of others have forced him to take up such a role or the centre would be completely exposed.
From this point on it was only a matter of a simple cross and a relatively easy finish.
It’s easy to criticize Djourou for not doing more to prevent the cross or Vermaelen for not attacking the ball at the back post. But when you look at the build-up, and don’t forget it all happened in a matter of seconds, it seems harsh to criticize the individuals. It could be that Vermaelen was just a tad disoriented and catching his breath. He probably didn’t get the time to look back and see where Valencia was.
Anyway, the idea of this post is to look at the details but not to get lost in individual examples. So let’s take the observations with us and leave the conclusions for later.
2) Robinho’s second goal for Milan on Feb 15th 2012 (Milan 4 – 0 Arsenal).
Before getting into the move that led to the goal, it’s worth exploring the manner in which Arsenal lost the ball around the centre line.
Song was in possession just inside the Milan half. The hosts were impeccably organized and cut out most of the passing channels. Their midfield diamond is clearly visible and is preventing any kind of forward pass. The back line is virtually perfect. The two strikers, encircled, are floating and ready to pounce on any counter-attacking opportunity but are also in good positions to intercept a long pass (Robinho) and to prevent Song from moving inside (Ibrahimovic).
The bold red lines show the passing options available to the midfielder. Essentially, he can either go sideways or backwards. There is space in front of Milan’s left-back but that would be a tough pass to complete as Song doesn’t have that much time on the ball and he doesn’t have the right body shape to chip the ball. By the time he set’s himself up for that pass, Boateng could easily nick the ball and launch a counter. Furthermore, if Song doesn’t get it inch perfect the left-back can win it and release Robinho towards the goal.
So, not only are Milan exceptionally organized from a defensive point of view, they have players in good positions to break at speed. Some people would say a side’s ability to launch a counter-attack is also an integral defensive principle as it forces the opponents into making safer passes, which usually go sideways or backwards.
At this point it’s necessary to acknowledge that Arsenal could have troubled them more with quicker passing and better use of the flanks. The re-laid portions of the pitch played a part too. But this isn’t a discussion about all the specifics of that game so these points can be left aside.
Song plays the most obvious safe pass towards Gibbs. Nocerino comes out to close the full-back down. This particular snapshot doesn’t cover it but the midfield diamond shifts a bit towards the left. Rosicky moves into the space in front of Gibbs. Abate, not visible in the frame, come out to put pressure on the Czech midfielder.
Space opened up behind the right-back and Gibbs tried to run into that. But Abate got really tight on Rosicky and didn’t allow him to turn or pass into that space. Meanwhile, Nocerino tracked the run of Gibbs to ensure that even if a pass was made the full-back would not be free to run at the goal or cross with ease.
This and many other passages of play in that game provide textbook examples of the principles discussed earlier in the article. Milan were compact, well-balanced, had two or three layers of depth, and slowed play down with their positioning. Not only did Milan retain superb defensive shapes throughout the game, their players showed a degree of defensive intelligence in reading the game that isn’t always visible when the Gunners are defending.
Moving forward, the pressure from Abate forced a heavy touch from Rosicky, who then had to slide to prevent Ibrahimovic from pouncing on the loose ball. Unfortunately, his sliding pass was over hit and went beyond Arteta towards Robinho. This set up the counter-attack.
Robinho collects the loose ball. Arteta tries to get back to put pressure on him. Boateng makes a forward dash and is closely followed by Song. Arsenal’s central defenders aren’t in the picture but are about 20 yards inside their own half. This makes it easy for Robinho to find Ibrahimovic before making another forward run. Sagna, only partially visible at the top of the picture, races back to get into a defensive position.
In the above snapshot we can see Vermaelen has stepped up and is helping Arteta in order to pressurize Ibrahimovic and delay or thwart his pass. Sagna has gained good ground. Song too has done a decent job of tracking Boateng’s run. Djourou is watching Robinho’s movement and is in a decent covering position.
Ibrahimovic held on to the ball for a while and Arsenal shepherded him away from goal. He got support in a wide area but Arsenal had sufficient bodies behind. Gibbs too got back from the forward run that he’d made.
Djourou gets tight on Robinho and unwittingly ends up playing a one-two with Ibra. That in itself wasn’t a problem as Milan hardly had any bodies in dangerous areas.
Arsenal seem to be in a decent defensive position. The defensive line looks very good. Boateng has run into an off-side position wide on the Right. Ibra doesn’t have too many options and virtually nothing in the box.
But closer examination shows a few weaknesses. Sagna can’t really put pressure on the ball because of the wide player. Ibra can slip him through if the full-back goes for a challenge. This means the striker has a lot of time on the ball. Arteta was chasing him but has eased off. Djourou has to provide cover for Sagna if Ibrahimovic decides to cut inside. Both these defenders are square-on and in good positions but with limited choices. They have to react to the play they can’t act proactively.
The gap between Djourou and Vermaelen seems too big given the circumstances and the time that Ibrahimovic has. Robinho spots this and tries to run into that space. Vermaelen reads that and accelerates towards that area.
Interestingly, and perhaps by accident, the Swedish striker plays the pass behind Robinho, who has to check his run, and across Arsenal’s defensive line. That also forces Vermaelen to check his run but the defender slips. Song is too far away to make a timely challenge. Robinho gets a free strike at goal from a central area on the edge of the box. One can’t really expect him to miss from there too often.
Now you could say it was just an unfortunate slip. But would it have been avoided if Vermaelen had been a couple of yards closer to Djourou. That way he would not have had to run as fast and turning might have been easier. Song too could have been closer to the centre but he’d just tracked a run to a wider area and can perhaps be excused.
The problem for Arsenal was that the defensive line wasn’t as well balanced as it could have been, thus offering a gap to the opponents, and there was absolutely no depth even on the edge of the penalty area. The shape of the side also meant there was very little pressure on Ibrahimovic when he was making the pass. A slip from one player completely exposed the goal from an otherwise harmless looking situation.
3) Nathan Dyer’s Goal for Swansea on Jan 15th 2012 (Swansea 3 – 2 Arsenal).
Again most Gooners will probably recall Ramsey getting caught in possession in the build-up to this goal. After that it was a simple enough square pass that allowed another opponent a clear strike at the Arsenal goal from a central area.
Once again it’s worth looking at the sequence of events but this time I’ll limit the snapshots. Arsenal originally lost the ball halfway inside the Swansea half when Ramsey’s pass to RvP was intercepted by a defender who stepped up. He then found Dyer who got the better of Miquel’s attempt to tackle around the centre line. Song did well to delay the run. This allowed the defenders to get back in position and eventually Nathan Dyer’s pass was intercepted by Miquel.
With players chasing back, Arsenal were really congested in the centre, which did force the misplaced pass but there were few options for the Gunners on the ball. Miquel played it to Benayoun and ran forward. The Israeli passed it back to Arshavin who then found Ramsey. The rest has probably been shown in highlights more often than one would like to watch. Let’s focus on a slightly different aspect of that goal.
When Arshavin is about to pass to Ramsey, Song is quite a way behind Dyer and between the winger and Arsenal’s goal. Miquel has moved up the field while Arshavin has come inside. Both can be criticized for their positions but the build-up and the consequent congestion in the centre forced this situation. Song, as a defensive minded player who could see the game in front of him, should be aware of the resultant gap on the left of the defence.
As seen above, Song completely loses track of Dyer and is sucked inside. Arshavin is chasing back so there isn’t a great need for him to take up a central position. Even if he does come inside, he should at least be aware of the gap at left-back and the run of the winger. Song, in this case, seemed to get caught ball-watching and was more reactive – he was ambling back and only sprinted once he saw the pass being played towards Dyer – than proactive from a defensive point of view.
The Broader Patterns
Different people can have different ideas, many almost equally valid, about certain details of a football game. For instance, three top managers might look at the goals Arsenal discussed above and identify different areas they’d like to improve. Since there isn’t a single easily identifiable and addressable issue, it’s better to look at the broader patterns.
The first case, Valencia’s goal, highlights a number of such patterns. Regular readers might remember various match reports on this blog having phrases like, “Arsenal lost their shape”, “The midfielders were in a no man’s land”, “big gaps between defence and midfield”, and “X defender hoofed the ball but it came back into the defensive third within seconds”. This was a classic example.
The opponents are able to reach Arsenal’s defensive third with ease, the defenders work hard to clear it but do so more in a desperate manner than an assured one largely because of lack of support. It doesn’t stay out for long and the cycle repeats. If the opponents don’t have the quality of Giggs or Valencia, Arsenal might even survive such spells. It then looks like gritty defending but isn’t always pretty and certainly not without a number of worrying moments.
Ultimately, it is a matter of percentages. The more often opponents get in or around the penalty area the more likely they are to force a succession of mistakes and score. Sometimes though, it seems the Gunners are unlucky as the opponents score from their only shot on target but it is usually because the quality of chance conceded is really good or some hapless defender has made a mistake when working hard in an inefficient system.
It’s also extremely important to remember that Arsenal aren’t inept at defending in every game or they’d have been relegated. The defensive weaknesses come to the fore when Wenger’s preferred system of play breaks down i.e. his side isn’t able to dominate the ball as well or isn’t able to move it well enough to push the opponents deep into their own half on a consistent basis.
This is the reason the defence tends to struggle against the big teams on a more frequent basis and is one of the root causes of the poor runs against Man United and Chelsea in recent past.
To be fair to Arsene and Arsenal, defending is harder for a side that sets out to play with an attacking mentality. More so, if the opponents are extremely disciplined and well-organized at the back and prove difficult to penetrate as this forces attacking players into wider and deeper areas. Chelsea’s recent woes – despite their supposedly proven defenders, players with winning mentalities, and big money purchases – are another excellent example of the difficulties in defending when trying to play with an attacking mindset.
Most teams start the game with a defensive approach and build on it. Barcelona are probably the only side in recent history of the game that has won major trophies after starting games with a positive, attack-minded approach.
But that cannot be an excuse for the Gunners. If they don’t have the technical qualities of Barcelona, or a player like Messi in their ranks, they have to find a different solution that works. Yes injuries have been a problem, especially when they seem to target a particular area like all the centre-backs or full-backs. The impact of refereeing decisions can also be debated and acknowledged. Nevertheless, there is a need for Arsenal to have a better ability to sit back and defend when the backs are against the wall.
Can you recall the last time Arsenal had a really assured defensive performance against a quality opponent? Not a gritty one where they fought hard to protect a lead but one where you couldn’t quite see the opponent scoring. Milan did it to Arsenal, United and Chelsea have done it often enough, but it’s hard to recall such efforts from the Gunners.
A positive approach is commendable and highly cherished by many fans. But is it justified when 10 players are injured, just to take an example, and the available squad doesn’t really have the quality to play the dominating game for 90 minutes?
The second example illustrates Arsenal susceptibility to the counter-attack. This is another problem that occurs intermittently but more often, obviously, against the top clubs. The Gunners have also exited a number of Cup competitions by conceding goals on the break against big and small clubs.
The number of times a cross or a corner from Arsenal results in a counter-attack from the opponent is alarming. Milan probably created half a dozen such chances in just one game. This particular issue wasn’t described in the examples above but stems from similar problems of shape and decision making. There usually isn’t enough pressure on the second ball when the cross/corner is first headed or punched clear. The gaps between the players are large and more often than not opposing strikers are able to receive the ball without a strong enough challenge. After that defenders are under pressure as they have to cover large spaces. This forces some mistakes and opponents can easily reach Arsenal’s penalty area.
The Swansea example is more about individual errors. Even highly regarded players like Song, Sagna, and Vermaelen make a number of mistakes that have serious consequences. Either the player switches off, or makes a poor judgment call, or get’s in someone else’s way, or just makes a poor tackle/clearance/pass/choice in a dangerous area.
Often these errors result after spells of sustained pressure from the opponent that is caused by the failure of the system of play. Individuals look bad but aren’t as culpable as a casual observer might think.
These are some of the common patterns one is likely to see when the Gunners are struggling defensively. A lot of the defending will involve chasing the ball and desperate clearances/hoofs. Too many players will get dragged off their positions. In most cases they can’t be faulted for effort, in fact sometimes the effort put in is too high and that leads to other problems.
Those watching carefully might see the defenders completely switching off after winning the ball back in some instances. They would have spent so much energy through intense concentration and incessant chasing over a short period of time that they just don’t have the energy to then play the ball out from the back. Naturally, it happens when the side has been under sustained spells of pressure. That’s when one usually sees a demoralized, disjointed unit that appears to be a bunch of clueless and disinterested players.
Those who studied the way Milan defended might have noticed the way the Italians controlled the pace of the game through their defending. They couldn’t match Arsenal’s energy and pace in an end-to-end encounter. So they didn’t play it. They used the principle of delay rather delightfully by simply holding excellent defensive positions till they could win the ball and launch a counter. They allowed Arsenal to keep the ball but channeled the Gunners into wide areas and then forced them to pass backwards or into a crowd of well-organized defenders. Essentially, they managed to keep the play in front of them for large periods of the game. That way the Rossoneri also conserved their physical and mental energies while frustrating the Gunners. In order to succeed at that, all their players had to be on the same page tactically. They also had to read the game well and constantly cover the passing channels.
Wenger’s side really struggles to achieve this. One of the chief causes is that even when they try, quality opponents find it easy to play the ball around them. It’s as if they just don’t read the game well enough. Two or three Gunners might be closing a player down but if he has the composure he can find a pass through them as they just stand and watch. It happens far too often and with almost all the players so it can’t be about individuals. This has to come from the manager and the way he and his coaches think about the game as that translates into training drills and ultimately shows in players’ instincts on the pitch.
Now comes the tricky part. Most Gooners aren’t happy at this point in time, understandably so. Such an article can easily add fuel to the impression that everything is rotten in Wenger’s reign. That is not the case and certainly not the intention behind this write-up.
Those who appreciate details will have seen that the issues at Arsenal are clearly not limited to one or two individuals or a small set of problems. Too many factors are interlinked and that makes it genuinely hard to solve them.
It would be prudent to remember that many managers can set a team up to defend. Alex McLeish’s Birmingham side were very hard to break down at their home. They also won a Cup on the back of that ability. But they also got relegated. Martin O’Neill is excellent at organizing disciplined, tenacious defensive units. It wasn’t that long ago when his Villa side were widely predicted to usurp Arsenal’s Champions League spot. It never materialized despite a fair amount of spending. Similarly, teams like Dortmund and Porto, to name just two, that have won domestic titles, often struggle to show the kind of consistency that Arsenal have shown. Clearly, Arsenal aren’t as bad as they’re made out to be – although, it must be said, the loss of Cesc and Nasri has made this the weakest Arsenal squad in recent years.
Moreover, Football isn’t limited to defensive organization. As already stated at the start, all aspects of the game are intrinsically and intricately linked. Most managers who create a strong defensive unit, especially in England, usually end up relying on long balls and set-pieces for goals.
Eventually, it’s about finding the right balance between attack and defence. Every manager tries, but among billions of people who love the game, and thousands who’ve played it at the very top, there are only a handful who’ve found a good balance on a consistent basis at the highest level in a managerial capacity.
Look closely at the details over the last few seasons and you’ll see that Wenger is trying hard. There are a lot of changes that have been attempted, and many have been successful in patches. For instance, last season the Gunners had this tendency to drop back to the halfway line in most of the away games and the big ones at home. They kept a relatively high line and compressed play in the upper portion of their own half. This brought a fair bit of success including the League’s best away record (despite the horrific form at the end!), a hard fought win over Barcelona, and a run to the Carling Cup final.
Such an approach also had its weaknesses. Some teams played balls over the top to trouble the Arsenal back four. It cost them some points and Cup replays. But more often than not it worked even with the likes of Djourou and Squillaci in defence. Then came the successive losses in the Cups and everything collapsed.
This season the Gunners are dropping deeper at the back. It’s hard to say whether that’s due to the presence of Mertesacker who is relatively slower or is a tactical choice from the coaches. But that approach too was working well for a period of three months or so. It minimized the space behind the defence and, with Arteta making a significant defensive contribution, created a relatively strong defensive unit. Now that too has broken down but it’s not easy to pin-point the causes. Are the players making mistakes because they are too tired, or because they are playing out of position, or due to a number of changes in the back four, or for some other reason? Unless the problem can be clearly and precisely identified, it can’t practically be solved. It’s one of the main reasons why Arsene finds it hard to curb a negative cycle in a matter of days.
Having said all of that, a strong need for a new coach in the defensive area has to be mentioned. In a hypercompetitive environment created by wanton spending, Wenger hasn’t been able to create a side that can handle periods of chaos in an assured and controlled manner. While the complex nature of Arsenal’s problems can be appreciated and Wenger’s knowledge, capabilities, and efforts commended, it’s very hard to ignore the crying need for better performances.
A fresh, highly qualified mind that is in-sync with Wenger’s philosophy but also brings additional defensive nous to the table would be Arsenal’s best acquisition. The point, of course, is not to say that Wenger doesn’t know the basic theoretical points mentioned in this post. That would be preposterous. But he hasn’t found a way to consistently transfer the theoretical knowledge into practice. A new approach, different drills, harder effort, and single-minded dedication can take his side to the next level.
The budget available to the manager or the policies of the club – especially transfer related – are unlikely to change overnight, only a minor miracle will abate the number and nature of injuries that Arsenal players suffer from, and sundry factors like the performance of officials, the state of pitches in away games, or the tactics of opponents are not likely to change any time soon.
Something must give. And it must be something that can be observed, controlled, measured, and improved over a period of time. Change for the sake of change doesn’t always work. Wenger brings a lot to the table. He’s done better than most, arguably everyone, considering the budget he’s worked on. But in the context of what is expected from Arsenal, that hasn’t been enough. Perhaps for the board it is and maybe for some fans. But for many fans there is room for improvement. Most importantly, from the manager and his players’ perspectives there is a need for a better, let’s just say, output. Cesc wanted more. Van Persie wants more. Arsene suffers a lot when the side loses.
Defence is one area where Arsenal can really do better without spending big. But when in-house solutions aren’t working, one has to look outside. It won’t be easy but the long term gains will more than justify the pains taken. And someone has to take the pains or the suffering will continue!
Apologies for the blurry nature of some of the images. Most can be enlarged by clicking on them. That might give a, er, better picture. This piece turned out to be much longer than I’d anticipated so I really want to thank you for reading. Hope it added some value.