The Evolution of Arsenal's Defensive Mindset

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The Evolution of Arsenal's Defensive Mindset
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One of my best friends and fellow Arsenal diehards is the landlord of a pub in a small village in Kent. We instantaneously became the best of friends when I walked into his pub for the first time in the early '90s wearing my Arsenal shirt.

A few years later, I trotted into the pub with the mother of all hangovers from the previous nights indulgence—and the first thing Duncan the landlord told me is that our new manager was Arsene Wenger. We had been discussing in the preceding weeks about the fortunes of the club and the fact that anyone but Bruce Rioch will do as manager.

As if in reminder to our regular anthem and chant ’One nil to the Arsenal,’ Duncan had a poster size Arsenal team photo behind the bar that had the words “1 nil to the Arsenal” clearly scrolled across the photo by a drunken soul.

We pondered whether we were ever going to lose the ’One nil to the Arsenal’ Mantra as we chewed the fat over what type of manager Wenger would be.

The Arsenal back five had gained legendary status for their no-nonsense attitude to defending. Most strikers of the time would have told you that if there’s one thing that would make you think twice about what you were doing on the pitch, it’s that instance when you face the whites of the eyes of any of the Arsenal’s back five.

Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bold, Nigel Winterburn, and Martin Keown epitomized a defensive unit that scared the living daylights out of the best strikers in the business. Their modus operandi was not rocket science: simply to stop anything that moved towards David Seaman’s goal.

For most part they did this legally, but none of them were averse to taking one for the team and getting a customary yellow or red card for their troubles. They revelled in making sure the opponents ’knew they were there’ as their hard tackling, ‘take the man and ball’ approach to defending added to their reputation of being ”well ‘ard.”

Though in the twilight of their careers, Wenger was happy to inherit this solid defensive unit while he built his new team. As they each naturally retired, players were either brought in from the academy or bought in to replace them.

There is a marked difference from the defensive unit and approaches of the '90s through to what we have now. In thinking of what characteristics have changed, perhaps it’s best to describe the difference in the defensive culture as being influenced by Wengerball.

For most part, Arsenal’s old school defending function was about doing the simple bread and butter things and doing them well. It was a culture that suggested that defenders were defenders and they had little or no business meandering in attacking positions.

Occasionally, the defenders would contribute a goal or two, but their primary function was making sure that anything that moved was stopped before it got to Seaman’s goal.

The personnel soon begun to change with Lauren Bisan and Silvinho emerging as full backs, and Sol Campbell, Keown, and Toure holding the centre of defence. Legend has it that Silvinho had a hot passport and Wenger had to let him go lest Arsenal endured the wrath of the immigration authorities—and that opened the way for a one Ashley Cole to stake his claim to the first team.

We then started seeing more adventurous full backs and defenders who were more creative ball players. They of course defended well as they edged Arsenal towards two other Premier league titles, but the evolution had already started.

Ball playing defenders started becoming part and parcel of the Arsenal way and Wenger slowly moved to a more attacking mindset. Naturally, ’One nil to the Arsenal’ became a refrain of the past and a brand of free flowing attacking football has evolved to what is now known as Wengerball.

The underlying DNA of Wengerball suggests that football will be an attacking and scintillating form of entertainment, and each and every outfield player will contribute to the endeavour of total football. Many have argued that the very concept of Wengerball has made Arsenal vulnerable to counter attacks for the reason that defenders are likely to be out of their natural positions.

My sense is that Wengerball’s answer to that argument is simply: “We’ll score more goals than you will.” I have to admit, that even with the nervy defensive moments, I prefer Wengerball every day of the week and twice on Sunday. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

This season, Arsenal adopted a new system of play, employing the 4-3-3 formation. While we’ve scored a shed load of goals, we’ve also let in quite a few—some from individual lapses of concentration, and some from counter attacks against us.

I’ve offered an opinion about how the new 4-3-3 system can work for Arsenal, but this takes into account the participation of our defensive players in attack. The system’s success also depends on the defensive contribution of the front three attackers and our midfield.

Arsenal now go into a run of 11 games that they must win if they are to wrestle the Premier league title from Manchester United. Chelsea and United will most certainly drop points, and the Gunners will only have themselves to blame if they don’t take advantage.

At the beginning of the season, Arsenal played the best football in Europe. I believe the primary reason was the way we played when we didn’t have the ball.

The team pressed quickly and effectively high up the pitch and we closed the spaces in between to choke opponents. This really worked well for us in the first 10 to 12 games, but somewhere along the line, the team stopped doing this.

We have to go back to this defensive approach and attitude with the entire team defending as a unit and applying a high tempo and high pressure game for the duration of the match. We have shown that there is a plan B in wearing down opponents who park the bus in front of goal, but success in this depends on our own application of Wengerball.

There’s always going to be the argument that we should go back to basics and let defenders be defenders, but I doubt anyone at London Colney will listen to that cry.

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