How far have Arsenal’s standards actually fallen?

2/15/2012

A friend of mine, who is a Barcelona fan (there are worse things he could be, I guess), recently brought to my attention this article Ben Blackmore wrote for ESPN.com about the declining standards at Arsenal. What I wrote in the email response to my friend ended up almost reading like a blog post, so I’ve made it into one.

For reference, here’s a link to the Blackmore article, titled “Arsenal standards reach dangerous low”: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/feature/_/id/1022668/blackmore:-arsenal-dropping-standards-to-dangerously-low-levels-?cc=5901

Also, for reference, his general point is that the quality of players Arsenal have now has dropped drastically from the last time they won trophies, and that the only players currently on the squad that have the quality to wear the shirt are van Persie, Wilshere, and Vermaelen. That’s the extreme CliffsNotes version at least, read the whole article for more; it’s a little off, but the thrust of it is on target.

Like a lot of people who probably have only watched a handful of Arsenal matches this year, Blackmore has some misconceptions based on things he’s heard but not observed himself (Full disclosure: that’s an assumption I’ve made. I have no idea how many Arsenal matches Blackmore has actually watched this season). I think the overall point is well taken, that the level of quality on this year’s squad is significantly lower than it was last year, and depressingly lower than it was back in the early-to-mid 2000s. That being said, he’s got some things wrong.

Blackmore points out Djourou and Jenkinson as not being good enough to be on the pitch. While I agree with this, they are easy targets. Djourou is his better point, because Jenkinson wouldn’t have sniffed the pitch other than in Carling Cup matches, were it not for injury. So yes, they shouldn’t be out there playing first team football for Arsenal, but if you think about the defense last year as compared to now, it’s not so dire. I wrote a blog about this previously, but just as a short recap: Djourou was actually considered one of our better defenders until he got hurt in that game at Old Trafford last season.

I totally disagree with Blackmore on Mertesacker and Koscielny, and actually (a bit) on Vermaelen too. I think all three of them are leaps-and-bounds ahead of our central defenders last year (which included a very lost-looking Koscielny in his first year in the Prem, and featured the likes of Squillaci and almost no time from Vermaelen). As they are playing now, however, I’ll take all three of them (TV5, Kos, & Per) over, let’s say, Gary Cahill and a whole host of others out there playing central defense in the Prem. Actually, I think Vermaelen (though I love him) has been the worst of the three as of late, and Koscielny has been the best. Sure they get beat sometimes, but what defender never gets beat? In sum, I don’t think central defense is the problem with this Arsenal team.

The other real problem is depth, as we’ve seen. A couple of guys go down, and we’re screwed. You only need to look at the full back situation to understand how that works. See earlier point re: how Jenkinson has been pressed into action too soon. In the article, Blackmore mentions Clichy in the same breath as Cesc & Nasri in speaking of the quality that left in the summer… So yeah, he’s totally overrated Clichy as a player, but whatever. Gibbs and Santos aren’t great (Gibbs looked especially lost against Milan), but they’re not that much of a step down from Clichy, if any as compared to his declining form last season. Blackmore also rips Sagna, who I will defend. Bac is great, but he’s just got back from injury, so playing on that abomination of a pitch at San Siro didn’t suit him. That he didn’t look great yesterday was no shock, but that performance shouldn’t be taken to be representative of his quality.

As for the rest of the squad, I’ll defend Alex Song by saying this: I bet you can’t name five clubs in the whole of Europe that wouldn’t take him, and start him, as a holding midfielder. Challenge issued, take it if you wish. That is all.

As for the rest, Arteta and Ramsey are no Cesc & Nasri. They can’t even lick their boots, and on a team like Arsenal they should probably be complimentary players. Arteta especially has done well to stabilize the club since coming on, but he and Ramsey should be fill-ins and substitutes for an Arsenal squad. So yes, Blackmore has that part right.

He makes a weird move in talking about the wing play, and focuses on Walcott & Arshavin. The little Russian hardly plays for Arsenal right now, so I’m not sure why he’s even mentioned in the article. Blackmore should be talking about Walcott, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain if he really wants to get it right. That being said, let’s talk about them: The Ox is young, and I think every other team in the Prem wishes they had him, so there’s that. As for the other two, they’re too inconsistent, and frustratingly so. Gervinho, despite not being able to finish since he got here, is probably better overall, but they could certainly both be upgraded. They’re not awful though, in my view the problem is greater in the midfield.

In sum, Wenger has to buy distributing midfielders with creativity, wingers who don’t disappear, and a decent backup for van Persie (everyone agrees that Chamakh has lost whatever magic he had when he first arrived, and I assume there’s a reason Wenger won’t play Park, but no one can tell what since he never even sniffs the pitch). None of that is at all groundbreaking, but at least it provided a vehicle to assess the team heading into the final stretch of the season. It will be imperative for Arsene to hold on to what he’s got (and add more quality to it in the off season. Arsenal cannot afford to lose more talent, as it’s already behind on replacing what they lost last summer, but we all knew that already. Doesn’t make it any less important though.

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A defense of Wenger’s defensive signings, that ends up being an indictment of defensive coaching

January 29, 2012

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

Blackburn Rovers 4-3 Arsenal – Match Reflection

September 17, 2011 (Tim Hales / AP)

It’s safe to say that the honeymoon period is over for Arsène Wenger’s new signings, almost before it even began. Sure the Gunners only put one on the board against newly-promoted Swansea last week, but they kept a clean sheet and all 3 points. Perhaps the long North London defensive nightmare was coming to an end! Granted, it wasn’t always pretty against Swansea, and it’s not like our new boy Per Mertesacker got full marks from all who watched, but it was nice to not concede for once!

Whatever optimistic warm and fuzzy feelings that Arsenal supporters may have been harboring since Arsène’s signing day splash have surely dissipated now, after this. Arsenal practically had to cross picket lines to get into Ewood Park on Saturday, as disgruntled Blackburn supporters had staged a march outside the grounds to call for the head of manager Steve Kean. Setting aside the possible merits of calling for a manager’s sacking this early in the season (ridiculous if you ask me), Blackburn were surely a team near crisis, if not in it, as they set bottom of the table after 4 games in the Premier League. In fact, Steve Kean may have been the only manager in the EPL who was under more fire coming into the match than was Wenger. Surely this was a day tailor-made for Arsenal to show it’s quality with nearly the full squad available. Unfortunately, if there is one thing we as Arsenal supporters know from the last year, it is that the most favorable circumstances are often the ones to yield the greatest disappointments.

Now, while the ultimate result was discouraging, that does not mean the the game was devoid of positives. We may have seen the beginning of a fruitful partnership between Gervinho and Sagna on the right side, who linked up well in the first half. Gervinho got his first competitive goal (10′) for the club with a cool finish on the end of a beautiful through-pass by Alex Song. Gervinho again looked dangerous on the ball in the attacking third, bringing a much-needed ability to take on defenders one-on-one. With Cesc & Nasri gone, Arsenal haven’t seen much in the way of breaking down defenders on the ball, so it was nice to see that Gervinho has that ability. While I like Gervinho’s aggressiveness in always going towards the goal, he seems to suffer a bit from tunnel vision when attacking. The instance that comes to mind is of course when he shot instead of making an easy pass to RvP in the box for what would have been a sure goal, but I get the feeling that once he has it in his mind to attack, he does not even look for anyone else.

On the other side, André Santos was eager to push forward and attack in his first appearance for the Gunners. His attacking style differs from Sagna’s, in that Santos seems to favor cutting inside and attacking towards the box, rather than looking to receive the ball out on the wing and cross into the box, as Sagna is oft to do.

Alex Song was a sight for sore eyes in the first half. His physicality was welcome against Blackburn, and his passing set up both first half goals. In addition to assisting on Gervinho’s goal, it was Song’s beautiful ball to Ramsey that started the attack which Arteta finished clinically (34′). Going into half time I had Song as my leader in the clubhouse for man-of-the-match honors, but we all know how that ended so I don’t need to talk about it, right?

Even though we conceded right through the middle of our back line, it was against the run of play in the first half, so I felt good going into the break. Unfortunately, old defensive deficiencies resurfaced in the second half, ultimately leading to a complete collapse and leaving Arsenal on only 4 points after 5 games. Set pieces were a nightmare all day, with Blackburn looking capable of scoring each time they took a free kick in the Arsenal half. Koscielny, who had a nightmare of a day overall, looked especially lost on set pieces, often losing his mark. It was his misjudged header that allowed the pass to (an offside) Yakubu for his second goal, and who can forget the own goal. The back line never looked together, seeming incapable of holding a line, often putting each other in bad positions, and failing to pick up Blackburn players making attacking runs. I don’t want to belabor the point, suffice to say that the back line was not good enough. They were not helped by Sagna having to go off, as Djourou is not a right back and it showed, but the largest problem was still through the middle. Though Mertesacker is a much talked-about 6’6”, it was the 6’4” Samba who was the dominant player in the air. Samba’s strength and power was the difference, and he could have easily netted two headers off set pieces that ended up wide of the mark.

To say Arsenal were unlucky at Blackburn would be true, as a single own goal is uncommon and Yakubu’s second goal was clearly offside, but the truer statement would be that Arsenal weren’t good enough to deserve any better luck than they got. After Koscielny’s own goal (68′) made it 4-2 in favor of the home side, Arsenal looked shell-shocked and played uninspired football for the next fifteen minutes, which they could not afford to do. Chamakh got off the schnide by scoring his first Premier League goal since last November (85′) on a wicked cross from van Persie, and honestly looked the best I have seen him in quite some time, but Paul Robinson was better than was the Gunners’ last flourish and Blackburn hung on to the game and the three points that may have saved their manager’s job for now.

It was a bad result, to put it lightly, but I am not among those who are going to call for Arsène’s head, as it is still early and I think he rightfully enjoys a pretty long rope due to his track record. This is undoubtedly the biggest challenge he has faced as the manager of Arsenal, but I believe he and the team will respond. That being said, this is the Premier League and everyone will be lining up to kick us while we’re down, so the bounce-back needs to be swift or else even the dreams of a 4th place finish will evaporate as quickly as a second half lead. Let’s get well against Shrewsbury Town on Tuesday.

On to the awards:

Man of the Match – Paul Robinson (Yakubu lost points for being offside)

Brian Wilson Best Beard Award – Gaël Givet

Worst Neck Tattoo On A Debut – André Santos

Hard Luck Chuck Award – Wojciech Szczęsny (2 own goals is the definition of hard luck)