The year of ‘The Invincibles’ is as fond a memory as it is distant. Around that time, Arsenal were a force to be reckoned with. Before billions of pounds fattened the coffers of Manchester City and Chelsea, they were Manchester United’s closest title rivals.
How times have changed. Now, rather than pushing Manchesters United and City for the title, they find themselves battling just to finish in the top four. That can be their only aim now, after seeing their FA Cup hopes dashed by a resurgent Sunderland and their Champions League bid all but rejected. In an attempt to put things into perpective, Arsene Wenger had this to say:
“People are always asking the same question but the first trophy is to finish in the top four and that’s still possible for us. I believe that is vital for us, so let’s focus on that.”*
Wenger, speaking soon after his side’s FA Cup exit at the hands of Sunderland on February 19th, is right–Arsenal are in a very strong position to qualify for next season’s elite European tournament–but that statement would be more acceptable if, on the back of recent seasons of success, the current season uncharacteristically descended into a farce. However, this is Arsenal’s seventh consecutive trophy-barren season; and fans and players alike are very much on edge. Wenger continues:
“…at the moment we’re not making plans for next season, we’re making plans for the next game.”
“We have many missing: big, big players, too… That would be difficult for any club in the world to deal with. But let’s win our next game and we’ll be fine.”
A crucial game awaits Arsene Wenger on Sunday–Arsenal are at home to high-flying rivals Spurs. He clearly knows just how much of a boost a victory in this game would provide for him, the players and the fans. Thus, it’s imperative that he pick his players up mentally and patch his injury-ravaged squad in such a way that he can achieve the desired result. However, given the prolonged nature of Arsenal’s plight, is Wenger right to cast his view only at his feet? Or, should he be putting things in place from now to resurrect the glory days his club used to enjoy? Just what is wrong with Arsenal?
Problems at the Back
There’s much to admire about Arsenal’s attacking play. They play a very intricate — though sometimes too intricate — short passing game. They create many chances heading into the final third. This is partly evidenced by the fact that they play 7^ through balls/game–less than only Manchester City (8) in the league. They have also scored the most goals (6) in the league using the counter-attacking route, indicative of their attacking endeavor and precision.
At the back, however, the defending is anything but precise. Yes, the squad has been decimated by injuries. Still, Arsenal concede an average of 10.9 shots/game — second lowest in the league — which is good. Despite that, they’ve chucked 35 goals already this season–the most in the top 4. It’s interesting to note that the most goals Arsenal have conceded in a season when Wenger was in charge was 43. With 13 games left to go in the season and given Arsenal’s current form, it’s highly likely that they’ll chuck more, indicating that this defence is very much out of sorts.
What’s more, despite Arsenal doing well to come from behind to win games on a number of occasions (most recently against Sunderland in the league), they’ve managed to lose 8 games already this season. The most games Arsenal have ever lost in a season under Wenger is 11 — back in the 05/06 season. Again, given current form and the number of games left in the season, they may yet equal or even ‘better’ that total. What and/or who is to blame for Arsenal’s shaky defence?
The High Line
Given Arsenal’s attacking mentality, they tend to push high up the pitch, resulting in a high defensive line. That’s all well and good, generally speaking; but with Arsenal, there’s a serious problem and it has cost them time and time again — the central defenders are too slow. Why does this matter? A high defensive line leaves acres of space between it and the ‘keeper, making it easy for teams to play long balls over the top and run in behind. The likes of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny — they’ve started the most games together at the back — are not fast enough to catch up with pacey wingers and forwards running in behind them. As a result, poor Wojciech Szczesny has been left exposed and subsequently taken to the cleaners as a result. Unsurprisingly then, Arsenal have been very poor this season when it comes to defending through balls.
Per Mertesacker hasn’t exactly set the league alight either. The high line is particularly harsh on him. In addition to not being fast enough, his statistics/game for tackles (.8), interceptions (1.7), and offsides won (.7) are hardly encouraging. The 8-2 mauling at the hands of Manchester United forced Wenger to make the defensive signing begged for by the fans; but ‘Mr. Clean’ has not proven to be the man that Arsenal needed.
Compounding matters further, a trend that Arsenal have developed is the high amount of defensive errors they make–an obvious indication of a lack of concentration and composure. They made 16 defensive errors last season and scored 1 own goal. This season, however, they have already surpassed both those figures with 13 games to go — 23 defensive errors and 4 own goals. Just to show where they stand, Manchester City have made just 6 defensive errors this season. These figures give more evidence of why Arsenal have chucked so many goals so far this season. Also, they explain why Arsenal have developed a knack for throwing away leads. In all competitions this season, thrown away leads account for 3 of their losses and 2 of their draws.
‘Last ditch tackle’ figures for Arsenal have soared this season in relation to last (3 last season, 13 this season). This statistic may sound encouraging, but given Arsenal’s defensive record, it may indicate the regularity at which their defensive line is breached. If this is the case, then it only serves to solidify the fact that Arsenal’s defence is very much on the decline and something meaningful needs to be done about it. For starters, the central defenders should drop a bit deeper to compensate for their lack of pace. Alex Song could do some extra covering ahead of them.
The year of ‘The Invincibles’ will forever remain on the minds of all concerned with English football and even beyond. That season was supposed to serve as a benchmark for Arsenal, something to aspire to. Instead, 8 years down the road, the club has regressed to a point where the title is now considered a bonus rather than a genuine target, 4th place and a Champions League berth is the primary objective, and that remarkable season is treated as an overachievement, never to be equalled or bettered. Just like that, a club that placed at least second in 8 of Wenger’s first 11 seasons in charge hasn’t finished in the top two since the 04/05 season.
Arsene Wenger’s futuristic philosophy wasn’t supposed to produce this outcome. He still remains the right man to turn things around, but he has to act quickly; otherwise, with players and fans growing weary and disillusioned, he’ll be the only one left who believes in his precious philosophy.
— Part 2 will discuss how Arsenal can limp through the rest of the season and how Walcott can be properly utilized, amongst other things–
*-Quotes courtesy of ESPNsoccernet
^- Stats courtesy of whoscored & EPLindex