Another enforced break from football for a fortnight as the international break kicks in, the mood considerably lighter following consecutive two-goal away victories and Tottenham’s surprise home defeat to Fulham. With a tough April ahead of them – Everton and Manchester City at home with a potentially decisive trip to Stamford Bridge inbetween – the nerves are showing at White Hart Lane. That is all well and good from an Arsenal perspective but first and foremost, we have to win our games and then worry about other results. It is no use Tottenham dropping points if Arsenal do not take maximum from their games.
The respective run-ins offer tantilising possibilities. Chelsea face the prospect of fitting six Premier League matches between their meeting with Swansea at the end of April, as well as potential FA Cup and Europa League commitments. The Arsenal fixture pile-up of 1980 will seem relaxed and well-planned by comparison. Tottenham’s is by far the hardest, playing the top three as well as Everton and a Swansea side who will have been stung by their performance on Saturday. Arsenal’s, despite seeming more straightforward, has its own pitfalls. Reading and Wigan have relegation problems to contend with. Thankfully, Manchester United will have long won the title by the time they visit The Emirates, perhaps relaxing their intensity, especially if they have an upcoming FA Cup Final.
Last season’s comparative fixtures show that with a meagre nine points gained. No matter how tempting it might be, complacency is not an address at which Arsenal can afford to live.
The message has, it seems, filtered through to the squad. Per Mertesacker spoke of the recent improvement in defensive performance. According to the German, the defenders looked at the Tottenham match to see what was wrong,
We do [this] before every game. But the defenders did it on our own and I think there has been quite an improvement. We saw ourselves as a unit on the television and I think it was a good thing to do because sometimes you have a different view on the pitch and you feel different.
It was everybody’s decision [to do it]. We all had the feeling there was something to do so everybody was involved and everyone felt we needed to improve and speak more.
The most important thing we learned was to cover each other more. There were a lot of situations where there was no pressure on the ball and the back four was not prepared for any balls between us.
We are always watching videos. That is not the point. Sometimes it is good to see situations and I think the very important scenes against Tottenham made it more clear for everyone.
That the players took responsibility for this themselves is a positive, seeing where problems were and rectifying them. It begs questions, not least of which is why it took so long for this meeting to take place since the defensive problems have been clear for some time. Moreover, how did the players justify their performances? The view from the pitch must be incredibly different because from the stands it is clear and apparent that Arsenal have not employed a defensive line as much as a defensive zig-zag.
With this improvement comes speculation. Is Bould taking on the training of the back four, has Wenger listened having previously ignored? The truth is none of us know. Team meetings are often carthatic in terms of a season with 1997-98s double arriving after a no-holds barred session following a home defeat to Blackburn. The players resolved their issues without the input of the staff or manager and we can only hope that history repeats itself this season.
There is a convenient misconception that admonishes a solid defensive line, myth and prejudice equating it with the likes of Allardyce and Pulis. This isn’t the case. Arguably, lax defence is out of step with the precepts of Wengerball, teams in the opening half of Wenger’s reign were capable of exhilarating attacking displays whilst being hard for opponents to break down. Arguably the performances in this season’s opening games and recent back-to-back wins have more in common with Wenger’s teams than the shambolic defensive performances which dogged the club following the victory at West Ham.
A settled back four is often held as the solution. The current quartet have quickly built an understanding which has proved beneficial; it is beholden upon those who come in during the remaining games to continue that, to make transitions seamless. The gap has not been retrieved but the suggestion of this past week is that the building blocks are in place to challenge for the top four once more.