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.