Wednesday, September 27, 2023

On defending, attacking and the real reason we’re struggling

Morning from a particularly nippy Dublin.

If you didn’t see, or haven’t already watched, Gary Neville’s vivisection of Arsenal’s (and Tottenham’s) defending on Sky last night, I recommend taking a look at the video. He talks at length about both defences playing a high line and how either team could have been exposed countless times during the game.

In the end it was the Arsenal rearguard that was breached far too easily, and it was down to a combination of poor decision making and poor communication. In the player ratings article yesterday I wondered if Nacho Monreal’s lack of ability/confidence in English had a part to play in the second goal, and Neville’s analysis suggested that’s the case. He made the point that when Lennon started his run he’d be screaming at his centre-half to drop deep; after just a few weeks in England I’d wager that Monreal hasn’t got the language skills to do that.

It’s one thing when the game is in front of you, when perhaps you’re calling for the ball, but another thing entirely when you need to bark orders or tell somebody what to do. Now, this isn’t a criticism of Monreal, it’s part and parcel of moving to a new country and it takes time to learn the lingo. It doesn’t excuse Vermaelen either because it looked like it was his decision to hold a high line when the sensible thing would have been to back off as Parker came forward, but it does go some way to explaining what went on.

What struck me more than anything though is the fact that sometimes Arsenal’s defence insisted on staying high and attacking the ball early, others they moved back as a unit to allow the midfield to get back and thus deny Sp*rs the space in behind to exploit. It suggests there’s an element of improvisation to our defending, which was apparent when he spoke about how confused Monreal was at times. He didn’t know if he should stop or keep going and in no other part of the team is there such a necessity for them to be a unit.

We all know the stories of how George Graham drilled his back four relentlessly. The tale of tying them together with rope to ensure a uniformity of movement is the perfect example of how he knew the importance of a defence that had a collective awareness of what it should do and when it should do it. We also know that this is not Arsene Wenger’s style, it never has been. He’s a manager with an emphasis on the attacking side of the game, and while you can’t say defending has been an afterthought it’s never been the top priority.

What’s interesting is when you look at how many goals we’ve conceded since the Invincibles, a team with a defence that let in just 26 goals in a season, scoring 73 in the process. Not because they were the best defenders ever, and I don’t want to take away from them as a defensive unit, but there’s no doubt that their record was helped by a team which was utterly ruthless from an attacking point of view. Since then, our last title win, our goals conceded and scored and final position have been:

[list style=”1″ underline=”1″]

  • 200536 (2nd) – 87
  • 200631 (4th) – 68
  • 200735 (4th) – 63
  • 200831 (3rd) – 74
  • 200937 (4th) – 68
  • 201041 (3rd) – 83
  • 201143 (4th) – 72
  • 201249 (3rd) – 74


While there’s much less of a pattern when it comes to the amount of goals we score, there’s definitely one when you look at how many we let in. From 2008 onwards there’s been a steady, and seemingly inexorable, increase in how many we concede. There are reasons, of course. Injuries to important players, having all four full backs out injured, a ridiculous result at Old Trafford, but we can’t put it all down to circumstance and bad luck. The main reason is that we are not as good as we should be defensively, we have players who continue to make individual mistakes, and there’s a self-perpetuating brittleness to us that manifests itself time and time again.

Some of it, I believe, is down to the quality of the players. Better defenders defend better. But some of it has to come from the training ground. The story about how Arsene Wenger stopped Steve Bould working specifically with the defence surfaced again last night. This time not from a bitter, ex-Arsenal player, but from BBC journalist David Ornstein. The inference was, from whoever gave him the information, that Arsene Wenger was unhappy at the attention and credit Bould was getting at the start of the season when we kept three clean sheets and looked to have improved our defensive set-up.

I said it yesterday and I’ll say it again: I just can’t get my head around the idea that Arsene Wenger would have a problem with somebody else getting credit for doing a good job at the expense of his team. I’m pretty sure he’d be much happier with Bould getting props all day long than with his team playing like eejits, conceding stupid goals, going out of competitions and facing a battle to finish in the top four. Ultimately he’s the one under more and more pressure each time we get a bad result. It’s not Steve Bould who faces criticism and anger, and I just can’t find any sense in that being his motivation.

As @arse2mouse suggested last night, perhaps he felt the clean sheets were coming at the expense of the attacking side of the team, but even then a point is better is than none. If you can build a decent defence then you’ve got a solid platform to work with. Maybe you don’t need to score three goals to win a game, just one might do it. Either way, it’s unthinkable to me that he would scupper progress and defensive development for the sake of ego. And I don’t say that just because it’s Arsene Wenger, I can’t understand how any manager would do that when ultimately he’s the one who will suffer if the team reverts to its old ways.

Maybe there should be more defensive training, it’s hard to escape that conclusion when you see what’s going on game after game, but looking at the table we’ve conceded fewer goals than Sp*rs, only 1 more than United and 2 more than Chelsea. It’s not as if we’re miles worse than anyone else from a statistical point of view. What might be more of an issue is the goals scored. With 53 we’ve got more than Sp*rs and Man City, but that stat is slightly skewed by the 6 and 7 we got against Southampton and Newcastle.

In our 7 games thus far against our top four rivals, we’ve taken just 4 points from a possible 21 and that looks to be the biggest issue when it comes to our league position right now. Yes, we can improve things at the back, but when it comes to the big games we’re lacking the ability to get the goals that matter.

When it comes right down to it, it strikes me it’s down to the quality of the players. That falls upon the manager, obviously, but even after the Sp*rs game Arsene spoke of his frustration at our lack of efficiency up front and at that back. I think the players are capable of better in that some of the mistakes which have cost us goals are not the kind you expect from professional footballers at this level, but they’re more damaging because we don’t have the goals to make up for them.

I don’t think it’s a simple as giving Steve Bould a rope and saying ‘Go for it.’ I don’t think that’d hurt, especially given the fact we have a 10 day lay off and there’s plenty of time to work on the defensive side of our game, but we are where we are because we sell our best players and replace them with ones who aren’t as good, or fail to replace them at all. We can talk all we want about why that happens and so on, but for me the reality is you can’t expect to do that and continue to get away with it.

As the table shows.

Finally for today, the winner of our Santi Cazorla shirt competition with thanks to There were about a bazillion entries but the Random Number Generator did its thing and the winner is: Ville Jylhä – well done to you, I’ll be in touch to get your details. The answer I was looking for was, Pascal Cygan.

Follow @icons_football on Twitter or visit the Icons Facebook page – and you can see the Santi Cazorla page and merchandise here.

Till tomorrow.


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