After two consecutive defeats that ended our hopes for some silverware this year, there are more and more voices of discontent with the current situation at Arsenal regarding basically everything – tickets price, transfer policy, team selection and, what’s the most important? Results.
After a promising start of the season we have witnessed another campaig ridden with individual errors that lead to opponents’ goals. There are a lot of things we must improve in order to gain fourth spot but it will only make sense if we do serious things in the summer transfer window to build-up from there.
For a while now fingers have been pointed at defensive mistakes that keep ruining our ambitions year after year. Some players have already stood up for Arsene Wenger which is a good thing but they also need to provide decent defending ON the field. I will try to point our defensive issues we have had so far.
1.No defensive reinforcements in the summer transfer window.
Our defensive record in 2011-12 wasn’t exactly the best. We conceded 49 goals although a large chunk came in just four matches (8 against United, 4 against Blackburn, 3 against Chelsea, 3 against Norwich, 3 against Swansea – 21 in just five matches). A lot of points were dropped due to the fact we had an injury crisis in our defensive line in January which led to the bizarre situation where Wenger had no natural full-backs on disposal.
Injury record speaks for itself – Sagna missed 17 games, Vermaelen 10, Mertesacker’s season ended in the week 25 match against Sunderland while Gibbs featured in just 16 matches. It’s no wonder that Wenger had to experiment and apply 19 (!) different defensive line-ups.
Despite these warnings and the fact that Jenkinson looked like very raw material while Djourou and (especially) Squillaci haven’t looked like Arsenal material for a long time, Wenger decided against signing any defensive reinforcements in the summer. Granted, he did sign Nacho Monreal in the January transfer window but only after Kieran Gibbs suffered a substantial injury and Andre Santos proved to be our biggest defensive vulnerability.
Ignasi Miquel could be the one for the future as a central defender but given that Wenger was reluctant to use him this season, we are short in numbers in that position and we should sign another central defender.
Johan Djourou’s position is a strange one – he was handed a new contract last year only to be treated like surplus this season and eventually loaned out to Hannover 96.
2.Lack of consistency in the line-up and form.
As mentioned above, Wenger had to play 19 different defensive line-ups last season. This season we have had a more consistent line-up (Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs) in the first four matches. In our fifth match Vermaelen was absent due to flu so Koscielny took his place next to Mertesacker, while in the sixth match Koscielny and Vermaelen were paired in the central defense which caused all kinds of troubles for us. Mertesacker returned in the 3:1 victory against West Ham but Gibbs was injured so we had to settle with the out-of-shape Andre Santos on the left side in the forthcoming fixtures.
After poor performances from the chubby Brazilian, Wenger tried with Vermaelen as the left full-back but that didn’t made our defense rock solid as we conceded three frustrating goals against Fulham at the Emirates. Gibbs returned in Week 15 against Swansea that turned out to be fiasco. That was the first time since Week 4 that we had Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Gibbs in the starting line-up again.
The match against WBA at home was mostly mentioned because of Cazorla’s dive to earn the first penalty for us but it should be said it was the first match this season that we were able to field our strongest defense – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs. That defense featured in three consecutive victories (West Brom 2:0, Reading 5:2, Wigan 1:0) before Koscielny had to replace Mertesacker in the starting 11 against Newcastle due to the BFG’s illness.
The shaky partnership between Koscielny and Vermaelen was covered by a brilliant attacking performance against Newcastle but the next match against Southampton and the ten minutes they played together against Manchester Oilers got us in all sorts of trouble as we won just one point from those two matches. Mertesacker returned in the aforementioned match against the Oilers after Koscielny was sent off but he hasn’t been in good form recently.
Our strongest back four played in the two London derbies with mixed results but Gibbs’ injury against Liverpool forced Wenger to make an eleventh hour transfer to sign Nacho Monreal from Malaga. The Spanish full-back has been at Arsenal for only three matches (2 in the Premiership and one in the FA Cup) but he already played in three different defensive formations – against Stoke he was fielded next to Koscielny, Mertesacker and Sagna; against Sunderland his team-mates in defense were Jenkinson, Sagna and Mertesacker (with Ramsey shifting to right full-back after Jenkinson was sent off) while against Blackburn he played alongside Koscielny, Vermaelen and Coquelin. It’s hard to make a recognizable defense like with Dixon, Adams, Keown, Winterburn and Bould when you rarely play with the same partners two times in a row.
All these changes haven’t been helpful for players’ form as well. Jenkinson has been dropped to the bench ever since Sagna returned and that had a negative influence for the young English international’s form. Vermaelen and Mertesacker both suffered illnesses that broke their streak of good form while Sagna has given by far his best performance when he was played out of position – in the middle of defense. Gibbs failed to match his defensive performances from the start of the season which shouldn’t be a surprise given how many games he had to miss due to injuries. Koscielny had his usual problems with positioning which have cost us heavily in the matches against the Chavs and the Oilers.
3.Goalkeeping issues – lack of commanding presence between the sticks and no cover for Szczesny.
Of course, the goalkeepers’ role shouldn’t be excluded. Szczesny had problems with injuries which created the opportunity for Mannone to show his worth. It seems that Szczesny – with all his qualities – doesn’t have enough commanding skills which is understandable to a certain extent given that he is only 22. However, he’ll have to improve in that department if he wants to fulfill his potential.
His replacements – Mannone and Fabianski – are not good enough to provide proper cover for him when he is out of form or injured which makes Szczesny’s improvement harder as there is no real competition.
4.There is a huge gap between the lines.
Theo Walcott is our best goal-scorer this season and he is doing well with creating goals as well but his defending isn’t anywhere near that level. It was Walcott who didn’t track his player against Blackburn which left our defense exposed to the counter-attack. That kind of behavior causes problems for Sagna whenever the French full-back attacks as there is a huge possibility opponents will have the right side of our defense opened for counter-attacks. Lukas Podolski has hit double digits when it comes to goals and assists already but he hasn’t been always helpful enough for Gibbs/Santos/Vermaelen/Monreal. These issues might have something with the fact that both players see themselves as natural strikers and want to play a more central role in attack.
If we don’t know how to do it properly, we had a chance to learn from those who can. The two best teams we faced this season are FAnchester United and Bayern Muenchen, teams that have plenty of quality on their flanks. We have been heavily exposed on our left side in matches against both opponents as their strong wingers (Valencia and Mueller) were helped by their overlapping full-backs (Rafael and Lahm).
Our creative forces Cazorla and Wilshere should also do a better job defensively. Cazorla was watching Kroos preparing to score instead of trying to block him, while also it must be mentioned Arteta is not an efficient defensive midfielder.
5.Opponents usually score goals via their best players/goal-scorers which implies either below par scouting or match preparation
What do Michu, Džeko, Suarez, Demba Ba, Van Persie, Mata, Fellaini, Bale and Huntelaar have in common? All of them have been the best goal-scorers and/or players of their respective teams when they played and scored against us with Michu, Mata and Huntelaar managing to get on the score-sheet in two fixtures. Granted, it is hard to stop Van Persie or Mata from scoring but at least we all know they are the main threats when you play against their respective teams.
Practically every second goal we concede is a result of an individual error that makes you want to throw your TV or computer through the window. Szczesny opened the mistakes against Southampton (it was the first goal we conceded in the Premiership) and we could see Koscielny’s horrible defending against Chelsea, Vermaelen’s gift to Van Persie (our skipper nearly gave away a goal to Norwich as well but luckily Holt forgot he is not Messi and his chip was saved by Mannone), Arteta’s mistake that gave away a penalty against Fulham, the streak of mistakes of four different players against Liverpool before Suarez scored the opening goal… Whether we are suffering from a lack of concentration, lack of quality or both, it is something that has been haunting us for years and something that makes us send at least 10 points every season down the toilet.
7.Poor defending from set-pieces.
This one has become part of our tradition, especially in big matches. It is hard to pick the most frustrating goal conceded in this manner – Lescott’s goal against the run of play versus the Oilers, Evra’s header won against the 20 centimeters taller Mertesacker, the two goals conceded against the Chavs at Emirates or Mueller’s goal against Bayern.
Olivier Giroud and Abou Diaby seem to be very important players for the quality of our aerial defense as they bring height to our team. However, neither of them were in the starting 11 against Bayern which left us with just one big guy in the team (Mertesacker).
8.Our defenders are too soft and mostly without combative spirit.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want our players to come out on the pitch with the idea of breaking opponents’ ankles as a legitimate way to defend. However, if you have watched Arsenal in recent years, you could see how often opponents walk with the ball through our lines without being fouled or stopped with any kind of tackle. One of the worst examples was Mackie’s dribbling through our midfield and defense in the last minutes of the game versus QPR. Mackie went past three of our players and was one-on-one with Mannone but the Scottish attacker was denied by our Italian goalkeeper. I wanted to enter into my TV, tackle Mackie myself and give a hair-dryer to my team-mates after that. Last season we conceded very soft opening goals against FAnchester United in both games with Djourou and Vermaelen out-muscled by Welbeck and Valencia respectively. Per Mertesacker is also too soft for a player of his height and turns his back when opponents take shots which doesn’t make him look good in my eyes as well.
In terms of combativeness, we should take a look at our performance against Sunderland as our guiding light. Now, that’s the spirit!
9.Lack of a real defensive midfielder.
The sale of Alex Song turns out to be an even bigger blow for us than the departure of Van Persie. It wasn’t just Song’s departure that hit us hard, it’s more that Wenger failed to sign anyone as his replacement. Capoue, M’Vila, Vertonghen, Diame, Tiote have all been connected with us but none of them were acquired so Arteta had to play as a defensive midfielder. Abou Diaby and Aaron Ramsey have also played in that position but Diaby – who was hit by injury when he was one of our best players – admitted he sees himself as more of a Yaya Toure than Patrick Vieira type of player while Ramsey lacks strength to be an enforcer we need. Youngsters Coquelin and Frimpong have been players that have not excelled so far although the latter one’s performance against Liverpool last season – apart from his red card – is something we need.
Arteta is an excellent midfielder, he was a key player last season, but turning him into a defensive midfielder – despite his previous experience in that position – instead of buying a natural one could turn out to be a very expensive Wenger mistake. Back in 2003 Real Madrid made well-known mistake by selling both defensive midfielders Claude Makelele and Flavio Conceicao without bringing a natural replacement.
Their concept of “Los Galacticos” (also called “Zidanes y Pavones”) brought by Florentino Perez didn’t allow any space for hard-working midfielders without additional commercial worth so they signed David Beckham from FAnchester United. Beckham was often used as a defensive midfielder due to his high work-rate and actually had one of the best average ratings in Primera at a certain point but Real paid the price when it came to silverware as they were knocked out from the Champions’ League by our very own Sebastien Squillaci and their own Fernando Morientes in the Champions’ League, Valencia won La Liga, Barcelona and Deportivo pipped Real for second and third place thanks to six defeats Real suffered in last seven matches and they lost the Copa del Rey final as well. Meanwhile, Barcelona – led by Ronaldinho – overcame a horrible start of the season after Edgar Davids joined them on loan. After all, we all know that it is much easier to be express your talent like Pires and Henry because they had Vieira or Gilberto behind their back.
A lack of defensive midfielder like Javi Martinez, Luiz Gustavo or Javier Mascherano has been our problems since Day 1 of this season. We have needed a guy that will take the ball from our opponents, force pressure on them in order to prevent them from passing the ball freely (just take a look how easy Bayern passed the ball without being properly challenged) or to make smart fouls when opponents have a chance for counter-attack.
It seems we didn’t do our home-work from last season either. That would explain why our first-half performances have mostly been awful. Instead of commercial tours, we should be working on our defending, especially positioning and set-pieces.
11.Lack of top quality and leadership in defense.
Some of Per Mertesacker’s weaknesses have been mentioned above but his partners aren’t completely innocent either.
It could be said that Thomas Vermaelen was much better as Robin to Van Persie’s Batman than as Batman himself. His performances have been below par on too many occasions and the lack of scored goals underlines that. There are at least two players in the squad that would be better captains than Vermaelen- Jack Wilshere and vice-captain Mikel Arteta. Let’s hope he will recover his best form and bang a few goals in the process. His goal against Newcastle last season was one of the best moments of 2012 and reflected what kind of spirit is expected from Vermaelen – to fight, to rally his troops and to be able to put sword in the opponents’ defense.
Laurent Koscielny possesses pace, and his tackling sometimes suggests that he could be a decent defensive midfielder but his positioning has cost us too many times. If he doesn’t improve in that area, Wenger should sell him in the summer and bring in a top class, established central defender.
So, what should we do? We should stay focused. After the second leg with Bayern, we will have just the Premiership to deal with. Since the Spuds and Chavs are still alive in the Europa League while the Chavs also have FA Cup to play for, they’ll have extra-fixtures which should reflect on their fatigue as well as on the level of their performances which we should exploit. After all, our best performances last season (nine victories in ten matches) came in a period when we lost in the Champions’ League to AC Milan and the FA Cup to Sunderland so maybe the Blackburn and Bayern defeats will do the trick this year.
However, after the last match against Newcastle, Wenger & co must start working on eliminating flaws we have been tortured by for 8 years.