The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Arsenal’s defence must overcome its mental barriers

So the monkey on Arséne Wenger’s back remains. On Sunday, it was viciously clawing and grasping onto Wenger’s shoulders, trying desperately to keep balanced; especially so after Arsenal dominated the middle period of the second-half, aiming shot after shot at Ben Foster’s goal. Today, it rests happily on his back, chain-smoking like a simian Zdeněk Zeman casually wearing a porter’s uniform as if waiting for work – without the trousers, of course. On Wednesday night, it will surely be back to its taunting best, furiously pointing and gesticulating at the manager who faces an FA Cup replay at home to Leyton Orient.

Six years it’s been without Arsenal lifting a trophy and it is a monkey Wenger will want to get off his back. Perhaps not desperately because modern football is about staying competitive but it remains a major objective for his iconoclastic side and the 2-1 League Cup defeat remained its best chance. Key matches in the FA Cup and the Champions League are yet to come, not to mention the league where the holders play the leaders tonight. With the loss, Arsenal has become now, perennial failures, having overtaken Manchester United in the domestic cup loses count with 12 defeats and the most recent cup failure had a bit of fatalism about it.

Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish, set up his team to try and exploit what he saw as Arsenal’s flaws as he packed a midfield with runners, backed up by a menacing technician on the right-wing in former Gunner, Sebastian Larsson to aim balls forward to beanpole striker Nikola Zigic. In the end, they may have accrued less possession and were visibly shattered at the back but McLeish knew, because of their direct style, could always create a chance It was up to Arsenal then, to be more effective with the ball – they only completed half the job having notched up 58% of the ball possession – but lacked the cutting edge of Cesc Fabregas or even Theo Walcott. Abou Diaby’s powerful runs would surely have made a difference even but Wenger decided not to risk him in the squad and opted for an adjustment up top after Robin van Persie’s injury.

The second job to negate Birmingham’s strategy, was to press quickly but the hectic nature of the English game can make that difficult. Birmingham were able to escape with one quick release and the fact that Arsenal don’t press as high up the pitch as last season left Barry Ferguson and the back four relatively unopposed. The long ball tactic also meant it was more difficult to get organised as the team would have to  rush back into position straight after attack, so knock downs and loose balls would almost exclusively have to be picked up by the defence and Jack Wilshere and Alex Song. Tomas Rosicky was often too high up the pitch to make a three which would have made a great deal of difference to Arsenal as it was already outnumbered in the centre.

And the third task and perhaps the most simplistic instruction on paper, was to win challenges in the air. Initially, Laurent Koscielny tried to stick to Zigic like glue but the Serbian kept on peeling off his markers and when he began to win an increasing amount of headers, doubts crept in. And that, in a nutshell sums up the problem with Arsenal’s defensive strategy, if indeed it is a problem. Wenger has long been criticised for not purchasing another a commanding centre-back and consequently an experienced goalkeeper and that supposed intransigence, cost them the trophy. But can it be as easy as that?

In the goalkeeping department, perhaps more pragmatism should have been taken because it is the most mentally frail position. But at centre-back, it is more complicated than that. Improved fitness, thereby exposing technique and mobility makes “no-nonsense” defenders obsolete. Footballers must be all-rounders and those defenders that are usually described as the aforementioned – John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Vidic – are adept at all parts of the game. Initially Vidic had a uncomfortable transition to the English Premier League but now regularly completes 5-10 passes in the oppositions half while Terry is a fantastic two-footed passer of the ball. Yes, football may still be specialised, but in each position, a player must compose of a multitude of traits.

Arsenal’s centre-backs in the past few years have been on the passive side but the current four, and given that two are in their début season, like nothing more than to put their head on the ball as well as their foot. The mix up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny may go down as a communication error and one that highlights the embryonic partnership between the pair rather than meekness. When Wenger did enter the club, he inherited the best back four in the country and so it is to some surprise that he has neglected the battling qualities of the old guard of which he talks glowingly about. But lets not forget also, he signed, possibly the most gifted of the lot. Sol Campbell was boisterous on the pitch and displayed a fantastic all-round ability, no less displayed when he made his comeback to the team last season, at 35 years old and was forced to defend on the half-way line against both FC Porto and Tottenham. Who could have, however, fathomed that he had a mental frailty that he suddenly released in between his two spells? and certainly, what could Arsenal have become did he stay and inspire the class of 2007-08?

Campbell’s reincarnation, however, also shows that some pragmatism may be allowed in the centre-back position even given the expansive nature of Arsenal’s style. Wenger, as the psychologist Jacques Crevoisier who has devised customised personality tests for the manager, explains, wants “above all…intelligent players. To play for Arsenal you have to be intelligent, technical and fast.”

The difficulty then becomes obvious in building a team like Arsenal’s and trying to find a balance between technique, speed, efficiency, dynamism, possession, mental strength and height. Every team must have a weakness. Barcelona has conceded half of their goals from set pieces as height becomes an issue in trying to produce a technical level of football. Brazil may achieve this because as Dunga says, “it’s about the Brazilian population because the height is increasing and this brought a good stature and physical agility.” But on the whole, it’s generally difficult. Chelsea or Manchester United may be closer to getting there but it come as a sacrifice on ball-hungry possession keeping and an intricate style.

As a compensation perhaps, although, Arsenal does practice set-plays and practice, does indeed, make perfect, Arsenal has concentrated a lot on strategic defending. This season, it’s been awe-inspiringly integrated and one that is so dependent on the unit that one chink in the system can affect the whole. If the distances between the back four and the midfield and consequently, the midfield and the attack are too large or too small, the press will fail. The mantra is to win the ball back and that comes through structural pressing and the use of Dutch priniciples of through-marking. (Through-marking sees the players behind the first presser looking to eliminate the next pass through tight-marking and close attention). As Andoni Zubizarreta, the director of professional football at Barcelona says, “strategic defending has nothing to do with height.” But he adds – almost as a caveat – a point one which is perhaps the most pertinent to Arsenal: “But defensively, it’s a good team, and it’s not as if we’re an English team, who are always physically more powerful. We might pay for that in some games.”

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17 Responses to “Arsenal’s defence must overcome its mental barriers”

  1. Ole Gunner says:

    What defensive weaknesses?

    We’re conceding a shot on target per game. We’re keeping clean sheets.

    What defensive weaknesses?

    That’s not what marks this team right now.

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    Carlton Reply:

    Agreed, can’t see too many defensive weaknesses in this side. It’s been one of the strongest in Europe since Djourou’s return mid-December.

    I don’t draw too many conclusions from this match because
    a) Zigic is a freak of nature who will only play against this defence 2/3 times a season
    b) Walcott was absent, which allowed Birmingham to push up and play Zigic closer to the Arsenal goal, and their midfielders closer to Zigic
    c) Koscielny and Szczesny’s mix-up is unlikely to be repeated in future

    In the game at St. Andrew’s where Walcott did play, Arsenal ran out comfortable 3-0 winners as Birmingham’s defence sat deep and allowed Fabregas + Nasri to pass the ball into the net.

    Arsenal’s defence is built on pro-activity, closing down attackers’ 1st touch, nicking in and making interceptions etc. This system has served us well when we’ve had a 1st choice defence, allowing the team to keep plenty of clean sheets and limit the opposition to around just 1 shot on target per match. To sacrifice it for more height in order to counter a couple of giant centre forwards would be silly.

    Don’t see any problems really, the lack of pace when Walcott is missing is worrying though. Arsene must look to buy another like-minded player in the summer (Miyaichi could be the answer?) because without him, the opposition are able to push up without fear of being caught in behind.

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    The Brain Reply:

    I don’t think the article was too critical on the defence, rather being purposefully hypothetical in it’s conclusion. But you are right, the defence has been very good recently although there are mental hurdles that the team must overcome. A lot comes down to the unit also playing well – as Carlton says.

    The title perhaps threw people off somewhat. Blame copy-editing for a non-representative title.

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  2. goonergery says:

    No we dont have any defensive weaknesses-Newcastle home and away, Spurs, Wigan-they were all freaks-one offs. We don’t crack under pressure?
    Ole gunner-are you blind?????

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    Carlton Reply:

    Those were all games in which Squillaci and Koscielny partnered each other. It’s a partnership which lacks aerial ability, leadership and Premier League experience. But those 2 only played together because Vermaelen and Djourou were missing. Under normal circumstances, Squillaci is 4th choice and Koscielny will always have one of Djourou or Vermaelen alongside him.

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    GoonerC Reply:

    Think I’ve just basically said the exact same thing below!

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  3. I was thinking d same on how Cesc drops alongside JW & AS 2 make a 3 when we dont have d ball, which TR failed 2 do. I wasn’t happy with Rosicky in the attacking phase either, kept coming out d lines to deep positions when all he to do was move horinzontally to receive passes higher up the pitch. On the day, non-communication in defence cost us badly.

    If you actually study previous matches with Birmingham espcially at St Andrews, they did us alot with very deep corners & setplays headed back across to someone else to get a chance even though they didnt always take the chances, Zigic punished that error on Sunday.

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  4. GoonerC says:

    GoonerGrey, we only look weak at the back when we have 2 CB injured. Every club in the league does. When United have Vidic and Ferdinand out, they have to play Evans and Smalling. Against Newcastle away, we had Verma and Djourou out for the second half, and, when you combine that with one dodgy, and one joke of a penalty decision and a wonder goal off a DM’s wrong foot we let in four goals.

    Wigan away, Koscielney and Squillaci, Spurs at home, Koscielney Squillaci. We are solid at the back as long as we dont have that combination of players. Djourou and Squillaci usually works (Stoke on Wednesday against v-physical players for example), Koscielney and Djourou look a superb partnership. When you chuck Vermalean in too, we have a pretty good looking 4 centre backs. Remember, even with those games you mentioned, we’ve only let in 2 more goals than United, who don’t have a dodgy defence.

    The goal on Sunday isn’t indicative of a dodgy defence, nor does it show that either player is crap. It was a ONE-OFF mistake. I remember a similar cock up between Rio Ferdinand and Van Der Saar against Portsmouth a few years ago. It didn’t make them crap players. It happens. Unfortunately for us it happened in the final minute of a cup final.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

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  5. George China says:

    The weaknesses of Arsenal have been there the last six years.Yet Wenger is reluctant to do anything like investing in a quality player. He prefers to pluck someon e from the deert/amazon and turn him into a star like Viera/Anelka/Jundberg/etc.Those days are long gone and it is infinitely much more difficult to replicate a Veira.
    I am afraid the gunners will finish potless again ,you got it: a poor defence and a not solid gk.Allied to this is the gunners style of play .All you have to do is break the passing momentum and three/four or even fivepasses. Then the ball is in the gunner net.
    In contrast the gunners must pass back/front/sideways/back again.Total number of passes could be ten to 100. That is why the gunners are known as the passing team and playing pretty soccer. At the end of the game, they either mugged or held to a draw.
    Wenger can’t undertand why Arsenal can’t win. We fans know but he is blind or chose not to know.
    That sums up why the gunners will continue to lose the big games.
    Either Wenger invests in quality or he goes away/upstairs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 9

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  6. Waycoolblue says:

    Why are people asking why arsenal LOST the
    Carling cup final well the simple answer is arsenal LOST because
    Birmingham won.
    Arsenal played at there best but there best was not good enough to beat a Birmingham side that wanted it much more B’ham forced Arsenal to shoot from 25/30 yards Ben foster saved there lasing shots it was a good game with the blues winning and deservedly so
    Birmingham won AND WAS THE BEST TEAM ON THE DAY . :0)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

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    Eurazian Reply:

    @ Waycoolblue:

    Yes and no. Hats off to Birmingham, they did well and deserved their win. But it was pretty obvious Arsenal were under-par. To claim Arsenal “played their best” is silly. Fabregas is one of the top 5 midfielders in the world and without him we lacked direction.

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  7. Greg says:

    It’s a shame we didn’t get Schwarzer.

    I like Sczeszny and I think Kos is excellent. Overall our defence is fine, and Kos and Djourou will be up there with the best in the world. It’s just a shame that we didn’t have a more experienced keeper to bridge us over for this season at least.

    I don’t say this because of Sunday, just a general observation. We’re tight at the back but we could be tighter, and the young centre-backs would have benefited in the long-term from having an experienced keeper to organize them in big games.

    I wonder if Mad Jens returning to coach has anything to do with this…

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    Eurazian Reply:

    I sort of agree with you, sort of not. I too was really hoping for Schwarzer to be signed at the start of the season. But the way that it has worked out, on balance I don’t really think we have suffered because of it.

    I think in this game, Sczeszny’s inexperience definitely showed, and Schwarzer would have been better. However, aside from that (and his crap kicking vs Man U) the young Pole has been excellent. He has kept us in games with some brilliant saves and all-round dominant performances. You could probably argue he has been better than Schwarzer this season.

    So while Schwarzer wouldn’t have made those errors in the CC Final, who’s to say we would have got there to begin with if Schwarzer was our main keeper? It’s difficult to play the “what if” game, because even before Sczeszny, Fabianski was also playing well. If Schwarzer arrived, neither would have proved themselves, and there’s no guarantee he would have gelled at Arsenal.

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  8. no.4 says:

    the difference that cost us the game vs birm.city is rociscky’s lackluster play. he played fabregas’s position which required him to be the distributor with incisive passes. but too oftentimes I saw him either give away the ball or put the ball in a suboptimal position. fabregas’s playmaking ability was sorely missed on Sunday. arsenal looked like they were missing the central engine the entire game. I wish AW had put nasri in that position instead with bendtner on the wing.

    the defense was an issue. koscielny and djourou are talented and scesczny has potential IMO but they definitely lack the experience and maturity that’s required to win the big ones. I’d say we have a good chance at winning the PL, but I don’t have high hopes for them in the fa cup or the CL

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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  9. piquantscholar says:

    @ArsenalColumn enjoyed ur article. Certainly would agree with ur point on mufc now Although 2/3 years ago our team lacked an obv weakness

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  10. DaStuDawg says:

    Good article :)

    I feel that the problem on Sunday was that without any sort of pace over the top – the sort of threat that Walcott provides – Birmingham were able to push for a high-line, pin us back, and effectively bombard our box with high balls to Zigic.

    Losing Walcott’s a huge blow for us, as I feel that we seem to be lacking any suitable replacements for him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

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  11. Ian Finn says:

    Arsenal lost & will continue to lose quite simply because either Arsene Wenger or the Arsenal board are scared of what Arsene Wenger done quite a few seasons back. Arsene Wenger put out a squad, which was almost exclusively black, bar David Seaman. The physicality that Arsenal once had is gone. The Black players he now has are frauds masquerading as the real deal. Diaby is no Viera. You know why?. Despite the wide variety of video & analysis available on Viera, Diaby does not study it, hence he doesn’t learn. When Wenger signed Denilson, we all knew he was a Brazilian. We automatically expected big things. However Denilson has turned into a fraud. Brazilian only by name & birth, not Brazilian in a Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Socrates, Zico way. I cant see why Wenger would go to such lengths to buy somebody that he could have found in Hornsey, Hackney or Brixton, who would have had much more passion for the shirt. Wenger has let go Wright, Anelka, Henry, Pennant, Cole, Boothroyd, Gray, Thomas, Adebayor, Simpson & a string of quality Black players & not replaced like with like. Where is the new Wrights?. I’ll tell you where. Defoe(Tottenham) Was interested in him when West Ham were relegated, but wouldn’t go from 5m to 7m, so he went to Spurs. Anelka(Real Madrid, PSG, Fernabache, Liverpool, Manchester City, Bolton, Chelsea) Liverpool wouldn’t turn his loan into a permanent move, Wenger didn’t re-sign him. End result?. Won another title with Chelsea. Cole?. The board were tight over 5k. End result is Cole goes to Chelsea & gets 90k, which is 35k more than Arsenal & he wins more titles. Henry spoke the truth, Wenger & the board didn’t listen. End result?. He goes to Barcelona & wins La Liga & the Champions League. We had both Christiano Ronaldo & Drogba at Arsenal long before they attracted the attention of Man U & Chelsea. Could have had the original Ronaldo when he left Milan. Instead he goes back to Brazil, top scores & wins another title in Brazil before retiring this year. How about Ronadinho who has now gone back to Brazil. I somehow doubt the Brazilian clubs that bought those 2 paid European prices for them. Never replaced Wright, who has so many players who could be near as consistent. Why didn’t we sign Bent when he was surplus to requirements at Spurs?. Beckford wouldn’t have cost an arm & a leg, as he came from a lower league. Why didn’t he sign Martins when he was interested?. Fails to do so at his peril. Cost us the Carling cup. The new Henry is Loic Remy. He wanted badly to come & said himself. Arsenal don’t bite. Instead?, they go for Chamakh?. PLEASE. Chamakh is not an out & out goal getter. Could have had Michael Owen for nothing. NOTHING?. Goes to Man U. Lets Adebayor go. Doesn’t sign anybody because we have Bendtner. BENDTNER?. PLEASE. Bendtner is not half Adebayor. I once read that he claimed that he should be in the Arsenal team ahead of Henry, whilst he was at Birmingham on loan. If that is a true comment, then Arsenal know why they are where they are. Clichy?. Lack of goals. Lack of wanting to take his game to the next level. Both he & Cole fail the ultimate test, which is Roberto Carlos. Both claimed to have modelled their game on Carlos. Well?, where are your goals & freekicks to show for it?. Eboue?. Tired of this guy. Again, is not far off scoring goals if he will concentrate on finishing. I get the distinct impression that Arsenal do not employ a shooting coach & make it mandatory that he works with every player including the keepers. Or nickname is the GUNNERS. Walcott took the 14 shirt. Why?. You haven’t studied the master. This is what is killing football. Young kids thinking they are the finished article because their pay packet has 4 0’s after the number. Keepers?. RUBBISH. Almunia, Fabianski need to go. Personally, I would sign young Schmeichel. He looks like a student of the game. Sagna, again, no goals & lacking craft. Song looks like he is running out of ideas & always turns back looking for help, instead of muscling forward & looking for at least 4 shots himself per match. Van Persie, sorry is too injury prone. If people can’t see this then you’re blind. Vermaelen is the only stand out centre back Arsenal have. Djourou. I would give him a season to prove himself. Squuillaci & Koscielny are straight Laurel & Hardy. Wenger must have been smoking crack with his rapper lover when he signed these 2 clowns. Wilshire is an out & out star but needs help. Fabregas, most probably the MVP of the team is going to Barcelona. FACT. This seasons MVP Nasri also needs help. There you have it chaps. Arsenal laid bare. A true conspiracy is taking place in North London. Only Wenger & the Arsenal board know why there is a lack of true Black stars at Arsenal or a lack of stars irrespective of colour FULL STOP.

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