Give It Up, Turn It Loose

The weekend’s result at Bolton has certainly brought forth strong opinions on the state of play within the Arsenal community. Mine are well known to the regular readers of this blog; simply put a comfortable third would be an acceptable improvement on last season. But why is the bar raised so high by others? Why do people believe this team should challenge for the title this season? Three words: Paris, May 2006. In reaching the Champions League final, Arsene created a millstone around his neck for the coming season. That the team exceeded expectations is to a certain extent forgotten when talking about the current campaign. Indeed even during 2005-06 nobody seriously believed Arsenal were contenders until a substandard Real Madrid were dumped out en route to the final. Yet the domestic form gave no indication that a title challenge was about to spring forth this season. But that is typical of the history of Arsenal Football Club. Prior to Wenger’s arrival, the title tended to come as a bolt from the blue, the only exceptions being the team of the 1930’s.

So with this season a quarter of the way through why are so many of us, including the manager, publicly throwing the towel at such an early stage? From his point of view, what is said privately and publicly may well be two different things. In stating that the title is gone he has dampened the spirits of the supporters but has removed the pressure from the players, or so the theory goes, in that now that they are not expecting to be mentioned as title contenders in the media. Whether this works or not is an unprovable point; the media can be manipulate but to be quite honest as they set the rules, it is not a ruse that works in the long run.

Its fair to say that the season probably has not gone as Wenger would have anticipated before it began. Back in July, if you could have pinned him down to a prediction of where he expected the team to be in November, my guess is that he would have settled for third in the Premiership within two or three points of the leaders and already qualified for the second round of the Champions League. Well, we’re not: Sixth place, thirteen points off the pace – albeit with a game in hand – and one bad performance away from the UEFA Cup. The question is what has gone wrong and unfortunately there is not one single answer, no one thing to change that would make a difference.

The first problem has been the dropping of eight points at home. By now it would be a reasonable expectation to have dropped maybe four at most. Looking at the opposition few would have predicted that Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Everton and Newcastle would have walked away with a share of the spoils. Perhaps Villa or Everton but not the other two. The opening day result could be put down to new surroundings but it is not a theory to which I subscribe. In order to get the players used to the stadium, surely the team have been training there at least twice a week. I know there is a world of difference between a full and an empty stadium but even so training on the pitch would enable them to get used to the dimensions, the surroundings and whatever else it is that they want to get used to. Given Arsene’s meticulous approach to London Colney and setting out pitches to the exact measurements of opponents grounds, this would have crossed his mind. So why do I not believe that they have carried out this routine?

However, this is almost a superfluous argument, one that shies away from tackling the real issues, namely those that surround the squad and the tactics employed. Before I go any further, I will state right here and now: Arsene Wenger is the best candidate to be manager of Arsenal Football Club. The personnel he has at his disposal have the potential to become the best side in the clubs history, which you have to admit is a big statement to make when you consider the teams that have gone before them. And I believe that they will achieve that potential with him at the helm.

But, and it is a big but, there are some serious shortcomings in both the players and the way they play at the moment. The most basic problem is the lack of concentration and confidence in defence. The team are conceding first all of the time. Well, OK, that is an exaggeration but it is not far from the truth. My count is seven out of thirteen league games and three out of seven Champions League games. That is pretty painful reading; indicative of a serious problem, one that I am beginning to believe is as much an issue with belief as it is with concentration. The answer to that requires a little bit of further digging. To my mind, in the league five of the seven were avoidable in that it was lax marking or an error of judgement allowing the opposition to score. That is a high percentage and one that cannot be purely put down to the inexperience of the players. At Manchester City it was a Hoyte error that led to the goal but you have the potential for that to happen before you even step on the pitch putting a right back on the left side of defence. Wenger may have got away with it last season with the injuries to Cole and Clichy but his luck has eluded him thus far in 2006-07. However that is but one game. Too often, opponents have been left with time and space to punish Arsenal and they have done so. With the defence on call, this should not be happening so regularly. Gallas and Toure are two of the most experienced centre halves in the Premiership and should be able to deal with any problems. The fullbacks are young and inexperienced. It seems hard to believe but Eboue has yet to chalk up fifty starts for the club and neither has Clichy. But both like to attack and this leaves gaps to be exploited. It also puts pressure on the midfield to protect the back four, something that is patently not happening this season.

The reason for the lack of cover is not lack of effort. It is simply lack of collective defensive nous in the middle of the field. Whilst Gilberto is good at patrolling just ahead of the back four, his style of play is not that of tenacious tackler. He prefers to intercept with either a well – timed reading of a pass or removing the ball from his opponents control whilst they are in full flight. And make no mistake, he is good at this aspect of his game. Since his arrival he has been an unsung hero for the team and do not forget he has a World Cup Winners medal to boot so he must be doing something right. However, he is exposed by the balance of the midfield; it is geared to attack. Hleb, van Persie, Rosicky, Fabregas, Walcott, Baptista: all noted for their attacking displays. Of that list, Baptista started his career as a defensive midfielder so has that awareness and the Hleb/Eboue partnership on the right seems to work well. This weekend there have been comments about how we never commit fouls in the midfield area. Why should we commit fouls? There is no reward for that other than a lot of suspensions with bookings picked up. If we are not tackling that is a different matter but please let us drop this idea that fouling is a good sign. It isn’t: it’s either cynical professionalism or poor technique. Apply whichever label to the player you are talking about at the time.

There have been staunch arguments for Toure being put into midfield (mainly by Flint if memory serves) and I can see why as his defensive capabilities are excellent, his reading of the game and tackling have made him into one of the best central defenders around at the moment. And that is the compelling argument as to why he should not be moved forwards at the moment. Were Wenger to do so, the defence would be filled with at least three inexperienced players which is not going to work in the current climate for Arsenal. For those who do not believe this, remember what happened to Senderos in the early part of last season. Given a torrid time twice in six weeks by Drogba, he was dropped to allow himself to recover mentally. That worked this time round but can Arsene afford to have a defence manned by boys? Despite Djourou’s progress he is still not ready to lead one side of the defence, particularly on the right and it would also place a heavy reliance on Gallas to marshall the troops, something that is hard enough with one inexperienced fullback let alone two fullbacks and a centre back to look out for.

Allied to this the goalshy frontline is exacerbating the defensive frailites. Whilst the total scored domestically is not low as such, the number of different players scoring is surprising: eight. This is good in that it shows that the squad is chipping in. Not so good as you know that some of those players will not score again this season. Up front Henry is ploughing a lonely furrow. The 4-5-1 formation does not suit his style of play particularly and has meant a period of adaptation. The results have exposed the teams over-reliance on his goals with one goal not being enough to win a game any longer. It seems he is having a poor season but the statistics show he is not. Six goals so far is only two behind Drogba who the media would have us believe is the only forward on top of his game. However, he is isolated and reliant on runners from midfield. Whereas in the past he could confidently drift to the left knowing support was in the middle, this season the gap between midfield is more pronounced requiring more numbers in the box should Henry decide to go walkabout. If he does not, he is not an archetypal target man, used to holding the ball up and laying it off. In football terms he is more cerebral than that, a drifter who is best running at pace to devastating effect.

Which begs the question as to why Arsene believes his 4-5-1 is the way forward. It was the formation of choice at this years World Cup, only the Germans played with two forwards consistently and lets be honest, 2006 was a forgettable summer, not just for England’s performances either. 4-5-1 requires a certain type of centre-forward, one equally good in the air as on the ground, a tireless runner and a poacher in the area waiting to pounce on the crumbs from the supporting midfielders. Not a description I would have ordinarily associated with Henry. So why would Wenger go with this formation if his “star striker” does not fit it. Most likely, he believes that the manner of the teams charge through Europe can be replicated in the Premiership which obviously it can. However, at home this is having the opposite effect being countered by a defensive formation that floods the midfield but not the forward line. Having said that, the number of chances created in each home game tends to suggest that it may be a problem with the finishing more than the formation.

The biggest “complaint” has to be the wayward finishing which has to be addressed by Wenger, preferably this January. Each forward will go through a lean patch; when you play essentially with one forward up front then the problem becomes more acute. Arsene has been fortunate that van Persie has chipped in with his fair share of goals this season otherwise the “Goals For” column would be looking very meagre indeed. Gary Player once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get“. I do not think that this team can accused of not working hard. They are just unlucky in front of goal on a lot of occasions which must be draining on their confidence perhaps some fresh blood would boost them in that department?

The final topic of complaint at the moment centers around “Directness” or “Speed of play”. Most people will agree that this team can pass anyone to death. However what they lose on occasion is the focus, the ability to get from one end of the pitch to the other in a matter of seconds. Part of this is due to Henry being marked more tightly but also there seems to be a lack of support some of the time which means a square pass instead of a forward one, allowing midfielders to recover. When they get this part right they can be devastating; it does however require opponents to attack, something visitors to The Emirates have been most reluctant to do. The gameplan after that has to be patient use of ball, stretching the defence by using the full width of the pitch. The introduction of Walcott has enabled this to take place as there is a lack of width otherwise in the team. That is not to say the players do not occupy both touchlines, merely that they appear reticient to go past their opponent on the outside, more likely to cut inside into the melee of players.

After all of that rant, I have to say that in the end they will come good, finishing in the top three. It is going to be a painful journey though without any quick answers.

14 thoughts on “Give It Up, Turn It Loose

  1. Nick from the Upper Tier says:

    Agreed in principle, but i also feel that Goalscoring is an ability that is instictive,not coached or created easily. 2 years ago our midfiled/forward 4 comprised of ,Pires [15 goals], Lundberg [15 goals]
    Berkgamp [12 goals] and of course Henry.Further back we have Overmars also notching 15/20 goals
    Now we have Hleb,Fabregas,Rosicky etc.Sorry but they may muster 15/20 goals between them.
    I assure you with these players in the side at their prime, we would be 10/12 points better off.
    Now i know their time has gone,but surely the great man must look at this quality when he buys players. Statistics show that Hleb and Rosicky have never been goalscorers,although great on the ball
    Come on Arsene we need goals,plain and simple

    Nick

  2. Drew says:

    I think we could do with bringing Bendtner back, he is big poweful, good in the air and on the ground. He is tearing up the Championship, yes I know its not as good quality but most importantly he is scoring. His confindence is sky high and everyone that has seen him play this season is raving about his performances. We need a goal scorer and he and even Anthony Stokes are scoring for fun. Personally I think we need to bring Bendtner back in Jan and give him a good run in the team. We should also offload Aliadiere his time has run out.

  3. lc says:

    Good article!
    Your article contains almost every things I have been criticising AW for. A coach may thing he can transform a simple winger into a striker or a defensive midfielder into an efficient defender. But in a long run when things are not going as expected, it’s always difficult for the coach to put the blame fully on the players . In the current squad, too many players are used in many different positions and that can raise the question of why some of them are not efficient enough at these positions. We may play well at the moment, but the end product is taking its tall.
    I have always been among those who have addressed this essue with regard to the lack of a natural striker. We really need a top striker, Antlaar, Miroslav Close or David Villa.
    I don’t believe that our current problem is a defensive problem; it’s a striker one; and this, as you said, is troubling the defense. I believe, the coach’s tactic is wasting a lot of useful players on the bunch at the moment. AW is wasting Julio Batista on the bunch with regard to the usual habit of designing the squad before engaging them. I believe that Kolo Toure should be deployed in the midfield with Gilberto and Gallas, Sanderos or Djourou in the center defense when Arsenal are meeting tough team like Bolton or Chelsea. I have observed Djourou’ s display on many occasions; he is in my opinion our best defender at the moment, although he may pay at the moment the price of being guilty of the goal we conceded against CSKA Moscow.
    In deploying Gilberto and Toure in the midfield, we could use the squad in a 4-2-2-2 system.

    Eboue or Hoyte- Gallas- Djourou (or Sanderos)- Clichy (or Flamini).

    Toure- Gilberto.

    Hleb or Walcott- Rosicky or Fabregas

    Henry or RVP- Batista or Adebayor

    With regard to eboue recent defensive mistakes, I think the coach needs to tell him how to remain close to opposition player who’s got the ball so that he doesn’t allow him time to shut on goal and also Eboue needs to anticipate the ball instead of allowing his direct opponent to settle well on the ball before trying some rather heroic run.
    I think this squad is premiership winning team. We need right now an establish striker and the coach needs to ajust his tactics in the midfield when we face a physically strong premiership team and also some leadership required. for me gallas should the club captain when he is fit or Toure. I think Henry is not really comfortable with this rule of the club ‘s captain.

  4. Will says:

    Has anyone ever noticed that we are the only big team that gives other teams enough opportunities to kill us? Chelsea and ManUtd never do this. They make you work and create your goalscoring opportunites. We don’t do this.

    We also don’t learn the art of defence. All we learn is the art of attacking. We don’t even learn the art of striking – that’s why all we do is have the possession, force the opponents back but never apply the killer strike.

    We are also too timid for my liking. That’s why teams will never be afraid of us. Just imagine Eboue being pushed to the ground and our instincts tell us to run to referee rather than towards the offending player. We don’t have to go pulling out the offending player’s teeth but, crowding him out intimidatingly sends a psychological message that we can’t be pushed around. There’s a time to act gentlemanly and a time to show some steel and intolerance.

  5. lc says:

    Will, the answer to that is to bring some English blood into the first team, beacause the tag the squad suffer of being foreigner team is in itself a psychological blow.

  6. Yogi's Warrior says:

    lc – why is English blood going to solve the problems of the team? I look at the England team and to be honest, the only ones you would have out of that lot are Terry, Rooney and Hargreaves, maybe Johnson. None of the rest are worth the effort and do not represent an improvement on what we already have.

    Look at the rest of the team:

    Robinson – Not any improvement on Lehmann
    Neville – Better than Eboue but into his 30’s
    Cole – Too many bridges burned
    Ferdinand – Not better than Gallas or Toure
    Cole (J) – Not better than Hleb, Rosicky, etc.
    Downing – Overrated
    Lennon – Is he any better than Walcott? No.
    Crouch – No better than Adebayour. Well perhaps more prolific

  7. Flint McCullough says:

    The simple truth is we have too many players who are either A: not the finished article or B: new to this League.

    Inspite of this they have in the main played mainly extremely good football but lacking something at both ends of the pitch.

    Great Arsenal teams normally evolve over 3-4 years. In reality we are only in the second year but we really have probably the best collection of young talent ever assembled at the Club.

    3rd this year would be v acceptable but I still have some hope of better.

    Some of our “supporters” would have been calling for AW’s head in 2000 & 2001 and look what we would have missed.

    This English guts thing makes me smile. Why do England always loose on penalties?

    For me the old fashioned English strength & tenacity is more often displayed by the Africans, in the PL rather than English nationals.

  8. Yogi's Warrior says:

    Flint

    The optimism is fading fast for this season – isn’t that normal for Arsenal fans at this time of year? With the exception of the “Invincibles”, we never do well in October/November. Mentally it is a halfway house between “Post Holiday Blues” and “SAD”! Happens every season, without fail and then post January it gets better. Well, OK, last season it didn’t in the league but they got there in the end.

    I think it was Frank who said the other day about you cannot predict a final league position in November. Well, to a certain extent that is true and I still believe third is achievable. Second and I will impressed by the consistency needed to close and overhaul one of the top two. Top spot? I’d probably end up in the local hospital through the shock of it.

    AW needs to tinker with certain aspects of the side. Not the personnel necessarily although that could be a by-product of the change to the tactical system, particularly at home. We definitely have to get another goalscorer although that is something that may yet come from Baptista. However, he recognises that things are not right so it’s a case of waiting and seeing what he does about it because I don’t think he would be happy with a scramble for fourth again.

    I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that AW will be removed from his post? Surely not? Without question, he is the best candidate for the club’s manager. He has few peers in the game, probably no more than a dozen at most, and even then most of those have had limitless funds to win their trophies. AW has never had that – when has he had the opportunity to spend £28m on one player only to sell him for half of that inside two seasons? How many of the good coaches at the top level could have managed the process of moving out of Highbury and its constraints on the playing side?

  9. Vivb says:

    How many Bolton players were English? The problem with Arsenal is that they don’t embrace the dark arts and have lost the art of direct running. Cesc is partly the culprit his lack of physical presence has encouraged the use of five in midfield to compensate. We should remember that before Bolton’s run of poor form they had started the season strongly, we had are six senior professionals injured and created enough chances to win. Walcott also showed guts to cope with the physical intimedation meeted out.

    I understand the club don’t train at the Emirates in order to preserve the pitch maybe they should re think this as it must help players (particularly strikers) to use the stadium as peripheral vision reference points when going for goal.

  10. Anon 1 says:

    I think expectations must be raised from those at the start of last season due to the significant additions that have been made to the squad during this period…in my opinion we have assembled the best squad of players ever under Wenger and on paper atleast even appear to have the variation in our play that we were often criticised for not having in the past..however with this comes the problem of not knowing the best lineup and such a difficulty has been exacerbated by the repeated lack of continuity due to injuries and Wenger’s decision to alter the formation…United appear to have settled on a formation and have been able to field the same team for most of the season and tellingly it is only when they haven’t that they have stumbled…our current difficulties were mirrored in the two double seasons when we had stutterring starts however once we went on a run we proved to be unstoppable…I think we are fiortunate that it is United who are top of the table as we have caught them in previous years and they have proved to be fallible..we cannot be out of the title race if we are only really 7 points behind Chelsea and have to play them twice but we must steer clear of injuries and have some luck in front of goal

  11. Anon 1 says:

    I think expectations must be raised from last season due the amount of players we have signed since that period…in my opinion we have assembled the best squad of players since Wenger arrived and have even added the variation we were criticised for lacking in previous successful seasons..however with this inevitably comes difficulties with interpreting the best lineup which has only been exacerbated by a lack of any continuity due to injuries and Wenger’s decision to change the formation…United appear to have setteled on a formation and have been able to pick the same side for most of the season and tellingly it is only when they haven’t that they have stumbled…when you look at the two double seasons we struggled early on in those too and I think it is an advantage to us that United are top as they have shown in previous seasons that they are fallible and we have caught them…we cannot be out of the title race when we are only really 7 points behind chelsea and stil have to play them twice…we need continuity in the side and some luck in front of goal

  12. Frank says:

    Hi YW, I bet you feel better after getting that lot off your chest.

    Defending – I think that the inexperience of Eboue and Clichy exposes the team sometimes, having said that the first of Bolton’s goals was down to inept marking and the guy who was marking Faye was Adebayor. I always feel that defence is about discipline and organisation (as well as pace and skill), I think that our defence has been changed too often and is too new for the d an o to be established. At the moment no-one seems to be in control.

    At corners the three non-defenders we should have defending aerially from the edge of the six yard box to the edge of the area are Gilberto, Baptista, Van Persie – if any of them is not playing then someone comparable should do it. Hleb, Fabregas, Rosicky, Freddie should be ready on the edge of the area to deal with shots and players running in – the two full backs should be on the posts. The two centre halves should be deciding where the most dangerous threats are likely to come from and dealing with it or making sure someone capable is onto it. Henry should always stay on the half way line and any team that does not leave two or three defenders back there to deal with him then woe betide them.

    Attacking – Strange to say this because we have pace in the team – our passing and ball control is great but our movement and pace is slow. Too often sides find it easy to get 11 players behind the ball. When Theo – still very inexperienced – does his runs it is usually too late because everything is covered. When we go early as with his fantastic cross to Baptista he skins them. Adebayor is young and very inexperienced. He nicks the odd goal and thank God he did against ManU, but he does not have the control or vision to be a prolific goal scorer – he should have scored more against ManU. I don’t know whether he will make it or not – but we would not have lost on Saturday with Van Persie and/or Henry playing.

    Lastly – I think all of the above will get fixed in time. I also think that we were not outmuscled and we controlled much of the game against Bolton. Anelka scored two superb goals and I bet he will not score two more like that against any team this season – just our luck or lack of it.

  13. Yogi's Warrior says:

    Curiously enough Frank I feel much better. However, I understand that the Balon D’Or is announced this evening…

  14. Frank says:

    Cannavaro then. I have to say that any award with a selection panel of football journalists, a more biased and biggoted bunch of self congratulating idiots it would be difficult to find, has to be more than a little suspect. Der who should we choose der who won the World Cup der…I know the World Cup winning captain..must be him…der how do you spell his name.

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