A Detailed Look At Arsenal’s Defensive Issues – Tactics, Shape, Mistakes, …

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.

Specific Instances

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.


54 Responses to A Detailed Look At Arsenal’s Defensive Issues – Tactics, Shape, Mistakes, …

  1. arna says:

    too long to read…..boring

  2. Sujith says:

    Wow… Superb post… Love ur analysis desi…

  3. kc says:

    Nice write up Desi.worth reading irrespective of its length,my question is,whom do u want to see as our new defensive coach

  4. James says:

    Beautiful attempt Desi but I honestly don’t trust Arsene to fix this again. Do you actually think he’ll accept the introduction of someone from outside to completely control his defense? I think not. According to most reports, our training regime mostly involved 5/7 a-sides until very recently.
    For Wenger to completely delegate will go against his very fabric and it’s unfortunate that I have to get to it but this reason could be why it’s OVER for him. He’s always trying to win small battles, unlike Fergie who over the years has accepted his limitations, Arsene likes the feeling of knowing all.

    • Dhruv says:

      Your comment was too short and dismissive. At least respect the time the author has put into it. Just because it is freely available on net, it is not trash. It is not a recycled article.

  5. Gerry Lennon says:

    Great read. Well though out and balanced comment. Your time and effort has not been wasted … for me at least?

  6. Dhruv says:

    Long post written in a very simple language, I finished it from beginning to end in one go and liked it.

    As for the team, we really are looking clueless at the moment. But it is difficult to imagine Wenger bringing in a defensive coach, at least he is not thinking of it right now. Because as you mentioned defense and attack are interconnected and so Wenger should be comfortable with the new coach when (if) he comes. The board will decide only at the end of season after evaluating the season as a success or failure.

  7. Gerry Wood says:

    Blimey mate…what an interesting, powerful analysis. Thank you.
    See yous Jimmy (Logie)

  8. In defense Arsenal should buy a good number of these elegant, strong,solid and not easily passable defenders:
    Chris Samba,Manuel Jurado,Simon PoulsenGregory Van Der Wiel [Netherlands],Leighton Baines,Vertongen[Ajax],Neven Subotic and Schmelder[both Borussia Dortmund],Phil Jagielka, Fabricio Coloccini,Stephen Ward,Guthrie,Barry Bannan, Stephen Warnock,Fabrice Muamba, Jamie Ward,Ronald Zubar, George Elokobi,Sylvain Distin, Nicolas Otamendi[Argentina], Diego Godin[Uruguay],Bamba[Ivory Coast,Stephane Mbia [Cameroon],Danny Simpson,Phil Bardsley,etc

    • James says:

      The whole point of the article is to show you that that’s not the solution- maybe you should try reading it instead of pumping out another list of elegant strong not-easily passable defenders.
      Here’s my list: David Luiz, David Luiz, David Luiz, David Luiz etc.

    • shrek2be says:

      Samba vs Per – nuf said… Van der Wiel – RB we already have Sagna… Subotic- we tried for him 2-3 years ago, he didn’t want to come ,Jagielka- Overpriced and overhyped , Muamba is a CDM, we have enough of those

      Leighton Baines- good player but massively overpriced

  9. arna says:

    We all know Arsene will never accept any sort of help. In fact, he is a solitary who works on his own. I believe in Arsene. Its easy to downgrade him or write lenghty articles of things he should do or should not. But at the end of the day its the players who should take their responsibilities. Some players’ performance in a match is as if they are don’t care a damn about the club.

    Now u will tell me its Arsene fault. Why play these players?

    But Arsene needs not only fucking money to spend but the club should scrap their wage policy.

    Will Hazard, Podolski or Gotze sign for us to get 70000 a week?

    Arshavin gets 70 000 a week, RVP gets 80 000………..thats RIDICULOUS.

    • James says:

      Another reason why people who don’t read probably shouldn’t write. The article said nothing about belief in Arsene or what he should or should not do. It just attempted to explain our defensive problems and offer suggestions on how they could be fixed.
      If you read anything at all, you’d see that even good players switch off or make defensive mistakes all the time and it’s not just an issue of wage policy or whatever your next rant will be about, it’s an issue of style and our possible oversight when it comes to honing a consistent defensive strategy.

    • santori says:

      You can’t scratch the wage policy mate. Aside from FFP, we are staring down the barrell orf a possible 45m quid shortfall if we do not make the CL come summer.

      For that reason, Arsharvin has been moved out on loan (perhaps at some risk to us) bc he needs to be in the “Shop window”.

      Wenger is making room in the wage structure in anticipation of the summer which will be interesting (AGAIN) to say the least with RVP also on short leash with contract.

      Even if we make 4th spot, the (continued) unconvincing nature of our campaigns will make it harder for us to attract the players we need at the price we want this summer.

      I expect, we will have to come to terms with the fact that this season has been ‘extraodinary’ and that Wenger may have to go over the threshold slightly to bring in 1-2 strategic buys.

      Otherwise, we may slip into mediocrity quite quickly.

      But that said, we will still have to be fairly discipline with the wage structure. There is simply no way to even come close to matching the likes of what City or CHelsea might offer (let alone Anzhi and PSG these days!)

  10. rohit says:

    steve bould for assistant coach???anyone with me??

  11. This post is massive. For the first time in my life, I just realise that I don’t know anything about football. Good analysis, it just buttress the fact that we don’t have players with high work rate that can run at anything, okay lets say Wilshere but the last good one I remember is Flamini.
    I just hope the team can rise up again and be the best in England, I am starting to forget what it feels like when you win a trophy.
    Internet Investment Ideas

  12. Looks like Samba off to Russia

  13. Borntobeagunner(btbag) says:

    Waaooo, weldone Desi, what a careful analysis, precise n focus on the topic. Just like james at 11:30am said, those who cannot read should not write. In other words, those who are looking for a slightest opportunity to spike on Arsene Wenger should look out for their suitable topic before doing that. Thanks Desi once again. A true arsenal fan from Nigeria.

  14. Ade David, a Nigerian Gooner says:

    Desi, fantastic analysis. Are u a coach? You have said it all. Our defence is a major problem. It is the opinion of many fans that Wenger needs a coach to be incharge of our defence. No two ways about it. Most of the epl teams sit at the back anytime they play against us waiting for counters. Man u especially has been doing it successfully. Cant we learn from the past? I always wonder how Barcelona are doing it. If they lost possession, within a twinkle of an eye they get it back. They are not a physical team yet they dispose ball easily from a very physical team. People say that we play like Barcelona, yes in passing the ball around but when defending we are miles apart. I dont believe that we should be playing the beautiful game all the time. We need to play uglily if the beautiful one is not working. Allan Shearer was once quoted that no team can win epl the way Arsenal plays. I think I want to believe him now. We need changes of tactics

  15. GbG says:

    Epic post mate. Read it twice and will return to it again in the future through the bookmark.

    Not to criticize but did you miss out or did you intentionally leave out set-pieces? We have been awful at defending set-pieces for years.

    Shame about the idiots who can’t read yet insist on leaving a pointless, asinine comment, but not a surprise.

  16. Sean says:

    I wish most other Arsenal Blogs put in half the time and effort you have. It’s a pleasure to read such a well detailed, clear and coherent analysis rather than the usual ‘ we lost bcase of wenger herp derp ‘. Kudos.

    • santori says:

      Not to take anything away from Desi but arse2mouse carrieed a great blog just recently and well worth the read too.

      But Desi’s tactical breakdowns are enjoyable to say the least (Maybe some GIFs??? Might make them better!)

  17. Ade David, a Nigerian Gooner says:

    Who is this ade at 10.51am? If u dont have anything to say next time u should keep quiet. This blog is not 4 a lazy reader. It is a blog where Arsenal fans all over the world rub minds together

  18. kurvin says:

    Great analysis…..should have sent a copy to Wenger. He should accept his own limitation in defence. Bring on Bould , Adam or may be Keown to help with the defensive job.

    But to make Djourou and Squillaci look good we need God himself…

  19. Nepali Gunner says:

    Great analysis for an average football fan. I think you have touched upon the key: Defensive shape.

    Now I’m no expert either, but I have noticed that our team looks clueless in transition defense (borrowed term from basketball). I think Arsenal do all right when they have time to set up, but it’s the counter’s when they are rushing back from offensive positions is when we really struggle. And this is exacerbated by the fact that we lose the ball more often in the middle of the field these days.

    The main reason for our defensive frailty is the wide players in my opinion. I love Theo, but his positioning has always been bad defensively, which usually puts the full backs into trouble, and also makes it more difficult for the midfielders to set up. I think Wenger’s team were better defensively with the 442 because the full backs had a lot more help. Again, I am no expert but from what I have seen, our fullbacks usually have a tough time.

  20. ak47 says:

    defo epic.
    and i second the set pieces and add to that,

    – why does robbing take them?
    – why do we not have training that would manifest a few larssons that could actually whip a ball in to the 6yrds or freekick instead of either hitting the first man or lofted in. in a formation that cant utilise chamack.
    – could 352 be the answer?
    – is there any truth to the training techniques because fatigue mentally and physically plus the revolving door at the med centre certainly give it credit.
    – how would arsene, or if he is really that stubborn, his associates not see this and address it.

    the whole situation from top to bottom baffles. to even try to reason how we got to this point even more so. wenger does look guilty for me. and we have seen in spells what players are capable of individually. if they are not consistent in their performance then whos job is it to maximize the potential and output.

    i think maybe you have convinced me to want wenger out.

    surely not.

  21. Ray Austin says:

    Sick. Only a true gooner would write such a piece.

  22. chikezie chinke says:

    Nice analysis Desi. It’s not as if Arsenal defenders are that bad individually, but the problem is the team unit. If you rate Arsenal defenders on individual bases (one on one) against other defenders in the premiership, Arsenal defenders will come out as some of the best in the league. There are just about 2 or 3 teams that you can match their defenders individually against Arsenal defenders. That is to say Arsenal have individual talents, but the team effort is lacking. Take for instance in the days of Viera, Cambell,Gilberto etc. they had quality defenders, but they also defended as a unit and attacked as a unit. You will always see Viera, Gilberto, Pires, Ljungberg and even Bergkamp tracking back to support the defence and once the gain position you will see this same players pushing together on the offensive. just like someone said we play like Barca but we do not defend like them. It’s a simple thing that i have always said, the best way to defend just like Barca is to always press your opponents. Once you loose the ball close them down immediately, they should not have time to think and restructure themselves while they are still out of shape and most likely they will loose possession back to you. The biggest problem is once Arsenal looses possession they give the opponents so much space to operate and they track back casually. I will like a situation were if Arsenal players could not gain possession from pressing opponents, the rest players aside RVP should fall behind the ball. All they need is collective effort with good positioning. Like the old saying goes ‘UNITED WE STAND’. I don’t know why i’m positive about this one, i believe Arsenal will come out tops over Tottenham.
    I wish them the best.

  23. arna says:


    Sagna Kozzer Vermaelen Miquel


    Arteta Rosicky

    Gervinho Oxlade


  24. Danish Gooner says:

    Thanks for taking the time to break down some of our shortcomings. ’twas a very interesting read indeed. Particularly after I just spent half an hour trying to convince some money dosser over at the bl*cher report that Jan Vertonghen (or any other mid-to-high profile CB-signing) WON’T be the solution to all our prayers and mop up the frailties.

    In my opinion, the best thing to do (and Arséne has actually done this recently) is to acquire defenders based more on their defensive expertise than their, let’s call it ‘Arséne factor’ (how good ball players they are, their versatility within or around the back four and whether they comprehend French etc.). That is also why I genuinely believe Per will be an asset to us as he’s the diametrical opposite of the prototype Arsenal defender (over the last many seasons) and so complements TV5 or LK6 rather effectively – once he’s fully adjusted to the barge and surge of EPL, that is. Whereas TV5 is the marshall and LK6 the all-round athlete, Per seems to be more of a defensive thinker who could just be the perfect match for the more all-action types around him. I hope the he, once he’s fully confident with the language, will begin to take more charge of positioning in much the same way SZCZ is at the moment.
    Also, you will notice I’m not even mentioning Djourou or Squilacci, which is down to the fact that they simply don’t cut it at Arsenal’s level of ambition. Johann is a properly decent guy but just not good enough, and Seb. looked the perfect addition on record (international, previous champion, experienced at top level) but somehow appears to be shockingly novice in almost all aspects of defending.

    Anyways, thanks for the post. Good luck tomorrow.

    • santori says:

      There is no issue with the Cbacks.

      Metersecker/Koscielny are a reasonably solid pairing.

      Vermalen has lost his way a little and I’m not sure if he works best with Koscielny but he is a tenacious competitor I’ll give him that.

      Djourou (please remember) is 4th choice. He has been more static than Tony Adams bronze statue of late but to cite him as culpable for the Valencia goal would be to ignore the fact that Vermalen lost out on an aerial duel to a shorter man.

      I don’t think we have to worry about bringing someone in for Djourou. We won’t be able to attract a player of requisite quality who is going to play 4th fiddle in the team at this point realistically.

      Besides, Djourou should know that his position is being challenged by Miquel and Bartley. My only qualm about Djourou is that the club offered such a lengthy extension. Surely that should be some caveats built in based on performance.

      In any case no new CBack will help us defend better if we do not defend porperly in concert.

  25. Yang says:

    Very good article, Team is simply unbalanced because there is not enough defensive thinkers in line up. Positioning, movement and shape of team are quite different based upon whether you are offensive minded player or defensive minded player.

    There are very few players who does have dual mode, someone can defend as well as attack, Arsene need very well rounded players who does have dual mode. But somehow current team stuck with attacking minded players only.

    • santori says:

      Also in recent games, the two central midfielders have struggled.

      I think Song is naturally slow but covers this deficiency up with positioning. However, he needs another body around him to assist him with his work screening the defense.

      This is where Arteta has excelled this season.

      But it also means that we have effectively 2 players doing the work of one which has a corresponding effect on our offensive power going forwrad behind the “attacking mid” (bearing in mind we use a more flexible system than these nomenclature shoudl suggest)

      Arteta for me has been overused and it would seem he simply looked burnt out in the last two games. When that happened, Song struggled.

      The one player who could have semi-deputised for either of Song or Arteta at the moment (Coquelin) was used at RB and then went out injured against Milan.

      Therefore we are a little short in the middle IMO which impacts the synchronisation between attack and defense and has correspondingly heaped pressure on the defense when our attack breaks down.

      Conversely there is also a corelation between our effective our defense is and our attack. The more effective our attack, the less pressure on the defense and the less these issues come to play.

      In recent games, the attack has been flat. Not that Henry is panaceae for our ‘woes’ up front but there were some spurious decisions made in terms of selection during the Milan game that did not help. Less so against Sunderland but perhaps damage done particularly with the game following immediately after.

      We could have IMO brought in a permanent solution to the RVP back up issue in Jan but that is now moot.

      Gervinho has returned to the squad and hopefully he will help us find our wide options again where we were so constricted in the last 2 games.

      He played against Sunderland and was suitably effective in the early part of the first half…WHEN we released the ball quickly.

      This is the other issue we have at the moment in that (and this is a Mourinho expertise) we do not move defense into attack quickly enough (just as we conversely do not switch back to defense fast enough)

      Again I have been clamouring for a defensive coacing specialist for several seasons now BUT I believe the solution should also be in tandem with an Attacking Specialist.

      We are an attacking side first and foremost and the more lethal we are going forward the more effective we are in dealing with issues further back as it affords the opponents less opportunity to come forward.

      That said, if we get some sort of organisational semblance cobbled together for the Spurs game, we are in with a shout.

      I’ll be optimistic, shall we say 4-O to us?


  26. santori says:

    What an excellent effort! Exhaustive to say the least but does compile much of our miserable coomon plight in defending.

    What’s quite clear is the massive amount of space available between midfield and defense for the opponents to exploit whent hey turn us over (catch us on the attack)

    Not quite sure if the CBack positioning is entirely correct. Perhaps one of them should be slightly forward and in closer proximity to the central mids or as you mentioned both should be further forward maintaining a slightly higher line (particularly in the United case)

    I can certainly see issues for us though in defending too high and wide in that instance as we were shorn of our regular fullbacks and lacking pace to cover against United so perhaps there was a reason why the defense sat back a little.

    Either way, what we seemingly lack is credible ochestration and in particular the ability to reorganise when we lose the ball.

    All your points are valid and pressing in particular needs to be done as a whole and not in units. If we simply have the forwards pressing for instance, an invariable gap will appear between the forwards and the midfield if both units are not in concert.

    This is down to drilling.

    Simply put (And Lee Dixon has come to this conclusion too), we need a better back room set up.

    I have been calling for a defensive coaching specialist AND a attack coaching specialist for several seasons now.

    I am of the opinion otherwise that any new additions to the squad will mean little.

    We have in some ways punched above our weight for many years because of Wenger’s genius in the market. Those players raw talent have in essence masked some of our deficiencies.

    With the market more open/flat and many more clubs able to out spend us, we are less able to attract the quality desired and there is a corresponding ability of the other clubs to attract the quality we need which has led to an exponential drop in competitiveness on our part.

    It is for this reason that better tactics and training MUST be our weapon of choice.

    (On the flip side, it will also afford Wenger an opportunity to grrom a succesor through competition from within the ranks if need be.)

    In any case, I hope the team has gone back to basics and put through their paces on defending where you have so eloquently elaborated. It isn’t rocket science BUT it has to be drilled properly.

    The sooner we get a better coaching set up the better.

  27. The Tactician says:

    Hello Desi,

    Very well thought out and written analysis… very rarely we find such pieces on the net. This definitely has generated some interesting thoughts and discussions.

    I am trying to get my head around this from a slightly different angle. (Appreciate if you can share your thoughts on this.)

    As an example for discussion, let us take the Man City – Blackburn Rovers game yesterday. Another good example of a team playing possession football against a team set to defend. ManC had 70% possession and also had 13 shots on target whereas BBR had just 2. With 3 goals scored, I would call this ‘meaningful possession’. Whereas when Arsenal plays, we normally do come across a 70-30 possession in favour of Arsenal, but we struggle in the final third even with the exceptionally skilful players we have.

    I beleive attack is the best defense. Having a huge chunk of possession and ability to convert them into goals is by itself an assurance against occasional goals through counter attack / free kicks / corners by the opposite team.

    So, why do you think:

    a) we are not able to make runs and give defense splitting passes as frequently as other teams / players? Are we too hung up on just keeping possession?

    b) on similar lines, even when the opposition is holding a high line, why are we not tracking the run of RVP and sending a ball over the top? Song, Arteta & Ramsey are definitely capable of doing this which they have demonstrated a few times brilliantly, but why cant this be a permamnent weapon in our armoury?

    c) when a team is capable for keeping the ball for 60-70% of the time, it is also an indication, the opposition does lose possession too quickly for their liking. So keeping in line with our philosophy, cant we simply outscore the opponents with our possession if we just play right? This will make teams think twice before they try a counter-attack?

    My point is, why dont we just focus and capitalize on attack which is our strength? If we can convert the lion’s share of possession we always enjoy into chances and goals, will defense be that much of a concern? Where are we going wrong with our attack compared to the more successful teams in EPL, Serie A, La Liga etc…??

    It will be good to know your views.

    Cheers 🙂

  28. […] in the week I’d done a detailed piece on Arsenal’s defensive issues. You might want to check that in case you’d missed it but it’s over 6500 words to go […]

  29. deep says:

    thanks. now i know what to look for during a match. great article.

  30. […] am no big football analyst, but Desi Gunner is. I read this amazing article, about Arsenal’s defensive issues. It is a must […]

  31. […] am no big football analyst, but Desi Gunner is. I read this amazing article, about Arsenal’s defensive issues. It is a must […]

  32. […] Vermaelen obviously got some flak for his mistakes but this is neither the first nor the last time he’s made those kind of errors. His game is based on attacking the ball and there will be moments when an unfortunate slip or a poor decision – when to go for the ball and when to hold – will expose the goal. Usually he has some support, either from his central defensive partner or a full-back or a midfielder, but in this game Arsenal didn’t have sufficient depth to their defending. […]

  33. […] the place (there is an excellent and balanced deconstruction of the issue on Desi Gunner’s blog: https://desigunner.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/a-detailed-look-at-arsenals-defensive-issues-tactics-shap… […]

  34. Adrian says:

    Great read- great analysis. To me, it seems that the poor positioning starts with poor defensive skill/effort from our attacking players particularly in transition. As you pointed out in the example against ManU, Ox and RVP are pressing BUT TR7 isn’t! Theo Walcott makes a terrible effort to deny Giggs later in the move.

    There are days when they make an exception, but IMHO for all their individual skill, Theo, Gervinho, and Arshavin are not decent defensively. I respect that you need players with attacking skill to win matches, but it is harder to carry that liability against the top teams which you need to beat to win trophies.

    I think that is why you’ve seen improved performances from Arsenal when players like Ox or Benayoun are playing – they are much better at tracking runners, defensive awareness, competing in the air, and general defensive play – which allows other players to stay in position.

    I’d really like to see a coach that can get our attacking players to defend as part of the team structure more, and to be more urgent defensive response when we lose the ball – Walcott particularly seems to waddle back when Arsenal lose the ball which is really annoying when you can see Sagna sprinting past him trying to get back from his overlapping run. I don’t rate Walcott on his attacking abilities – he’s anonymous against decent opposition – but I’d bench him because he can’t defend. Gervinho is worse.
    Ox is much better defensively, and arguably in attack as well. I’d like to see what Ryo can do next season as well.

  35. […] this article I don’t want to dwell on those issues as they have already been covered here in detail. That post has over 6500 words and plenty of snapshots to illustrate various points. It […]

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