Arsenal head into a key week in the season, Galatasaray’s visit to The Emirates is followed by the trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. And as usual, injuries are wreaking havoc with the squad. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Mikel Arteta tweeted that his recovery process has already begun whilst Aaron Ramsey is reportedly out for up to six weeks, which more or less takes him out until the November internationals where I am sure that exertions for the Welsh will twang his other hamstring.
Shad, the size of your task is becoming more apparent with every passing day.
We just wait and see with Jack Wilshere whether the Bulldog spirit turns into ankle-knack or something more serious, like a broken Bonio. There will be more players watching corner practice from the windows of the medical centre than taking part.
Set pieces have long been Arsenal’s weakness. When the stereotype player that Arsène wants is technically gifted and quick, along with a style of play based on tiki taka, compromises have to be made elsewhere. One of those is defending corners or free kicks with midfielders becoming no more than numbers in the box. Typically for Arsenal, the cause of the extra training was for attacking reasons.
Those of us who were around before the Wenger era are bemused by the inability to defend or attack set pieces. Those who were around before The Invincibles were dismantled will also understand the exasperation at this aspect of Arsenal’s game. It’s all the more baffling when the man sitting by Arsène’s side was a member of a back four that were prime exponents of those situations at either end of the pitch.
From the outside, Arsenal are in a difficult position. Delivery is bafflingly poor, not just in crosses into the area but also from positions on the edge of the box. It’s why, even allowing for the exceptional technique, Santi Cazorla’s goal at Wembley and Alexis’ effort last week, stand out in your mind. Before the Spaniard scored in the FA Cup final, I can’t remember the last effort that Arsenal scored from a direct free kick. Indeed as he teed it up, looking for the chink in Alan MacGregor’s armour, my instant reaction was that I hope the person in row 345 is paying attention and if not, doesn’t get too badly hurt when the ball hits them full on the cheek. It was so unexpected when it hit the back of the net that you wonder why we don’t score more often from those positions. Two in a row just raises expectations now.
If delivery is a problem in attacking from corners, it’s an even bigger one on defending them, or practising defending them. How can Kioscielny, Mertesacker, Szczesny or Chambers expect to reach a ball to clear it when they rarely see one in those situations in a training session? How can they replicate defending them when the attackers lack the physical presence of opponents and they can’t use the likes of Giroud and Welbeck as they have to learn their own defensive roles? Unless Arsenal are going to join an Oompa Loompa league, it’s a problem that isn’t going to be solved quickly although a job lot of trampolines might help.
More troubling from that point of view is the ‘second phase’, a dreadful phrase which has crept into the game insidiously like assists did. The goal which knocked Arsenal out of the League Cup was a prime example of where it all goes wrong. Wilshere was slow to react and failed to put pressure on his opponent; he was more concerned with keeping his hands behind his back than making Clyne think. The invitation to shoot was gleefully accepted and the Southampton full back joined the not-so-exclusive club of players who have scored a ‘worldy’ (as I believe the kids call them) against Arsenal. His trick will be to avoid the obscurity that others descended into in the immediate aftermath.
At its core, Arsenal problems seem to stem from an inability to cross from a dead ball situation. You can’t practice either aspect of the game – attacking or defending – if you don’t get the basics right.
There is another angle to this. Are set pieces so important that we need to be overly concerned? Going back to the age thing, time is changing football as the English game focuses more on passing and movement, defenders are less reckless in their challenges in the area – or seem to be – whilst the trend to standing with hands behind backs is reducing the number of handball decisions referees have to take. The less they have to think, the less they get wrong which can only be good for the game.
It’s the latest ‘craze’, one which infuriates me as much as the ludicrous raising of one arm across chests so that the hand rested on a shoulder. The latter was about as unnatural a position as could be seen in a defensive wall. It soon halted when Arsenal were penalised – coincidentally in a North London Derby I seem to recall although by now you’ve all become accustomed to how many holes there are in my memory. The hands behind the back – the naughty schoolboy posture, if you like – is an abomination as well. Whilst I appreciate the necessity of keeping the ball away from arms and hands, defending in that manner must affect balance and consequently the ability to react to attacking movement. For a century or more, defenders were able to block crosses without arms flailing like Magnus Pike; why the sudden desire to be a bit part actor in a period drama? That’s the term, right there; the obsequious servant posture.
Anyway, all of this has led onto to one final thought. Is too much being made of the problem? Perceptionally, I don’t see as many goals being scored from set pieces – or I don’t notice as many – this season to the extent that West Brom’s brace against Burnley yesterday stand out as unusual. Is this just another stick to beat the squad with? I am not sure about the latter part, it is part of the game after all and we know that there is a weakness there but with the scant reward over recent seasons, is it that big a problem? The flipside of that is we should be getting better reward and certainly delivery is an issue although with few targets to aim at…
Personally, I am more concerned by the manner of Tottenham’s goal. We ceded possession is a stupid position on the pitch and never recovered. We were also unpicked a couple of times on the counter, something to which Arsenal are becoming increasingly susceptible at home. City exploited the weakness and unfortunately one of the goals was down to Flamini on that occasion as well. It’s a team problem that is in danger of becoming centred on one player. Often though one player’s mistake is the root cause. That’s the sort of area I would be more concerned with, where extra training was required.
George Graham was relentless in his pursuit of defensive perfection and got his back four drilled though repetitious training methods. It might be boring for the players but was hugely effective. Do Arsenal need to rediscover the basics or is it just this weeks’ thing?