I may be one of the staunchest pro-Wengerites on the face of the earth but even I can admit that Arsenal have problems at the moment.
However, instead of just yelling “Sack Wenger and buy some players!” I thought I’d have a go at solving those problems with the personnel we have at our disposal.
Problem: We can’t defend counter-attacks
Twice against Manchester United, once each against Chelsea and Everton (just to name four recent examples) we’ve conceded goals as a result of lightning-quick counter-attacks. They have caused defensive disorganisation that we haven’t been able to deal with and left under-fire goalkeeper Manuel Almunia unfairly exposed.
Solution: Get the defensive players doing their jobs again
By positional definition William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen are central defenders. Similarly Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy play as wing-backs or if you want to be consistent, left or right-sided defenders, while most football observers would label Alex Song as a defensive-midfielder.
All five players are tied together by the same positional root-word: defend. Yet all five players seemingly love to get forward. And while that fits in perfectly with Wenger’s total football philosophy it has seriously hurt us in recent weeks against the big sides.
Clichy has bombed forward haphazardly in the last two games, Vermaelen and Gallas’ forward forays cost us against United and Everton while Song got caught forward for Chelsea’s second and generally made Abou Diaby, one of our most effective attacking weapons, do far more defensive work. Pre-African Cup of Nations Song was a strict defense-first player but only Sagna really appears to know what his job is just at the minute.
The ironic thing is that, at their best, every one of our back five is a good defender. They can all tackle, they can all jockey and they all know a thing or two about defending. But at the moment they are not working as a unit, not doing their job properly and it is costing us games.
Our 4-3-3 formation flourished earlier in the season because it allowed our back five to sit deep and requested that our front three and the two attacking midfielder applied as much pressure as possible on the opposition players. That needs to return and the defensive players need to be asked to do what they are supposed to be doing: defending.
Problem: We can’t defend set-pieces
Not much to add here really. We’ve struggled all season defending set-pieces and in recent weeks have conceded against Everton, Stoke and Chelsea via the dead ball.
Solution: Work out a consistent system or change personnel
There’s no debate that our best back five is the one I’ve mentioned above. Adding Abou Diaby and Nicklas Bendtner to that line-up gives us sufficient height yet an inability to defend set-pieces has been a consistent problem throughout the season.
Given that there is no personnel changes necessary the best way that this could be solved is to work out a consistent system on set-pieces and give each player a defined role. I understand that there are players coming in and out each week but there needs to be a consistency to the way we defend.
That might be to have the same players on the post every time, certain players defending certain opponents or even a switch to a more zonal sort of marking that may just suit our players. At the moment players are not organising quickly enough and being moved around far too easily by the opposition attackers and it simply has to stop.
If players can’t do the jobs assigned to them then Wenger has to seriously consider changing the personnel. If Almunia can’t deal with the pressure around him then Lukasz Fabianski needs to come in. If Gael Clichy is aimlessly wandering from his station at the far post then Armand Traore needs to return. There are risks in both moves but at the end of the day we’re conceding goals from these situations and there’s no point making the same mistakes over and over.
Problem: We lack cutting edge up front
I am one of many that have been bemoaning a lack of physical striker since the injuries to Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner and the repeated absence of such a player has had a big impact on our performance. Despite much possession against Manchester United and Chelsea we had virtually no cutting edge up front and no player to challenge for the multitude of crosses and high-balls that came into the area. One goal from the last three games against the cream of the crop says it all.
Solution: Find the right balance between speed, strength, technique and unpredictability
With Bendtner available again we have the right players at our disposal to cause trouble for each and every team in the Premier League and Europe. The Dane has huge belief in his own ability – not misguided in my opinion – and is arguably the most important player in our bid to claw back the nine-point deficit and win the title.
His record of 15 goals from 27 starts last season suggests he has the ability to score goals and his added physical presence is most welcome. It’s clear that Wenger believes he can get the job done and that belief must have been a huge factor in the manager’s reluctance to dip into the transfer market and bring in someone else. We can only judge at the end of the season whether he was right.
Taking into account rotation and injuries I believe the best forward three combination is Bendtner, Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky. Arshavin is a class act while Rosicky’s recent performances have edged those of Samir Nasri. Both the Russian and the Czech have an end product to their game that the other attackers appear to be lacking and perhaps most importantly, both have the sufficient pace and self-belief to take defenders on and beat them.
Nasri is a tough one at the moment. His ball control is superb but his impact on the game appears minimal and that needs to change. His dilly-dallying over whether to shoot or pass against Chelsea was a reminder of just how infrequently he is getting into goalscoring positions although the presence of Bendtner will certainly help his cause.
Problem: Attacking set-pieces are virtually pointless
Since Robin van Persie’s injury deprived of us his superb dead-ball delivery my reaction to winning a corner or a free-kick in a wide area has become something resembling sarcasm over what we simply can’t achieve. When I see Fabregas or Arshavin or anybody else who bothers to take one knock it short, I generally bury my head in my hands or yell expletives at the television over how things will inevitably turn out. In other words, I’m not filled with optimism.
Solutions: Concentrate on the basics and scrap short corners
The way I see it there are essentially three factors that attacking sides have control of to determine how likely they are of scoring a goal off a set piece. The first is the delivery of the ball, the second is the size and aerial ability of the players receiving that ball and the third is the movement by that same group of players.
In general terms if the delivery is good, the players are tall and know how to head the ball and they make the right runs then you have a more decent chance of scoring than if the ball is poor, the players are short and poor in the air and the remain static. There will be exceptions to this rule but I don’t think there would be many people who disagree.
We certain have limits in this part of our game. We are struggling for accurate delivery and our team is not the tallest, yet I just can’t understand why our movement is so poor. Why aren’t our players charging in with authority, attacking the space and making the opposition defenders think about what to do as much as possible? Standing still gives opponents the simple task of attacking the balls near them and in most cases winning out because of their superior height and aerial ability.
It’s inexcusable but on the plus side is easily fixable. It doesn’t take hours and hours of training ground practice, something we know Wenger and his team aren’t going to do anyway, it takes a simple instruction from the manager to ensure our players charge into the area with pace in various directions to make the defenders do as much work as possible.
It also means scrapping short corners. Seriously, when is the last time one of them has worked?
The role we can play as fans
So in short my suggestions are to get the defence thinking about defending, back Bendtner to prove the goods up front and ensure our attacking players put in a focused effort on game day regarding both attacking and defensive set-pieces. It’s not rocket science yet I feel it would make a huge improvement.
I also think there is a significant role we can play as fans and that is simply to keep the faith and back the manager and his players until the end of the season.
As a blogger who keeps his eye on the media I have to say I find the questioning of Wenger’s long-term project and the venomous criticism of his decision not to sign a striker in the January transfer window to be quite perplexing. Indeed, when you look deeper into both of those reasons for criticism it’s hard not to side with the manager.
In terms of his long-term project of developing another team that can conquer England and hopefully Europe, things are going well. He has got a strong nucleus of players that are improving with each season and should peak within the next few years, perhaps even collecting a trophy or two before that peak comes. Look at Song and Diaby’s rise this season and project onto players like Bendtner, Nasri and Aaron Ramsey and the future is undeniable.
There is a fear that Fabregas might go but anybody who takes the word of the Catalan media, who are designed to provoke and report in a biased manner to get what they want, over that of our captain, who has repeatedly quashed such rumours and stated that he is happy at Arsenal, is quite simply a fool. It’s clear that Fabregas understands the potential in this side and the longer that they stick together the more and more chance there will be that trophies will come.
The manager’s reluctance to sign a striker in January is easily explainable and quite understandable. Before Villa, United and Chelsea we were getting by quite nicely and now they are over we have Bendtner, a player that is clearly highly-regarded by the management, ready to play. More depth would undeniably be good but with Marouane Chamakh appearing as almost a certain addition on a free in the summer you can understand the manager’s reluctance to spend several million pounds on the same player to patch up a problem that has only been apparent for three games.
As I said before the best thing we can do as fans is to get behind the team and the manager. It’s not a blind rally to support a manager or team that don’t deserve it, it is the realisation that this club is in a better position that most people suggested we would be in and that personnel-wise, nothing can actually change until the summer.
If Arsene Wenger and his team still hasn’t achieved any improvement by then by all means vent your frustrations. But until then let’s support our boys and focus on what we can do with the group at our disposal.
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