I realise this is a delayed comment on the Newcastle game — heck, I haven’t updated the blog since Thursday! — but my brother has been in town and it has been very difficult to get anything done.
Given that it is now Tuesday it is tempting to mark the loss to Newcastle off and look ahead to Wolves tomorrow night. But as a writer who attempts to look at the positive things to with Arsenal to do so would be irresponsible and cowardly.
You have no doubt read match reports from other blogs or seen the game yourself, so I will not bore you with the intricate details. In short: Newcastle won, we lost. Lukasz Fabianski made a mistake on the goal, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott hit the bar. They played a compact defence and intelligent two-man attack, we failed to find a way to break them down.
The conclusion I can make from the game was that we did not do enough to merit a win against Newcastle, something that is very disappointing. But it happens. Teams lose games: look at Chelsea (who have now lost twice this season) or even mighty Barcelona (who were outplayed and lost at the Nou Camp to newly-promoted Hercules earlier in the season). I reiterate: it happens.
But in saying that I have to get something off my chest: one thing in particular is starting to annoy me about this Arsenal team. It has been bubbling somewhere inside me, despite my calm exterior and intentionally rational writing, but the Newcastle game has well and truly set it off. It is our consistent inability to cope with aerial attacks.
Let me make it clear that this is not so much a problem with winning the ball in the air, but more a problem with how our team as a whole organises itself to deal with aerial threat.
On the weekend Newcastle received a number of free kicks inside our half and the gameplan was the same each and every time: lift a chipped pass towards the left side of our defence to create a mismatch between their big attackers and Gael Clichy, with the intention of heading back across goal. Their goal came from a variation on this play although had Fabianski stayed on his line — and I thought he made a good decision to come out and try and deal the with the problem — then Andy Carrol’s intention would have been to head back across goal.
They are not the first team to do this — Birmingham and Blackburn are two others that have targeted Clichy — and it is becoming a real concern. Unlike Bacary Sagna on the right side, who makes up for his relative lack of height by using body contact to unbalance opposition players, Clichy has absolutely no idea how to cope. He is often caught standing off, trying in vain to win the ball rather than simply spoiling the attacker.
Height plays a big part in aerial contests — you only need to look at Peter Crouch or indeed Carrol to know that — but it is not everything. Didier Drogba is the most dangerous player in the Premier League in the air not because he the tallest, but because he uses his body well. Tim Cahill is the same — heck — so are Thomas Vermaelen and even Laurent Koscielny. These aren’t big guys and they don’t win the ball every time but they make sure their presence is felt.
To be fair to Clichy this is not a criticism of him. It is a criticism of firstly the coaching staff for not instructing him of how to cope best in this situation on the training ground and also his teammates, for failing to adapt to the situation out on the pitch. Surely if I can see that Clichy is targeted then Wenger and the defence can see it as well? Yet nothing is done about it and we are punished time and time again.
Going further with that point it genuinely appears that our team as a whole has very little idea of how to cope with the loose ball after an aerial contest. Some of the time we win the ball in the air and some of the time we lose it, this is not the problem, that lies in our inability for the second-phase players to be in the right place at the right time to capitalise on whatever the first outcome is.
To go a bit left-field here for a moment I want to talk about Australian Rules Football. Without going too much into the details of the game, which are unnecessary, a huge element of the game is the relationship between tall forwards (similar to central striker like Drogba in football) and smaller forwards which are nicknamed ‘crumbers’ or ‘runners’. Essentially the job of the tall forward is to use his height to either mark (catch) the ball (and get a free kick) or if he can’t do that, bring the ball to the ground so the small forward can capitalise. The job of the small forward is to hover around near the taller forward and ensure he is in the right place to make the most of what is essentially a 50:50 situation.
Translating that to football and to Arsenal, our players who are around the ball but not attempting to win the header appear to have no idea of where to position themselves to win the second ball. So often on Saturday the ball was lumped up to Carrol or Ameobi and they were able to find space and bring the ball down when they never should have been allowed. There was often a gaping hole in front of our two central defenders — left by Alex Song, who in my opinion is moving forward far too often to our detriment despite a few goals — and Newcastle were able to hold the ball up far too easily.
When you are faced with a player like Carrol or Crouch or Drogba nobody is expecting you to beat them in the air. Likewise if you are defending against Theo Walcott nobody is expecting you to outpace them. This is their major strength in football and it is foolish to assume that it will magically disappear when they play against Arsenal. But what is unbelievably frustrating about this group of players is they simply do not understand how to create a second contest and give themselves a better chance of winning the ball.
It is simple: unbalance the forward by using intelligent body contact and ensure that the defenders around the ball who are not in the contest position themselves in an area — usually at the striker’s feet — that means they can win the second ball. Even in attack, when there is a corner or free-kick, this principle still holds true and often allows you a second chance to shoot or relaunch an attack.
There really isn’t much more to add to this article. I cannot communicate with the manager and I cannot communicate with the players: it is up to them to find a solution. I am frustrated and although I like to stay calm and rational on here I really needed to get that out.
We play Wolves tomorrow night and we obviously need to get three points. Without Laurent Koscielny (his ridiculous two-match ban for the softest of dismissal was upheld despite a protest) and with Cesc Fabregas struggling with hamstring problems it won’t be easy.
More tomorrow and apologies again for the mini-break.
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