Manchester United 1 Arsenal 0 – Arsenal’s Defensive Issues

It’s been a busy week in the Premiership. Two managers have been given their P45’s in what most people would consider quite bizarre circumstances, the “Carlos Tevez Saga” (excruciatingly similar but not to be confused with the “Wayne Rooney Saga”) has developed and two of the most hotly anticipated games of the year took place. Given the predictable ridiculousness of the off-field stories at the moment and my dislike for both Spurs and Chelsea, I thought I would tackle the grim task of picking through Monday’s game at Old Trafford from an Arsenal perspective. Apologies for the rather biased slant of this article.

Going into the game Arsenal had not won in their last 10 games against their main rivals Manchester United and Chelsea and that became 11 games after 90 minutes of much toil but none of the precision and panache of which they are capable and which is needed to break down a defence of the highest quality. Whatever may have been said by players, managers and journalists during the hype before the game, the result of this match is not conclusive evidence that Arsenal will not be challenging for the title come May. Old Trafford is a tough place to go for any team and losing by a solitary, some might say lucky, goal is not disastrous by any stretch of the imagination. I would probably argue that a greater test of how far the current Arsenal team has come will be in the second half of the season where both United and Chelsea visit the Emirates.

The game does raise several points about the system being employed by the Arsenal coach at the moment and how it is being implemented by the players.

Firstly, the short passing game that is employed by Wenger requires a lot of attacking players to be effective. It is otherwise too easy to mark the spaces in which the passes will go into. It is not unusual to therefore see the three player forward line and two supporting players from the midfield three to all be attacking at once with at least one of the full-backs. The problem this creates is when the ball is lost the defence is thin on numbers. The counter for this is to play as Barcelona do and defend high up the field. Although this means that you have a high defensive line with lots of space for the opposition to run in behind, by pressing each man as soon as he gets the ball they cannot pass through you or play an accurate pass over the top of your defenders for a striker to run on to.

It seems to me that Arsenal’s problem with this is that when defending the players are not disciplined to keep pressing. The first half of Monday’s game was a prime example of this. Because Manchester United were defending very deep against them, trying to stifle their passing game and not allow any space in behind, Arsenal should have been able to pen them in had they pressed and marked tight every time they lost the ball. Unfortunately they were often found to be guarding space and United’s midfield and full-backs just passed it around them and were able to run at the defensive line.

A second defensive issue for me comes on the flanks. Whenever Nasri or Arshavin received the ball, Manchester United always doubled up on the flanks, either with a winger moving back or a central midfielder coming across to help. This allowed the full-back the oportunity to challenge safe in the knowledge that there was a covering player if they were beaten. This in turn tended to stop attacks further away from the penalty area and avoided dangerous crosses. This point seems to have evaded the Arsenal coaching set-up as time after time the full-backs were isolated against particularly the mobile Nani. The goal came from one of these occasions. Song or Wilshere has to be more mobile to cover the defensive flanks.

Arsenal fans have been worried about the defence for a long while. Thomas Vermaelen has been built up as the figure who will instil solidity back into the back four. Unfortunately, I think the problems identified above are not just down to individual errors that can be mended by shuffling the pack. Until the whole team defends properly I think we will continue to see goals leaking.

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3 Responses to Manchester United 1 Arsenal 0 – Arsenal’s Defensive Issues

  1. brese says:

    I agree with you totally, I remember after watching the Barca Real Game (5 – 0) I called up a friend and asked him what the difference between our (Arsenal’s) passing game and Barcelona’s was, he mentioned some similar to what you just mentioned. that Barcelona fight hard to win the ball back (and fast) when they lose it which Arsenal don’t. and I also added the fact that Barcelona do their passing game with more confidence and accuracy which we don’t. so I totally agree with your article

    • Mikey says:

      I was thinking about the comparisons between Arsenal and Barcelona during the game and came to some of the same
      conclusions as you and the poster above. Arsenal play a similar game to Barcelona just with nowhere near the
      same level of confidence in themselves or belief in the system. They don’t press, move or pass the ball anywhere near as well as Barca.

      I also think there’s much less positional fluidity to Arsenal’s game which holds them back against the better sides who defend not just in numbers but with real quality and organisation like Chelsea and Man United. For example, Barca defend with 3 at the back when they have the ball – that 3 can be any of Abidal/Maxwell, Puyol, Pique, Alves or Busquets and that makes them incredibly difficult to mark with Abidal, Pique and Alves all stepping out into midfield at different times. This replicated up the pitch as well with Messi dropping in, Iniesta roaming and Villa switching at will across the front three. Arsenal’s movement, in terms of looking for space is much more adventerous than most teams but positionally they can be quite rigid at times.

      Another thing is the make up of the midfield. Barcelona play one deep (Busquets) and two ahead (Xavi and Iniesta) whereas Arsenal play one (Fabregas if he’s fit) ahead of two others. I can see what Wenger is trying to do here, both Nasri and Arshavin like to come inside which means the width needs to come from the fullbacks and therefore you need the double pivot to cover those areas BUT all of Arsenal’s midfielders tend to get caught too high for that to work properly, which when combined with Clichy and Sagna can often leave them incredibly vulnerable to quick counter attacks in the channels.

      They must have 3 at the back when in possession whether they keep their current system and a full back stays at home or they adopt something similar to Barcelona but for me there’s a clear weakness tactically there. The other point is just that their players simply aren’t as good, I think only Clichy and one of Nasri and Fabregas would go straight into their first choice 11 ahead of Abidal and Pedro.

      Anyway those are my thoughts, I’m a Burnley season ticket holder so I might be wrong on a few points having not seen Arsenal that much really and love to hear what an Arsenal fan thought.

  2. Graham says:

    Thanks to you both for your comments.

    I think you are right on the defensive front. Barcelona are far better organised and for me work harder at closing down players quicker or rather they mark closer and so are nearer to the players when they receive the ball so are immediately applying pressure. Arsenal seem to mark spaces, rather like a zonal system. While this has benefits, it does mean that the opposition always have time to pass round you if they have enough quality. They also have a tendency to push both fullbacks forward at the same time, which leaves them very short.

    From an attacking standpoint, I think the difference can be overstated somewhat. While I am not for one moment suggesting that Arsenal are as good as Barcelona at the moment, you have to remember even Barcelona have struggled to break down the defences of Chelsea and United when they have come up against them in the Champions League. They have usually come out on top admittedly but I think offensively the teams aren’t too far away from each other.

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