Why Arsenal Are in Fifth Instead of First Place and What They Can Do About It
According to analysis by Josh James (for Arsenal.com, see here.) of Arsenal's second-half performances in the 26 League matches so far, Arsenal sit on the summit of the Premier League with 13 victories, 11 draws, a plus-18 goal difference and 50 points—one point better than Manchester City in second place and five points better than Manchester United in third place.
Alluding to this fact in his heated press conference before the Bayern Munich match, Arsene Wenger said "We are champions of England in the second half....” (See the transcript of this press conference here via Daily Mail.)
The story is different when first-half performances alone are considered. Arsenal sit in 10th place behind even the likes of Fulham and Sunderland. The negating effect of first-half performance is why Arsenal currently sit in fifth place on the Premier League table, four points outside a Champions League spot.
Even in Arsenal's latest loss, the humiliation at home by Bayern Munich—a loss that has brought back the negative feelings at Arsenal—on second-half performance alone, the match would have ended as a draw, and even as such, many would have said that Bayern were lucky to get their goal. That final goal was a lucky goal: a goal any team can score or concede.
If Bayern Munich produced a masterclass in this match, the effect was most evident in the first half. In the second half, there's an argument to be made that Arsenal were the better side. If this is so, then it is not entirely true to say that Arsenal were swept aside.
Swept aside they were indeed when the entire picture is considered, but the sweeping aside happened only in the first 20 minutes of the match. There is therefore a question to be considered: What if Arsenal had played the first 20 minutes like they did the second half?
I don't believe it is wishful thinking to say that had they played the entire match like they did in the second half, the tale at the end of the match would have been different.
Indeed, the point of Josh James' analysis is that the tale is certainly different on account of Arsenal's performances in the second half of matches this season.
I suspect that the strength and the quality that Arsenal display in these second-half performances is the reason Wenger keeps insisting that there is quality in the team. And I do not believe that he is wrong in saying or in thinking so.
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When asked in the aforesaid press conference why the discrepancy exists in these performances, Wenger said it is psychological. After the Bayern match, Arsenal players admitted that they may have played with fear.
Although Wenger declined to point to the specific reason for this negative psychological problem that plagues his team in the first half, I believe I know the reason for this, and it is as follows.
Missing in Action
Arsenal's first-half performance problem is tactical. It stems from the fact that Arsenal's game is offensively geared. And because the entire approach is offensive, it appears that the team has little or no cogent plan for defense.
Yes, they have four primary defenders, plus a defensively minded midfielder—a number that comprises the entire half of the outfield players—yet Arsenal's defensive sense is astoundingly rudimentary, very juvenile, truth be told.
In plain language, Arsenal do not know how to defend, and this problem did not begin this season—it has always been there. Put differently, defense is Arsene Wenger's Achilles' heel. But as long as Arsenal are offensively sound, this weakness is more often than not masked.
I was astonished when I reviewed Arsenal's entire 2010-11 season. I saw how easy it is to score against them. These are goals that teams like Manchester United can prevent. I must say that this cheap sense of defense might be a major reason why Arsenal have relinquished leadership of the Premiership table when poised to win the entire thing.
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Fingering the Wrong Man
That review also brought something home to me: Many of Arsenal's conceded goals are not the fault of the back four, contrary to popular opinion. These goals often stems from lapses either upfront or in the midfield.
They are often the result of the ball being lost up field or in midfield with little or no responsibility taken to amend for the mistake.
That is, a striker or midfielder would lose the ball and instead of fighting to win it back would simply relax. This, of course, immediately puts the team's defense under pressure and often leads to the concession of cheap goals.
I advise the reader to go to Arsenal.com and review match highlights. The reader would see for himself or herself the point I'm highlighting.
In other words, the reason why Arsenal's defenders always seem to be having problems is not because they are not good enough. The reason, rather, is that they are constantly exposed by their colleagues in the other departments of the team.
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Appealing to the Best
Let's make a practical comparison: Barcelona. This is a team whose approach to the game is similar to Arsenal’s. That is, it is an offensively based system, and yet this team rarely concedes goals.
Why is this so?
First of all, it isn't because Barcelona have the best defenders in their ranks. As a matter of fact, they don't even have good defenders.
For example, while Carles Puyol might be an excellent motivator and a picture of what a good leader should be on the pitch, he is not a good defender. Watch him closely and you'd see that he is too jittery. Put him in a team without a collective defensive strategy and you'd see how poor he is.
Again, take Dani Alves. Many would say that he isn't a good defender at all. In fact, the reason why he tends not to do as well for Brazil as he does for Barcelona is because at Barcelona, he is primarily an offensive player rather than a defender.
The team's collective awareness to defense means Alves does not have to be a top-notch defender. The same is true of Gerard Pique as it is of Javier Mascherano or of any of Barcelona's primary defenders.
In the second place, Barcelona under Pep Guardiola was a team in which responsibility was paramount.
(I should say I haven't watched the team that much since Guardiola left, so I am not very conversant with the team now. For this reason I’m not sure that the point I'm about to make still applies to the team.)
If you watched that Barcelona, you'd see Messi running around to recover the ball he had lost. I could see that the policy seemed to be that if you lose the ball, you must chase it back. Of course, while the person is running around to recover that ball, his teammates rotate into position to cover up loop holes.
This zeal to win back the ball is part of the reason why Barcelona have a high recovery rate of the ball.
At Arsenal, this isn't the case.
A midfielder or a striker loses the ball and he saunters or jogs back as though nothing is at stake. Again, I should stress that many of Arsenal's conceded goals develop either upfront or in the midfield.
This fact should make us reluctant to blame our infamous back four who are often maligned for no fault of their own.
Parade of the Best
Let me bring home this point by stating it this way: Draft the best defenders into Arsenal and Arsenal still wouldn't do well defensively.
Here are more examples.
In the Champions League a week ago, Borussia Dortmund’s second conceded goal was the result of some of the worst defending you'd ever see from a central defender, and who was at fault? Mats Hummels, whom many are clamoring for Arsenal to buy.
The second goal Barcelona conceded at AC Milan last Wednesday came about through a horror show of what was supposed to be defending, and guess who looked like a schoolboy in the process? Carles Puyol.
Watch Michu score for Swansea against QPR in the two teams' Premier League match about a fortnight or so ago. Who is defending poorly? Christopher Samba.
Warren Little/Getty Images
Lastly, Vincent Kompany is a great leader, a bastion of defense, or so it seems, but watch him tackle and it borders on the disastrous, often resulting in red cards as we all know.
What then is my point? In the first place, the reason many defenders look well isn't necessarily because of their individual prowess.
Their strength lies in the system and in the manner the team as a whole takes defensive responsibility. When these individuals are removed from the systems that bring out their best, they begin to look ordinary.
As a result of the foregoing, I should point out that Arsenal's defensive problem does not lie in big names or lack thereof (we already possess experienced internationals); it lies in the team's collective approach to defending.
Again, too many times, individuals upfront and in the midfield don't take responsibility for their mistakes and this leads to an exposed defense, and instead of blaming the culprit, we start pointing fingers at Per Mertesacker or at Thomas Vermaelen or at Laurent Koscielny.
Arsenal can prevent a lot of goals if individuals in the attack and in the midfield take more responsibility for their mistakes.
This article continues the discussion in this article: Why Arsenal Lost to Bayern, What Can Be Done to Revive Gunners
If you haven't already, please read it. I will continue the discussion in the next installment of the article. I intend to answer your comments as the discussion develops.
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