The World Cup in Brazil feels as though it has only just finished, yet here we are at Christmas, with the season already at its half way stage. It’s been a bumpy ride for Arsenal with new players, new formations and a total lack of available defenders giving the team a permanently disjointed feel. Over the next two articles, I shall construct a half term report, focusing on the four main areas of the team.
Part 1 draws focus on goalkeepers and defenders (and links with a piece I wrote in the summer, looking at what I felt Arsenal needed in this department ahead of the season). Part 2, in which I cup the midfielders and forwards and ask them to cough, follows tomorrow.
Wojciech Szczesny remains the undisputed number one between the sticks. But the summer signing of David Ospina and the omission of Szczesny from the FA Cup Final starting line up suggests that the manager has not removed the gauntlet from Wojciech’ s feet just yet. For the large part, I think Szczesny does a very good job. He makes few errors, his handling is sound and his reactions are sharp too. Yet I am still left with the impression that there is more to come from Szczesny.
At Manchester United, David de Gea, who is the same age as the Pole, is beginning to blossom and grow in stature. He is undergoing a chrysalis from good goalkeeper to excellent goalkeeper and I feel I am still waiting for Szczesny to do the same. David Ospina’s Arsenal career has been enervated by injury, perhaps when he returns, it will give Szczesny the competition the manager obviously feels he needs to hit the heights of which he is capable.
Szczesny is not everyone’s cup of tea, not simply because he has that trait that so many British people find ugly- confidence. He is a high risk / high reward kind of goalkeeper. He makes early decisions to come off of his line which can send hearts flurrying into mouths, but he usually gets those calls right. He is a decisive goalkeeper and favours quick and precise distribution. His distribution is very unfairly castigated by Arsenal fans as an area of weakness when it is actually one of his biggest strengths.
According to Whoscored, Szczesny has a pass success rate of 70% this season. This compares favourably to his peers. Courtois records 58.5%, de Gea 64.2%, Joe Hart 56.2%, and Fraser Forster 58.5%. Lloris measures at 73%, though curiously, his success rate is largely accounted for by his 80% hit rate in the Europa League, it drops to 65% in the Premier League, which suggests high pressing on opponents is not a key feature in the Europa League. I think people’s perception of Szczesny’s distribution is skewed because they don’t share his élan. Arsenal are a possession team and that requires a goalkeeper to pick his passes where possible.
Szczesny will take risks by lofting a ball gently to a full back under pressure. This causes the crowd to frisson and fret. So even when Szczesny’s pass lands exactly where he has intended it to (it usually does), the measure of anxiety has already registered with the crowd. The scar tissue stays and we forge the impression that this persistent tension is a symptom of errors that never actually occurred. Szczesny’s 70% success rate has to be taken into context given that he has lost Sagna and played a large portion of the season without Olivier Giroud, his two favoured targets.
Pleasingly, Szczesny does seem to have cut out the Cruyff turns in his own six yard box. I do think that sometimes he needs to make better decisions about the speed of his distribution. He always wants to get Arsenal on the ball quickly, which is a good thing in the majority of circumstances. But occasionally when we are under pressure, he could do with slowing it down and thinking two moves ahead. It’s all very well bowling the ball out quickly to a free colleague, but if the recipient has no out ball from there, it’s a wasted action that invites more pressure.
Emi Martinez has come into the side this season too and has looked much improved compared to the terrified figure that kept goal in the 7-5 victory over Reading in 2012. He has benefitted from playing during a more defensively secure period. He has been solid and made good saves when required. Whilst he did nothing calamitously wrong at Stoke, I do think a lack of vocal authority was evident, which you would expect from a greenhorn goalie. His pass success rate was down 17% compared to Szczesny, but frankly, I’m happy for a younger goalkeeper to boot the ball away from the area at this stage of his development and not to take too many risks.
There are times when you feel that the term ‘defending’ ought to be used in inverted commas where Arsenal are concerned. Of course it was no secret that Arsenal went into the season with a deficit in terms of defensive personnel and injuries to Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny have left Arsenal not so much down to the bare bones as down to the bone marrow. The Gunners have fielded 9 different back four combinations this season and the lack of continuity has showed at times.
My own view is that Arsenal probably had a centre half in the cross-hairs when they signed off on the Vermaelen sale this summer, but it fell through for whatever reason. Had it not been for Olivier Giroud’s injury, I am sure deadline day would have spent speed dialling the agents of available centre halves. As a result, Per Mertesacker has been tasked with holding together an unfamiliar backline and the burden has told on the German. He has played every single minute in the Premier League and Champions League since his return to action against Everton in August, on the back of a fourteen day pre-season. I am not sure anyone would perform to the zenith of their capabilities in that scenario.
I am not convinced Laurent Koscielny for instance, would have coped an awful lot better had the roles been reversed. Fact is, the Gunners have conceded 0.8 goals per game in which Mertesacker and Koscielny have played together (this includes games away against Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund and at home to Manchester City). That goes up to 1.4 goals per game when they’ve been apart (Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund, both at home, have been our toughest assignments in those matches). The manager tried to build a semblance of familiarity when he fielded a back four of Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal and Gibbs.
This was largely because Monreal favours the left, freeing Mertesacker to play on his preferred right side. Monreal’s interceptive qualities made him a more suitable partner for Per in any case. Nacho acquitted himself well at centre half, certainly better than previous 4th choice centre halves that share his ill fated squad number and I would argue, better than Vermaelen in his last two seasons at the club. Whilst I think Chambers’ lack of recovery pace, so cruelly exposed by Anderlecht and Swansea, signposts a future in the centre, the partnership between Calum and Mertesacker has been exposed as incompatible by both Everton and Stoke.
Stoke ranks alongside one of the worst defensive performances in Wenger’s reign (unhappily, there are plenty of contenders for that unwanted crown). With Per on the left, the German looked lost and confused. Especially with inexperienced defenders such as Bellerin and Chambers paired together on the right, Mertesacker did not know how to look after his junior colleagues at a removed distance and it had consequences on his own performance. Had any one of Monreal, Debuchy, Koscielny or even Szczesny been fit, it’s hard not to feel that the clusterfuck might have been averted at least enough for Arsenal to win the game.
When the defence has had a more settled look and feel, there have been good defensive performances this season, but too often a lack of stability and a lack of personnel have proved damaging. Arsenal stand accused of lacking in game intuition in a defensive sense. Against Anderlecht at the Emirates, Arsenal sat too deep and invited the Belgians onto them with dire consequences. In the following games against Swansea and Manchester United, the team over-committed and were punished on the counter attack.
That Arsenal’s most defensively disorganised performances have coincided with Mikel Arteta’s absence is, I think, no coincidence. With Sagna having departed and Koscielny’s Achilles worn down to the nub, Arsenal have lost two of their most trusted senior defenders. Debuchy’s injury has jabbed a finger into that wound, so the defence was always likely to undergo a rocky transition. But it’s hard not to think that with better reparations made in the summer, the abrasion could have been sterilised at least. LD.
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