A very common cry of Arsenal observers is that the defense is poor. It has been said a thousand times a day for good reason: it’s true. That being said, the usual call is for Wenger to buy more defenders, and that’s where I believe the majority of observers get it wrong. You see, to the less-than-astute, or it may be more accurate to say lazy, observer it’s a simple solution to a, as they see it, simple problem. As they see it: Arsenal’s defending is poor, so that must mean that their back line players are shit, so get rid of them and get someone new in there. This is where the logic falls apart.
If you, like I, have watched nearly all of Arsenal’s matches over the past couple of seasons, you should notice that while defensive problems have persisted, they have not manifested themselves in the same way this year as they did last. This should be your first clue that the problem with the 2011-12 squad’s defending may not be the same as those of the 2010-11 squad’s.
Let’s take a brief moment to remember the horror show that was Arsenal’s defending in 2010-11. Forget not that the 2010-11 version of Koscielny was not the same as what we’ve seen this season. I like to think of this year’s Laurant as Koscielny 2.0, just don’t let your pleasure with 2.0 erase your memories of all the flaws in Kos 1.0. He took unnecessary cards, and he was often woefully out of position. His early struggles led to a crisis of self-confidence that manifested itself in largely substandard play. We all love Kos now, but in 2010-11, he all held our collective breath every time he was put under pressure. Worse than that, let us not forget how much of Squillaci we had to endure in 2010-11. Remember how upset you were when Djourou went down with an injury against United because he had been arguably our best center half last year? Lean times my friend; how quickly we forget. All that is to say one simple thing: in 2010-11, maybe the problem was largely that Arsenal’s central defenders were poor. I argue that is no longer the case.
Three wonderful things happened to the Arsenal central defense over the summer of 2011: (1) Vermaelen got healthy, (2) Arsene went out and bought Per Mertesacker, and (3) Koscielny either found religion, sold his soul, or simply remembered himself, and turned into a heck of a player in the Premier League. I will argue that those three things have made moot any argument that the problem with Arsenal’s defense is the center backs.
That’s all well and good, but Arsenal still continues to struggle defensively in 2011-12, so if it’s not the players, then what is it? If you’ve stuck with me to this point, good on you, and for your perseverance, I’ll get to my ultimate point. The problem with Arsenal’s defense this season is how poor they are as a unit at chasing the ball. When Arsenal aren’t on the ball, they’re terrible. That means they are particularly susceptible to two types of teams: (1) teams that hold the ball better than they do (and believe me, this version of the Arsenal doesn’t hold the ball as well as they have in years past), and (2) teams that press them aggressively and are good at winning the ball back. If allowed space and the lion’s share of the possession, Arsenal look comfortable and create chances. If they’re pressed, however, they look sloppy with the ball and pitiful at trying to get possession back.
I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I do think it is worth making a point of. Whether it’s tactics or a lack of motivation, there is no excuse for Arsenal to be this poor at chasing the ball. To me, whatever the reason is for Arsenal’s poor defending this season, the problem starts with coaching, whether the players are not told to press aggressively or whether they are simply not being motivated enough to work hard to get the ball back after they give it up. If Arsenal have any delusions of finishing in 4th position this year, they need to address this problem more than any other.
For those of you interested in reading further on the subject, here’s an article from Alan Hansen discussing Sunday’s FA Cup match at Villa Park that touches a bit on the same issues: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/arsenal/9048265/Arsenal-manager-Arsene-Wenger-must-fix-defensive-issues-to-keep-job-following-FA-Cup-defeat-of-Aston-Villa.html