Do you feel like we dodged a bullet by avoiding Balotelli and plumping instead for Welbeck? After Danny notched his fifth of the season, whilst Mad Mario failed repeatedly to get off the mark yesterday, it’s impossible not to breathe a sigh of relief, because I’ll be honest and say I thought he’d have been a great signing at The Arsenal.
Thankfully though we have found ourselves a couple of forwards in Alexis and Welbeck, who look every bit the success so far, so we can only hope that they continue their good run of scoring over the coming months. Because let’s face it, with the rate at which we’re conceding goals, we’re going to need them to keep banging them in just to stay close to the hunt for a top four spot. Which is what leads me to my central point of discussion today:
What has happened to our defence?
This season already we’ve conceded 11 goals in the league. In just eight games. That’s nearly a goal and a half each match and the contrast between the team this season and the one that made a fabulous habit of clean sheets last season is marked. I don’t have a ‘run rate’ of when we’d conceded our 11th goal in the league last season, but I’d expect to find out that we were near the halfway mark in the season when we did. Two goals against Leicester, Everton, Chelski, Dortmund and Hull. The list is mounting and it’s filling me with more trepidation than anything else.
Last seasons success was built on a miserly approach to football matches. We were pragmatic in our play: stay strong and hard to break down at the back, get the lead and never look like giving it away, which was the blueprint for a very good season until March when the injuries and lack of pace up top kicked in. It was the sharp end of the team that derailed our title charge in 13/14, but it’s the defence that has in my opinion, already destroyed our hopes of a first league title in 11 years.
So why are we so different? What has changed about the back four that was there last year but not this? Barring Sagna, it certainly hasn’t been the personnel. Szczesny, Gibbs, Koscienly and Mertesacker have – by and large – been present for most of this season. They were present for a vast bulk of last season too. We all agree (I think) that Debuchy for Sagna was a very close ‘like-for-like’ and whilst he’s been out for a few weeks, it’s hardly been his absence that has caused us to haemorrhage goals with such frequency, has it? And anyhow, our conceding of goals hasn’t all been down the right hand side of our team, so you can’t really point the finger of blame in the direction where Sagna has been.
Most Arsenal fans I know have also been very happy with Chambers too. So why on earth, when individually the players don’t seem to be playing so badly, are we dropping points quicker than a slippery bar of soap? I don’t really understand it. Sure, I have theories, but there isn’t really any kind of insight or evidence to back up my argument. And in football it is very rare that ongoing issues with a team performance come down to one or two key factors.
I don’t believe, for example, that not having a tough-tackling, ball-winning midfielder would have stopped every goal we’ve conceded from going in. As much as the need exists, I don’t think the role of the fabled ‘DM’ played that much part in the second goal for Hull on Saturday. Had our giant German not been caught under the flight of the ball he might have been able to nod that away from Hernandez.
The same goes with another centre half. Had we have kept Vermaelen in the summer, for example, it would still probably have been Per that was caught under the flight of the ball.
So perhaps it is the form of the players? There’s no doubt that Per and Kos haven’t been as effective as last season. Mertesacker was the chief protagonist for goal number two on Saturday in my opinion, but Koscienly has also been guilty of lapses in concentration, like at Leicester (although whether he should have remained on the pitch after his head injury is another question entirely).
When Szczesny suffered his dip in form a few seasons back, many said it was because he was not in competition from any serious number two, a fact I believe he has even alluded to. Is this the case for our two central defenders? Perhaps there’s something in that you know. Both Per and Kos know that their only real competition is a 19-year-old who had made a handful of first team appearances until last season. Thankfully for us, he has hit the ground running and looked a superb centre half, but we all know that when fit, he will step back on to the subs bench.
It’s all very well looking at the problems defensively when injuries set in, but it’s that element of competition that also plays a part in player form, so by refusing to address the defensive issues in the summer, the manager has also made it doubly hard for himself by not providing enough of a stick with which to nudge the central pairing a little when they aren’t quite at their best.
Again, I don’t think that can be attributed as the single reason as to why we are not looking as resolute at the back as we did last season because let’s face it, Per and Kos are professionals and they will be trying their hardest to remain at the peak of their games. I don’t want to accuse both of a lack of incentive, because I don’t think that’s the case, but I do think that sometimes you need as much stick as carrot in any profession.
So is it the formation? Everyone talks about this 4-1-4-1 formation, and how it is costing us games, but the defensive side of the team hasn’t changed shape-wise. We still have a goalkeeper like last season. We still have a back four. And one of our midfielders still sits more deeper lying than the others. There may be questions around the success of the style and change in approach going forward, but defensively we should be the same as we were last season. As much as I am not a fan of the change in style (although I still remain to be convinced that it is 4-1-4-1. It still looks very similar to last season, but with some players playing in positions less familiar to them e.g. Özil), if you imagine that we were as tight defensively as last season, we’d probably have not conceded against the Spuds, City, Hull and Leicester. That’s 12 points instead of four and puts us just a few off the pace of the runaway leaders Chelski.
So to my mind the change in formation hasn’t really affected us defensively. We’ve just not been as good for some reason.
I really can’t work out why we’re so different. Perhaps there is some sort of training regime defensively that isn’t working? I don’t know why we would change a successful formula from last season though. We found something that worked and the manager would surely not have wanted to tinker with that. Would he?
Maybe it’s the World Cup hangover? But Szczesny and Gibbs didn’t go and Koscienly didn’t play all the the way to the final. Chambers wasn’t in the England squad, so it’s only Debuchy and Mertesacker that you could potentially argue have suffered as a result. But again, Debuchy has looked good individually this season, so what, are we putting our defensive frailty down solely to the German and our vice-captain? I certainly don’t think that is the answer and whilst his form hasn’t been amazing, it’s hardly been Rio Ferdinand-esque off the form Richter scale.
I think ultimately what I’m getting at is that there is no silver bullet to explain why we’re all wobbly defensively this season. It’s a combination of factors that aren’t working and as I said in my blog yesterday, it’s just not clicking at the moment. In a way, I wish it was one single factor, because at least then the club can look to isolate, mitigate and minimise the problem as soon as possible. But with so many factors probably contributing, one suspects that we might go through quite a bit more pain this season before we sort ourselves out.
Catch ye’ in the morrow.