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The case for the defence

In light of the recent Arsenal v Chelsea match there has been a lot of discussion about defending in the Premier League. When you look at the 5-3 Arsenal win, the 8-2 Arsenal loss to United, the 6-1 defeat by City of United and City’s 5-1 defeat of Tottenham, you begin to wonder what is going on to cause this.

Before I get into this piece I have two apologies to make. The first, is for the title. It is probably one of the most over used titles in the blogosphere and I’ve brought it out again. Hell, I think this now marks the second time I’ve used it. So sorry for that. The second has to do with the content of this piece. Specifically, I don’t pretend to be some great tactician. What I am about to articulate is what I think from what I’ve seen on the pitch and what I’ve read to help formulate and analysis. I am quite certain that some of you may have a different perspective on this issue and that is good this is merely my thoughts on the subject.

Nuff said. On to the topic at hand.

In light of the recent Arsenal v Chelsea match there has been a lot of discussion about defending in the Premier League. When you look at the 5-3 Arsenal win, the 8-2 Arsenal loss to United, the 6-1 defeat by City of United and City’s 5-1 defeat of Tottenham, you begin to wonder what is going on to cause this.

Let’s get rid of this part of it first – I am sure City’s wins had a lot to do with the skill and talent of their team as it had to do with any defencive frailties of their opponent. Equally, I am sure United beat Arsenal because of Arsenal rolling with a C squad (not even the B team) and United being that good on the day. Still, there have been teams equally as good as those that haven’t chipped in that many goals. And hell, that many goals chipped in this early in the season has to be down to more than just talent.

I read going into the Chelsea match, an interview with Lee Dixon. In this interview Lee said the following:

 “The game has changed,” Dixon reflects.”We would find it harder now. Nobody including myself seems to know what the offside rule is. Defenders aren’t allowed to tackle any more. Hence the seeming lack of depth in good quality defenders. The art of defending has been diluted.”

So Lee is arguing that fact that rule changes meant to show a more offencive (meant in a proper way), attacking game has squashed the ability of today’s defenders to ply their trade. Sure if a ref is told call every little tackle, or caution warn and then eventually card even the most simplest of tackles then of course a defender is going to have less of an arsenal in their skill set. Additionally, throw in the hyper-overacting of many of today’s players who do get tackled and what is a skilled defender to do. In another interview Dixon expands:

“There is no doubt that year on year there is a change in emphasis and a change in rules. They have stopped the tackle from behind and you would probably say quite rightly. But I still think there’s a place for good defending behind forwards.

“Certainly the tackle from the side has been outlawed in as much as winning the ball is not enough. It’s deemed now that you have to win the ball in a safe manner and not be a danger to the opposition. We don’t want to see broken legs and we want to rule out the over-the-top tackle – but I certainly think there is very little left in a defender’s armoury.

Then when you throw in the new emphasis on attack and switches to formations like the 4-3-3 that play to a more open and flowing game, something has to suffer. The thing that suffers the most is the defence. More from Lee:

“If you look at all the top teams, they have all had problems defensively. Chelsea can’t seem to find someone to play alongside John Terry and he has been having a bad time himself. United’s backline has been unsettled, with Nemanja Vidic having been injured, while Rio Ferdinand has had troubles.

“United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all had issues at centre-back and, if you mix that with teams being more adventurous, you have got a cocktail there for explosive games.

Sure some teams have been able to compensate. Barcelona, the current model of football excellence compensate by an insane desire for every individual to get the ball back once they lose it. They press the opponent better than any other team I’ve seen and the force mistakes. No tackling necessary. They just get on a player and get that ball.

As the game has moved to more “flair” and attack it has opened up play. We are now even seeing a preference for defenders – both CBs and FBs who can get forward. This leaves the back terribly exposed and positionally the defence becomes a shambles. It’s not just Arsenal its league wide. Some are better at others from recovering it. Newcastle and City have a low goals against total but they are not without their own issues. City have shown in the Champion’s League that when faced with a pacy skilled opponent they don’t seem to be able to handle it especially on the counter because their defenders are too far forward. For Newcastle, well I think time will show them for the mid-table club they really are.

So how does this all relate to Arsenal? Well, we’ve all known for some time that Arsenal have defencive issues. Some of it is personnel and some of it is system. Somwhere – maybe 2005 – as we transitioned to our new system, defencive stalwarts were replaced. We became convinced that the Dutch – total football style was the way to go. And this meant a more open, fluid and attacking system.

First, we cannot over look the fact that some things are products of maybe the wrong system in play. For instance the preference for zonal marking on set pieces over man marking.  Additionally, some of the talent selected ( cough cough Squillaci et al) simply didn’t seem good enough. But another part of it is this, the personnel we’ve brought in even defenders were more suited for attacking rather than defending.

Absurd sounding (I warned you)? But our players, even defenders must have attacking skills and our defenders lacked, as Lee Dixon argues, some of the basics that they need to be successful as premier league defenders. This has led to defenders getting more forward than we would like and when a team catches us on the counter we are woefully out of position. Additionally, even for those defenders that have been skilled enough, the focus on attack has drawn us away from keeping the defence trained as a defencive unit. Finally, our back four simply hasn’t had any time playing together due to the litany of injuries that has kept first choice players of the pitch (this is more of a problem this season). More from Dixon:

 “The story about us all (Dixon, Bould, Adams, and Winterburn) standing holding a piece of rope between us to keep us in line, that’s true as well,” he says. “It was days and days of boring meticulous details about stopping the ball even getting in the box, let alone net.”

“In my experience of defending, the more you play together and the less often the back-four changes, the better. When we played at Arsenal, virtually none of us really got any major injuries. If one of us did it was quite simple to get someone in to cover as long as they knew what they were doing.

For us the focus on attack and injuries couple with some players being brought in who didn’t belong in an Arsenal defencive unit have created this gapping defencive gap. Personally, I know some won’t agree, but I see improvement. First, I think we finally have a goal keeper in Wojiech Szczesny who can command his defenders like a good keeper should. Secondly, I think we finally have personnel who can make a solid unit. Sagna, is the best RB in the league. Jenkinson, while young is showing himself to be an apt deputy. Vermaelen, Kosicelny and Mertesacker give us 3 centre backs that give us a solid core in the middle. The big question is LB. You just don’t know about Gibbs because its one in and ten out for him due to injury. Santos reminds me a little of Eboue. He is great getting forward, can get you a couple good goals and may make the odd defencive stop but likely is going to leave you exposed.

Another thing I like is when Wenger gets his team to actually press the opposition. We’re good at it. We were good at last year against Barcelona and Chelsea. We did it wonderfully against United at the end of last season. Against Marseille this week wow we did it effectively for most of the match. When we didn’t we were exposed. Wenger in my opinion needs to get this team pressing as much as possible whenever it doesn’t have the ball. Good things will happen.

Finally, Wenger has moved from a zonal marking system to a man marking system in set pieces. And while Gooners are are still biting their nails on set pieces, I do see an improvement here.

Still, it would be completely insane of me to suggest that all our woes are fixed. There are still issues but part of me believes that is going to be solved by healthy players getting time to to play together. Its one of the reasons I wish Bac was coming back as soon as possible. Another fix would be to make sure the likes of Sebastien Squillaci and players of his ilk never see the pitch again in an Arsenal uniform. Harsh I know, but the fact remains we lose more with him on the pitch.

For the league as a whole? Well, there are still other issues and as Dixon says there are evidence to his argument that defending is becoming a lost art form on display every weekend with EVERY team (some more than others). Its a shame really because one of the things that made the Premier League so enjoyable was the physical nature of the game – no not the Ryan Shawcross type of physicality – but the kind that made Adams, Dixon, Bould and Winterburn legends.  That is missing. In fact it is gone. And as long as this league moves to more continental style of play (nothing against it really) and creates more rules supporting the attackers than the defenders, then defending we’ve all loved and likely grown up on, will go the way of the dodo bird – to extinction.

ed note: These opinions are my own. The quotes from Lee Dixon come courtesy of both Guardian and BBC.

Until next time – Stay Goonerish!!

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