Here comes the summer

The Tim Stillman column - Arseblog

In the Darwinian jungle of football, every summer ought to be a surgery. It’s a chance for the coaching staff to doctor the cosmetics of the side. To assess what went well and what didn’t and where and how to improve. Improvements aren’t solely transplanted through the transfer market, but a good nip and tuck on the training field can often make just as much, if not more difference. So before we start to consider where Arsenal can consolidate and where they can improve, I will warn that this article will not be a transfer wish list.

I won’t flatter myself or try to kid anybody that I watch enough football on the continent to even begin to judge whom I’d consider a good signing. I suspect that that’s the case for most people too. Twitter in particular becomes a ministry of misinformation when it comes to this sort of thing. Mine is a more vague kind of state of the nation. A bit like a political party manifesto for the opposition. Nit picking on the fallibilities of the current regime without actually getting into the minutiae of how and who to solve them.

So what were Arsenal’s biggest weaknesses last season? We conceded 49 in the league and one man scored 40% of our goals. Yet still I have this feeling that the centre of the pitch is the most burning issue. For a start the reliance on van Persie shows that our midfield doesn’t lighten the load. In that respect, Song can probably be excused given the amount of assists he has provided. But Ramsey and / or Rosicky can certainly provide more here.  Ramsey often finds the right positions, but his finishing could use some hours at London Colney.

For me, most urgent for the midfield is to improve their collective defensive responsibility. I’ve written plenty in recent weeks about their penchant for lightly jogging back towards their own goal when the opposition breaks. External observers of Arsenal often take one look at the goals conceded column and conclude that the back four must be a gabble of ragtag, silent movie era slapstick merchants. Yet most Arsenal fans would probably happily bear the children of Sagna and Koscielny at this point.

Our attacking style demands a high line defensively, which in turn requires a midfield that presses its opposition. Too often, our defence comes under pressure far too easily. It is in this respect, above all others, that Arteta has been such a revelation. It’s not just his penchant for keeping possession. None of the Arsenal midfield are slouches on the ball. But whilst discussing Arteta’s contribution  this year, my Vital Arsenal colleague Amos made a thought provoking point.

Arteta spent six and a half years at Everton, a team that are used to playing without the ball. It taught him the kind of lesson that Arsenal midfielders can’t learn because we spend the majority of the season with the ball. It’s probably for this reason we couldn’t groom a promising young player like Denilson into a defensive midfielder. It may go some way to accounting for the fact that Alex Song has perfected the lofted through ball but still hasn’t learned to consistently provide a foil for defensive colleagues that have committed to attack. For that reason, Arsenal are a club that probably has to buy its defensive midfielders off the shelf.

The defence requires better protection, for sure. Though I preserve a slight cynicism for how one numerates a stat like this, I read last week that the Gunners conceded 14 goals as a direct consequence of an individual error last season, the highest in Europe’s top 5 divisions. I’m very much of the Arsene Wenger school here and think that, any glaring error from a goalkeeper or centre half is usually preceded by four or five more subtle mistakes higher up the pitch.

If the defence is continually exposed, the likelihood for errors increases as the need for panicky, last ditch defending makes a clanger an occupational hazard. Arsenal have had good defenders in the last 6 or 7 years. Whatever you think of him as a person (I have no axe to grind with him personally), Gallas is a consistently high level performer. Toure was and is a good centre half. Vermaelen and Koscielny are excellent centre halves. Clichy has just played in a white knuckle title race and made none of the cataclysmic errors he made under pressure at Arsenal.

So the defensive unit can improve. Whether the issue is the protection- or lack thereof- afforded to them, or whether it’s something endemic in the coaching I’m not quite sure. But I think the team needs to communicate better. If Vermaelen is going to charge forwards, he or Koscielny needs to be telling a teammate that cover is required. Arteta and Koscielny do a very good job of covering more cavalier teammates. But the next step for both is to start mitigating the need by using their voice boxes to manoeuvre pawns around them.

Teams don’t generally have to do a lot to score against Arsenal and this really needs to change. Given the amount of possession the opposition enjoys against us, the goals conceded tally becomes even more criminal. Wojciech Szczesny’s shots to saves ratio sits at fourth lowest in the division. But given context, I’d suggest that that means that he is exposed to a better quality of chance. It’s not like he’s fielding 30 yard rangefinders.

It will be interesting to see if the presence of Bould and Banfield on the training ground can add to our solidity. Both were defenders in their playing careers (then again, so too were Wenger, Rice and Primorac). I think I read an interview with Szczesny in the Polish press last year which said Rice had pretty much taken over setpiece drilling on the training pitch last summer and the results have been tangible. So I maintain cautious optimism that Arsene will allow their influence to be felt. But there’s simply no question Arsenal can improve these aspects if they work on them hard enough.

Whilst on the subject of Arsenal’s rearguard action, I’ll finish with the news Manuel Almunia has been “released.” I do like that term. It puts me in mind of the Simpsons episode where Homer drives Chief Wiggum to the woods, lets him out of the car and says, “Run along boy, you’re free now.” It’s an apt image for Almunia, whose stock fell so low that his departure shared column inches with Gavin Hoyte and Sean McDermott.

There was a time when Manwell was an able number 2. I think his limitations are somewhat exaggerated. To my mind, he’s a Midtable goalkeeper. It’s just one’s errors are highlighted more in the Arsenal goal than, say, the Fulham goal. I think he will be o.k. at a lower level team that will keep him busier. His best games for Arsenal- in Champions League encounters at Old Trafford and the Nou Camp- came when he was regularly occupied. It requires a better level of concentration to thrive as a keeper at Arsenal, where you may be catching flies for 85 minutes until the opposition attack is waved through to your goal and suddenly you have to be alert. Ultimately, Almunia wasn’t capable of that. Most goalkeepers aren’t.

In the end, his confidence wasn’t so much damaged as it was stripped naked, frogmarched into the fast lane of the M1 and publicly hosed down. I hope he finds more happiness in the woods foraging for nuts and berries. Till next week. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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