For as long as I can remember, I have fallen into the category of fans labelled as ‘AKB’s’; those who think Arsene knows best. I still consider myself to be in support of the manager, but does he know best? At the moment he clearly doesn’t. His overall club management is superb, we’ve seen that in the form of the training ground, Emirates Stadium and the bank balances of the club. However his team management on the field is in a worrying decline. When attacking, we can still play brilliant football and score fantastic goals, but the organisation of the defence appears to be all over the place.
All four goals against Blackburn were so avoidable and preventable it was almost a joke. When we did defend well against Dortmund, it took a wonder goal to get past us, where realistically there wasn’t anything our players could have done to prevent it. The next part of this blog will be a bit gory for Arsenal fans, but I think the mistakes should be highlighted.
For the first Blackburn goal, the defensive positions were initially ok as the first shot was blocked. However Andre Santos was lazy in stepping up with the rest of the defence, meaning he was clearly playing Yakubu onside when the pass came through. The defensive line as a whole wasn’t straight with Mertesacker stepping ahead of Koscileny, giving an experienced striker like Yakubu the space to go and score.
The second goal, and the first own goal, came from a needless free-kick being conceded by Arshavin. Having given away the free-kick, we still should have defended it properly. Both Bacary Sagna and Alex Song could have been more decisive in trying to clear the ball. Even if they swung at the ball and shanked it out for a corner, that would have been ok. Instead Sagna missed the cross, Song wasn’t alert and it bounced in off his knee.
Blackburn’s third did give us reasons for feeling aggrieved, but again, it should have been avoided. The corner wasn’t dealt with before N’Zonzi was allowed way too much space to shoot from inside the box. Yakubu applied the finishing touch inside the six yard box, and replays showed he was offside. However, Andre Santos was lazy in stepping up again. Had he gone up another yard, Yakubu would have been obviously beyond him. As it was, Santos was needlessly far enough back for the linesman to think the striker was onside. Even though it was the wrong decision, our defence allowed for doubt in the official’s mind so I can see why the goal was given.
The fourth and final goal was horrible to watch. Johan Djourou’s tackle on the touch line was pathetic for Premier League football; both the ball and Olsson should have been put out of play. Alex Song’s attempt at a challenge in the area was then poor before Koscielny’s body position and reactions weren’t good enough, meaning he put the ball into the net.
I’m not usually one for pessimism with Arsenal, but I must have seemed like a doom-monger to the person I was watching the game with on Saturday. All of the goals were so predictable, and yet it seems were we can all see what’s going to happen, those inside the club either can’t, or haven’t done enough about it.
I don’t think the problem lies with the quality of the players we have in defence. Bacary Sagna we know is a top quality right back, Johan Djourou has played Premier League football since 2006, Per Mertesacker has over 70 international caps for Germany, Koscielny is an international and has defended well against the likes of Barcelona and Andre Santos is a Brazilian international. I think the main problem lies in the organisation. No-one seems to know their roles at the back, so no-one takes command of a situation. They’ve clearly been told to play a certain way, but don’t feel they can adapt if that way isn’t working. In the past, if something was going wrong, Tony Adams or Sol Campbell would have the authority and the trust of Wenger to take command at the back. Without Thomas Vermaelen, there appears to be no-one there to do that.
I’ve been watching plenty of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand since it started, and have noticed how each area of the team effectively has a captain. The forwards have a captain and the backs have a captain. They get turned to for motivation, organisation and tactical changes that could be made on the spot. The same should apply to great football sides. Our class of 2004 had Campbell in charge at the back, Vieira in midfield with Bergkamp and/or Henry leading the forward players. In our current side, no-one leads the defence without Vermaelen, there’s no-one really stepping up in midfield without Wilshere, leaving van Persie as the only ‘captain’ in the team.
It’s hard to imagine that Arsene Wenger’s coaching of defences has become so bad given how good we were at the back in 1998, 2004 and in the 2006 run to the Champions League final. Although there is clearly a major problem. Personally, I think a proper defensive coach should be brought in to teach the current crop some proper technique, but more importantly, how to organise themselves.
Having never played football to a high standard myself, it’s easy to be overly critical. However organisation of the defence should be the main priority for any defensive unit. Even when I played at school, my ability as a right back may have been woeful, but we always had a centre back who would have his arms out and make sure we were organised properly and in a line. Whatever the ability of the player, good defensive organisation can stop goals. Arsenal don’t seem to have any organisation at the back at the moment.
Saturday’s defensive showing was in some ways made worse by how well we defended in Dortmund. That night we did have organisation and defended as a team, albeit we subsequently suffered going forward. Against Blackburn, we looked really dangerous going forward, but hopelessly open at the back. It seems this team can only do one thing or the other, and not attack and defend well at the same time. Unfortunately, that has to come down to poor management and setting up of the team from Wenger.
There is also one other issue that quite a few fans have mentioned; luck. We’ve seemingly had a lot of it go against us this season, but to say we lost to Blackburn because of the unlucky offside goal and own goals would be ignoring the real issues in this team. When you defend that badly, you deserve to be punished. Bad luck would be the Dortmund equaliser last Wednesday where there was nothing we could do. As highlighted earlier, all the goals were avoidable.
A lot of Arsenal fans can’t imagine what the world will feel like the day Arsene Wenger leaves Arsenal, but I think that we could find out sooner than expected. If we want to resurrect our season, he has to organise his defence properly, or accept he’s not done it well enough and bring someone in who can sort it out. With Thomas Vermaelen still out for the foreseeable future, it’s an extremely worrying time to be a Gooner.
After digging through the rubble of Saturday, it’s worth remembering that all three of our goals were quality. Arteta’s strike in particular oozed class throughout the move. It was probably our best attacking performance of the season as we looked like creating chances in every attack, but there were times when the final decision was wrong around the area, or the finishing wasn’t good enough. We could and should have been able to gloss over the missed chances by still winning the match, but they’ve had to be scrutinised even more because of our defensive failings. It’s simple stuff, but to be a successful team you need to be solid and build from the back. We aren’t solid.
I’m really hoping for some light relief on Tuesday as Shrewsbury Town come to the Emirates in the Carling Cup. I’m expecting wholesale changes, and hopefully some fresh enthusiasm from the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ryo Miyaichi will help lift the crowd. Realistically we shouldn’t even be contemplating defeat against a League Two side, but I’d think there are plenty of Gooners who seriously fancy putting money on the Shrews to go through.
Arsene Wenger won’t do it, but I’d be tempted to put out the same XI from the Blackburn match and tell them to start the rebuilding process. We’ll only improve our organisation at the back by having the same players playing together in match situations, but the Mertesacker and Koscielny partnership now won’t be seen until Bolton next weekend.
Were the Swansea and Dortmund games false dawns? On the evidence of Blackburn, a definite yes. Looking back at recent years, we now have different personnel at the back, but the problems are still the same. It has to come back to Arsene Wenger, and if he doesn’t get our defence organised, we’ll only continue to see the painful decline of our most successful manager.
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