Arteta on defence, more thoughts on the goalkeeping situation

Some interesting words from Mikel Arteta to kick off this week.

There’s the usual stuff about how the team expected to win the game, and I’ve got no issue with that at all. Fans expected us to win the game, why shouldn’t the players? For those that would suggest it’s arrogance, I don’t buy that, and there’s a big difference between expecting to win a game and thinking you have the right to win just by turning up. After a start to the season which has been mostly positive – certainly in terms of perception – we were going to play a team who had yet to win and shipped 9 goals in their previous two league. If there’s no measure of expectation there then there’s something very wrong indeed.

What caught my eye was the comment about conceding, and the Spaniard spoke about that in the aftermath of the game:

It’s not the first time we have conceded the first goal. It’s very difficult. If you go ahead, it gives you a lift, the other team has to take risks, and you can cause mistakes. You can’t get back in the game every time you fall behind. It’s a tough ask and we haven’t done it today.

In our last four league games we’ve conceded the first goal in each one. Man City away, rescued by Koscielny’s late equaliser (a goal we deserved, it has to be said); Chelsea at home, Koscielny’s wrestling with Torres saw us go 1-0 down; West Ham away (Diame) and on Saturday when we allowed Grant Holt to score what turned out to be the winner. And bar the Diame goal – an excellent piece of football even if I thought we could have defended a bit better – all of those goals were completely preventable.

Mannone came and missed the corner at Man City, allowing the debate to focus on ‘zonal marking’ rather than the poor play from the keeper. That’s not to say we couldn’t have made it more difficult for Lescott but a goalkeeping error was at the heart of it. The Torres goal was ridiculous, in terms of organisation and exuction of our defensive duties, and the one we conceded on Saturday was one straight out of the HOW NOT TO manual. Mannone culpable again, but midfield failing to close down and Andre Santos behind the line playing Holt onside played a part too.

It is, of course, impossible to achieve perfection. These are humans, not robots, and even the best players and the most highly drilled defences concede goals. We have only conceded 6 goals this season, the same as Chelsea, and that’s the best record in the Premier League so it might seem a bit churlish to criticise, but when we’re not as effective or efficient up front as we might be then it’s incumbent on us to ensure we tighten up at the back.

When we’re not scoring as freely as we would like – and the reasons for that are a debate for another day, I think – every goal we concede is likely to be more costly. Not to mention that conceding first in a consecutive games like this has an effect pyschologically too. There’s no doubt there has been some defensive improvement in the team this season, but this Achilles heel where we concede to the opponent’s first shot on goal, or allow an individual error to set us back is still present.

The key to that is the quality of players in certain positions. I’m sorry to hark back to the goalkeeper but this has been a weak link for too many seasons now. As I’ve often said, I think Wojciech Szczesny has the potential to be a top class goalkeeper and I can understand why the manager sees him as his number 1. The investment in that potential was always going to have some ups and downs, young keepers need to learn their trade and it’s a position, more than any other, where you learn from your mistakes. The mistake, if you can call it that, is the fact we’ve put all our eggs in one basket.

Lukasz Fabianski made it quite clear he wanted to leave the club this summer, knowing he was going to be play second fiddle to Szczesny. Injury prevented him from doing that, and his fabled brilliance on the training ground has rarely transmitted itself to match day. Vito Mannone was on his way out, a player we’d have let go for nominal fee at best, and yet we’re supposed to believe the manager when he says he could be number 1? I realise those are public statements for the benefit of the player and his confidence but come on.

When you look at the list of keepers Arsene Wenger has brought to the club, Jens Lehmann aside (and let’s not forget he was the £1m mega purchase in a quiet summer when we signed the German and Gael Clichy), it’s a list of journey-men and never-good-enoughs. And surely the one, albeit qualified, success that was Lehmann should be evidence that experience is a good thing when it comes to the goalkeeping position. Did we make a mistake not siging Schwarzer from Fulham? I think that’s too easy to say, especially as he’s a not terribly convincing player at the best of times, but I do wonder why we’re left in a position where we’re reliant on a player who, in the summer, had no forseeable future at the club.

If there weren’t the resources to go out and buy an experienced goalkeeper, and possibly mentor, to help develop the talent of Szczesny even further, then fine, but that’s not the case. At the top level of football consistency is key. A keeper can have a quiet game with not much to do, but he can win you points by dealing with things properly when he is called into action. For too long our goalkeepers have done the opposite, and have cost us points and games. I’d also wonder if improvement could be made at a coaching level, but that’s just me seeing the same jitters and problems with all of our keepers and making an assumption.

It might sound like I’m nit-picking but it’s a game of tight margins at this level. It’s not uncommon for a team to have an off day and fail to break down opposition they should score against, it happens to all sides, but we continually make life more difficult for ourselves by hobbling ourselves with sub-standard keepers, the very base of a team’s spine. We have the need for improvement on the attacking side of our game, which is why it’s so important to have the security of good keeper. We don’t have that.

Solution? Buy a goalkeeper in January, a decent one, one that might cost a few quid because, you know, sometimes you have to pay for quality. You can’t always find bargains and as much as I admire Arsene Wenger, he’s yet to find a goalkeeper to match some of the outfield signings he’s stunned us with. In the meantime, we can only hope for improvement from Mannone until such time as Szczesny returns and then that the Pole establishes himself properly, professionally, and makes the most of the chance he’s got to become Arsenal’s number 1.

Till tomorrow.

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