Elementary Errors Cast A Shadow Of Doubt On The Forthcoming Campaign

August 7, 2010

Before the game against Legia Warsaw started I didn’t know what to expect. Within minutes from the start it was clear that this was going to be a tough battle that will expose our weaknesses.

Legia pressed high up the pitch and maintained a high tempo. They also used the channels and the long ball to good effect. This is a strategy that Fulham have successfully employed against us in recent seasons and this team in White looked like a clone of the Hodgson side.

Arsenal had a very weak midfield. Frimpong wasn’t able to keep up with the tempo of the game and Wilshere looked more like a Bolton midfielder than an Arsenal one. I don’t think either kid was really at fault, the simple fact is that neither of them is ready for a midfield starting role. Wilshere is also a kind of player who likes to run with the ball and that takes him out of position quite often. In the system we play, the second midfielder needs phenomenal off the ball movement and quick, sharp short passes. This allows us to maintain possession and keep the rhythm going. With Wilshere in that role we will always struggle when the opposition presses so high up. The youngster is more suited to the advanced midfield role that seems reserved for Cesc or Nasri. Anyway, both Frimpong and Wilshere would have gained a lot from this experience and I don’t really worry about the mistakes they made.

Sadly for us, the inexperienced midfield was exposed further by some awful football by Rosicky and Walcott. Rosicky should have used his experience to control the tempo but he played as if he had Song and Cesc with him on the pitch. Too often he passed the ball to a youngster under pressure or failed to offer himself to receive a pass. To be fair to Walcott, the midfield wasn’t working and we couldn’t use his strengths. He was hardly given the ball with any kind of space to run into and that made his life really difficult.

Considering the fact that four out of the five in midfield were not having a good day it was not a surprise that we conceded three in half an hour or so. Many writers will find it easy to blame the keeper and the defensive partnership but I thought our problems were far more fundamental and systemic and not completely down to individuals.

For instance, see how the first goal went in. The opposition keeper kicked it long and Koscielny got the ball. It bounced off him towards the centre circle. The opposition player took it and was pressurised by Wilshere. The player held on to the ball and ran back all the way to the spot where his left back would have been. Wilshere followed him till there and that left a huge gap behind him. Walcott and Nasri joined Wilshere in pressing the ball but none of them was decisive enough and all three were taken out of the game by one simple turn and pass.

Think about this again. Three of our five midfielders were out wide on the right in a five yard area. Once they were completely out of the game it was easy for a Legia player to receive the ball on the wing. Sagna went with the runner, Frimpong came to cover on the flank and the whole centre was exposed. The scorer Cabral received the ball in the centre circle, ran unopposed up to the edge of our box and smashed it past the keeper. No defender closed him down.

This goal showed why we conceded key goals from counter attacks last year. There were five or six players at fault. I wouldn’t blame them as individuals but I would certainly blame the defensive drills they have been doing. It doesn’t matter whether we call it 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1, if our players don’t get their defensive balance and positioning right we will concede plenty more this season.

The second goal exposed further problems that plagued us all through last season. The opposition winger was able to easily receive the ball and run down the channel almost to the byline. Sagna did a decent job of cutting his cross by conceding a corner. Most teams would have defended it easily. Arsenal could not.

There were six or seven players in front of the goalkeeper. There was no way he was ever going to get the ball. He still went for it and I’m sure it was because he has clear instructions to go for almost every ball. We’ve seen Almunia, Mannone and Fabianski do this far too often to think it’s their decision making that’s flawed. The flaw is with the person who decides how Arsenal will defend set pieces. There is no way the keeper should be forced to go for that ball.

Frimpong wasn’t able to read the flight and head it clear. Chamakh was more interested in grappling with his man even though he has the talent to judge the flight and attack the ball. All of this is down to the training we do. Arsenal are crying out for a top class defensive coach. I’m convinced even if we sign the best keeper in the world the same problems will continue unless the approach to defending changes.

I can do the same analysis for all the goals we conceded in this game. I can also prove these points by a frame by frame analysis as I’ve done in the past. But it’s not the fans who need to understand this, it’s the people in charge of defence who need to get it. For each goal we conceded there were three of four elementary mistakes and we will lose some crucial points during the season because of similar mistakes.

I’m also worried about our midfield. With the injury to Ramsey we have been short and unless Song, Diaby, Denilson, and Cesc return soon and hit the ground running, we could surrender the title challenge within the early months. I hope Nasri doesn’t come back crocked from his meaningless friendly for the national team. Given our luck with injuries that seems quite likely!

I was really frustrated by this game but there were a few positives as well. Nasri obviously was brilliant. Chamakh had a very good game and the goal he scored is the kind that will help us against stubborn defences. Vela too had a decent outing as he picked up three assists. More than any of this I was happy with Wenger’s flexibility. It seemed to me that we changed the system in the second half.

Nasri dropped deeper and we got better cover on the wings in the form of Gibbs and Eboue. Vela was playing more like a second striker. It was a fluid system but looked more like a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1. It wasn’t surprising that we controlled the tempo in the second half and scored half a dozen goals. It just highlighted the fact that all our problems started with a weak midfield that couldn’t handle the tempo and pressure.

At the end of the day, this wasn’t the way to go into the first game of the season; especially one away at Anfield against a manager who knows how to play against Arsenal. The positive side is that not many teams are going to win at Anfield so we are not in a must win situation. But a poor result in the first game will affect the confidence in the squad and the mood of the supporters.

Arsene has his work cut out and he has to come up with some answers in the next week. It won’t be easy but he’s done it before.