If life were a popularity contest, Stewart Robson would have already been eliminated. “Nil points” would not even cover it. A prime proponent of the Spend! Spend! Spend! philosophy that is a by-product of the Premier League’s existence. Not so, according to a brief interview with The Islington Gazette. Indeed, he offers the contrary belief that more discipline not players, is the key requirement to improvement,
It is not about buying new players. Look, it’s always nice to get new faces in – and we have done already with the signing of Lukas Podolski from Cologne – but this is more about working with the players we have got and making some big changes to how we play. If we are to challenge, if we are to improve, then it is all about Arsene Wenger needing to get a clear, coherent, defensive strategy drilled into the squad.
The improvements are necessary, nobody can argue with that. Even if you remove the freak result at Old Trafford, Arsenal still conceded too many goals. If Arsenal failed to keep a clean sheet last season, in the Premier League they conceded an average of two goals a game. If you keep twenty-five clean sheets, that is not so much of an issue; when the total is just thirteen, there is a problem to be addressed.
Steve Bould is being held up as the solution, or a potential one. Too much weight is being placed on his appointment, the fear must be that if the improvement is not forthcoming – and quickly – Bould will end up being made a scapegoat in the same way that Pat Rice was. The ‘new man’ is reportedly forthright in his views but has been appointed assistant manager. To me that indicates that he believes in the path being followed by the manager and whilst that does not preclude questioning methods, results or whatever, it is certainly no guarantee of being the defensive equivalent of Tomas de Torquemada.
Whilst the former defender was as Robson noted, “a great defender“, Rice was no slouch either. It is a popular myth that Rice was little more that Wenger’s coneman, a modern day Stewart Houston. Ultimately it is the manager who decides the tactics and maps out the focus of training; the coaching staff deliver that via the methodology the manager prescribes. It is not quite dictatorial but certainly the manager’s vision is going to be universally supported by the coaches. If it is not, then life will be frustrating for them at work being constrained by beliefs they do not share and denied any leeway to exert their own influence.
Having warmed to his theme, Robson continued,
This team needs to start consistently defending well, getting in the habit of keeping clean sheets. There is no point in full-backs bombing forward if there is no strategy when we lose the ball…The fact remains that even if Arsenal went out right now and bought the four best defenders in the world, if they keep their current style they will not make any real difference.
We need to defend more from the front, we need to be disciplined and to make sure the defence always has cover in front of it. These are the fundamentals that title-winning sides have. You don’t see poor defences win leagues. We have the players to do it.
Many will disagree with that last sentiment and having heard Robson’s commentary observations, they are somewhat surprising. Nevertheless there is a lot of truth in his assessment. Defence is not an area I would expect any new signings this summer, only if you include the goalkeepers. With Almunia and Fabianski both likely to move on, a new signing would probably be needed. Personally I am unconvinced by Mannone whilst Martinez is too raw, too inexperienced. Right back seems well-stocked with Coquelin and Jenkinson able deputies for Sagna whilst on the left Gibbs and Santos are both capable defenders, both continually improving. Centrally, when fit, Arsène is spoiled for choice from his strong trio of contenders whilst in Djourou, Bartley and perhaps Miquel, he has deputies who can solve selection problems.
However, defending as a team needs to be more coherent. Too often – notably as the season drew to its close – Arsenal were undone by sloppy ceding of possession, compounded by the midfield failing to defend their lines leaving the back four exposed. Norwich for example, were able to salvage a point when the midfield dropped too deep, barely ahead of the back four and quarter of a pitch length behind the attack; you cannot be that mis-shapen if you want to challenge for a title.
Perhaps something as basic as the rope system employed by George Graham to gain defensive cohesion is needed, most likely it would be something more sophisticated. The trick for Arsenal will be to balance the need for professionalism in defence without diminishing attacking capabilities. More than anything, practice makes perfect. And practice I am sure they will.