Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Half of a Good Start

The Gunners have played their first two matches and naturally most of the talk is about the lack of goals scored. Were they right to sell Robin Van Persie, why isn't Olivier Giroud fitting into the side, can Santi Cazorla create good chances for his teammates, and so on and so forth. These are valid concerns of course, and going down that path of inquiry is quite reasonable for a team and fanbase that expect Champions League play again next year. However, rather than get into the questioning nature of that half of the ball after only two matches, I'd like to engage in some analysis of the defense and their play thus far.

Steve Bould is a former Arsenal (and Stoke, but let's never mention that again) center back who has worked with the youth academy for the past ten years or so in various roles. Prior to the start of the 2012-2013 season, he was named assistant manager of Arsenal, replacing Pat Rice, and the expectation was that he was brought in specifically to clean up the defense. Now, last year's Arsenal defense wasn't an old jalopy in desperate need of repair. Thomas Vermaelen is one of the Premier League's best center backs and Laurent Koscielny has been trending that way with his much improved play. When completely healthy, the Gunners can also put forward one of the best right backs in the league in Bacary Sagna, the uninteresting but mostly steady Kieran Gibbs, as well as backups like Per Mertesacker, Carl Jenkinson, and Andre Santos. The depth is lacking but the starting back line was nothing to scoff at. So why the focus on defensive improvement?

For one, Arsenal was a decent 9th in the league in goals allowed, but they lagged way behind their supposed competitors for the trophy as Manchester City and Manchester United allowed 29 and 33 goals respectively to the Gunners' 49. The defense wasn't exactly an aspect of their game worth hanging their hat on and with the far and away leading scorer leaving during the transfer window, the offense couldn't be relied upon to carry the team. More importantly, the team had a habit of giving up foolish and inopportune goals, the kind that should kill title or Champions League hopes and were simply unacceptable. Vermaelen was especially disappointing in this regard as he was caught out of position several times after pushing up into the attack, just the kind of attitude that you don't want from your supposed defensive leader. Knowing what went wrong last year, Arsenal was keen to learn from their mistakes and shore up the back.

Through two games, it is hard to argue with the success of the defense as the Gunners have held their opponents without a goal. The most important part of this transformation has been the understanding of the central defenders and their cooperation with Mikel Arteta, the deepest lying midfielder. Vermaelen is still making the occasional run forward but when he does, Arteta slides seamlessly into place to cover for him. This is a change from last year when Arteta and Alex Song were both set up deep in midfield, but Song often moved forward himself, leaving the covering responsibilities unclear. Now it is understood that Arteta is the deep man, responsible for controlling the spread of the ball, acting as the last line of defense in midfield, and providing cover when the center backs move forward. Mertesacker and Vermaelen have been an excellent pairing so far (Koscielny is currently sidelined with an injury) with Mertesacker's positional awareness playing well off of Vermaelen's pace and athleticism. Jenkinson has been starting in place of Sagna on the right side (only due to Sagna recovering from a broken femur) and while he has been less that useful going forward, he is doing a good job keeping control of his flank, especially on the quick counter. Gibbs has played both games on the left side and one thing that can always be said about him is that he's not afraid to stick a foot in. Like Jenkinson, I have problems with Gibbs' ability to provide offense but he generally is a solid defender who times his tackles well and knows how to slow a break. Altogether the defense has played well and even gave the likes of Vito Mannone a clean sheet.

The biggest problem in evaluating the defense is sample size and the challenge presented by the opposition. Sunderland and Stoke aren't teams likely to be relegated this season, but they also are known for sticking ten men behind the ball, especially against Arsenal, and relying on quick counters to score their goals rather than sustained pressure. It is positive to see that neither team managed to catch the Gunners napping on the break and even better that the defense has only allowed three shots on goal through 180 minutes of play. But again, the test has not been strong yet. Arsenal has not faced a side that attacks with pace and puts pressure on the defense in a variety of ways. This coming Sunday will be different as a match at Anfield against Liverpool looms. Vermaelen and Mertesacker will be tested by the intelligent movement of Luis Suarez and Liverpool has some speed on the flanks to put Jenkinson and Gibbs to the test. Moreover, we will see how Arteta holds up as that last line of midfield defense when he is required to continually prove himself against attackers rather than step up to stop the occasional counter or two.

Though the book isn't written on Arsenal's defense yet, the improvements are there through the first two matches. Getting Koscielny back into the rotation should help as well and we will see if Arsene Wenger can find that out-and-out defensive midfielder that he has been looking for. One thing is certain: if the offense continues to struggle to find the net and find their cohesion, Steve Bould's defense will be more important than ever.

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