Arsenal’s Insult to Injury

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Back in the days of George Graham we lived by the theory that a solid and stable back four is the foundation of a winning side. Week in, week out we’d expect to see Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould. Of course, David O’Leary sporadically added to his 722 appearance record, Andy Linighan was brought into the side on occasion – especially when Adams was a guest of Her Majesty – and Martin Keown forced his way into the reckoning on his return to the club (And we had Colin Pates and Gus Caesar as well, ahem) but the principle was always the same; a solid and stable back four is the foundation of a winning side.

Even when Arsene Wenger came in and revolutionised the club with his continental attacking Football, he still had that defence to build on. In 1996/97 Dixon, Winterburn, Keown and Bould all played 30 times or more with Adams making 28 appearances. The style changed but the defensive continuity survived. In the whole of the 96/97 campaign we only used eight defenders and even then back ups like Scott Marshall, who only played seven times, rarely had to turn out. Young full backs Gavin McGowan and Matthew Rose only made single appearances each.

If we move forward to the present day it’s fair to point out that large squads are essential and more rotation goes on however, the figures still suggest that the best sides have that continuity at the back. Take last season’s title winners for example: In 2010/11 Vidic and Evra played 35 of United’s 38 league games.

This brings me to the present day and the current turmoil we’re seeing at our club. Common consensus says that our rearguard is disorganised and that as individuals they aren’t up to the job. I would contest that view and argue that the likes of Vermaelen and Sagna are as good as almost any equivalent in the league. Koscielny, who was judged far too quickly last year, has grown into an exceptional defender – the best tackler in the league according to stats from Whoscored – and even this years whipping boy, Per Mertesacker, has the pedigree and temperament of a first class defender having played 79 times for the notoriously stingy German national side.

If it’s not the individuals then it must be the way they are organised. There is definitely something in this. Some teams manage to fashion a resolute defence out of players far less individually talented than ours, Newcastle for example – more of whom later. That said, it’s nigh on impossible to organise a coherent defensive unit when it’s subjected to enforced changes of personnel week after week. I did some research and found the following:

In 21 league games in 2011/12, Arsenal have fielded 15 different back fours.

We’ve all seen the stat that says Arsenal have fielded the most different players in the league this season (30) but when you put that into context and appreciate the disruption it causes it sheds a new light on the lazy criticisms made routinely about our defence.

Some more figures while I’m at it.

Of the 30 players that have played for us in league games this season, 13 have played in the back four at some stage.

We’ve had seven different players start at left back…

…and five different players start at right back – not to mention finishing the Liverpool defeat with Henri Lansbury playing there (thanks to @LittleDutchVA for that reminder).

*Those of a nervous disposition look away now* Even Sebastien Squillaci, who’s only made one league appearance this season, did so as an emergency right back in the Fulham game. This further disrupted an already makeshift back four and contributed to the surrender of three points.

Of course, injuries and suspensions are par for the course, you have to deal with it and put out 11 players to win you the game but this disruption doesn’t seem to be spread out amongst our competitors. I made the same comparisons for Chelsea, Sp*rs, Liverpool and Newcastle to see if we were disproportionately effected or if I was just manufacturing an excuse. Incidentally, I chose these teams as they are immediately around us in the league. I could’ve included City and United but I wanted to compare us to teams whose fortunes have been broadly similar to our own.

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The disruption caused to us by injuries is pretty stark when compared to our rivals. Put simply, we have fielded more different defensive permutations than any two of the teams listed above, combined.

Even though all these teams have had to shuffle the pack from time to time, they’ve been far more settled than we have. Chelsea have had at least half their first choice back four – Cole and Terry – present for every single league game. Both Liverpool and Sp*rs have had first choice left backs, Enrique and Assou-Ekotto, present in every game.

Going by the general rule of building a modern squad, if you have two players for each role, having to play eight different defenders in a season would be catered for. When you get up to 13 different players you are in virgin territory with youngsters thrown in or midfielders being deployed out of their comfort zone – or both.

There is further interest in the detail of these stats and Newcastle are a good example. They were able to field the same back four – R. Taylor, Simpson, S Taylor and Coloccini – in every one of their first 14 games. They went unbeaten in their first 11 matches and only lost in their twelfth outing against a rampant City. They recovered to draw with United but lost to Chelsea the week after when their captain, Coloccini, had to be replaced with James Perch after 28 minutes. 0-0 ended up 0-3. Since then they’ve had to play four different back fours and have had mixed fortunes – W3, D1, L3.

Johan Djourou is our most regular right back this season having made nine appearances there. Our most common back four, albeit only taking the pitch on four occasions, is Vermealen, Djourou, Koscielny and Mertesacker. Our most regular back four is made up of four central defenders. In fairness they did OK, only conceding three goals and collecting seven points from a possible 12 – the only defeat was against City.

The repercussions of this disruption are clear: Lack of defensive coherence, increased risk of individual errors and loss of confidence, both individually and collectively. The lack of recognised full backs also has an impact going forward. Four central defenders might represent a relatively solid unit but it’s not the adventurous one our style prefers as is evident, particularly looking at Walcott’s decline in form.

Another by product of constantly picking different back fours is that your options for rotation elsewhere are reduced. Coquelin has been impressive this season but has started as many games as a full back as he has in midfield. Had a natural full back been fit we could have given the talented midfielder more games in his preferred role and rested someone in our overworked midfield – another area suffering from long term layoffs to key players.

This is not intended to defer all criticism from our defenders or our coaching staff but it should provide some context. When players playing out of position make mistakes, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. When the side struggle to score goals, it might have its roots in defensive disruption as well as the ineptitude of forwards.

I’ll sum up by referring to two of my most common subjects – Wenger and the transfer window. To criticise Wenger for many things is valid but I find it hard to accept that he can be blamed for the outrageous run of injuries to one specific area of the pitch. Many demanded we add more defenders but, as I’ve said many times, getting a player who’s good enough is not easy to do in January, either permanently or on loan.

All of our players, with maybe one notable exception, could do better this season but before we go overboard in criticism of our own team it’s worth looking at the unusual circumstances they’ve found themselves in this season. Maybe we need to look at the medical team although those that visited the state of the art complex at the start of the season seemed to have few complaints.

We are in a very unusual situation and one I can’t blame any specific person for. It has to be said that even George Graham would’ve found it difficult to salvage a miserly defence from the ruins of this season (we’d have seen far more of Pates and Caesar. Hillier at left back anyone?). Come to think of it, I don’t think any of our current rivals could either.

Keep The Faith.