View From The North Bank: Blackburn 4 Arsenal 3
A first win of the season and a creditable draw on the road meant that last week felt like a watershed for Arsenal. We talked of consolidation, of using a couple of positive results to forget the past and move on. We had a foundation on which to build a season. By 3 o’clock on Saturday the blueprint had been torn up; we were back to square one.
Despite the recent introduction of several new players this was not a new dawn, this was an all too familiar Arsenal. Swift attacking movements and slick passing coupled with profligacy in front of goal and, worst of all, amateur defending. I argued throughout the summer that our problems didn’t stem from the individual players in our back four, it was about the organisation. In truth, Saturdays result owed just as much to individuals.
The first goal we conceded summed it up. Mertesacker was pulled out of position yet made the right decision to step out and leave Yakubu stranded. Predictably, the back four weren’t playing as a unit. Koscielny and Santos had clearly been watching Gael Clichy and both failed to move forward and complete the offside trap leaving the Nigerian to flick a deft equaliser past the helpless Szczesny.
The blame here lies with Koscielny as even if Santos had stepped up as he should have, our No.6 would still have been inextricably playing him onside. A couple of sessions at London Colney should have had the back four working in unison, however even if that hadn’t been done, professional defenders should have the requisite awareness to realise when they are playing an opponent onside. It is basic defensive awareness that was missing and ball watching that was all too prevalent. Schoolboy.
The need to work on elementary defensive principles is obvious and has been for some time, but the point remains that players at this level shouldn’t need to be constantly reminded of the most basic tasks. None of Saturday’s back four were youngsters being taught their trade or midfielders playing out of position. Had a team of schoolboys defended that loosely they’d have deserved criticism. Wenger will rightly carry the can for letting this problem carry on for so long but it’s also about time individuals took responsibility for inferior performances.
A reasonably good defensive record last season was obliterated by a clear weakness from set-plays and sure enough, they came back to haunt us here. The opening signs from this season were that a new zonal marking system was working reasonably well; until Saturday we had yet to concede from a set-piece. Saturday blew all that out of the water and the failings of the zonal approach were writ large.
Song’s own goal came from what was a very tame delivery and no one attacked the ball. The zonal system demands that the defender waits for the ball to enter his zone before acting rather than allowing him to fix on the ball and attack it. As the ball dropped in, Song was motionless – he wasnt afforded the momentum to attack the ball and it ricocheted softly into the net.
The third also came from a delivery into the box. The ball wasn’t cleared and fell to Nzonzi who drilled across our static defence. All that was left was for Yakubu to guide home, albeit from an offside position. As had been the case for Blackburn’s first equaliser our defensive unit massed on the six yard box. There was no scope for a player of Mertesacker’s stature to set his sights on the ball and see it clear. It rather begs the question why we have bought a dominant centre half only to restrict him to marking a zone.
We had all called for some strength and experience in our back line, to counter the threat of players like Samba. It seems crazy to recruit that player and not utilise his strengths. Time and again Blackburn were allowed to run unchecked whilst we remained in the (dis)comfort of our zones. Samba – Blackburn’s biggest aerial threat – would have been picked up by Mertesacker if defending man-for-man.
The fourth goal can be blamed on any number of things. Our lack of shape and organisation led to Djourou being pulled all the way over into the left back position to make a do or die challenge. He had already been booked and therefore made the tackle with no conviction. The ball eluded him and Blackburn carried on into our box. Song’s attempted tackle was embarrassingly unconvincing and Koscielny passed up the opportunity to take charge and allowed the ball to bounce tamely off his right boot.
It’s sometimes harsh to criticise the last line for scoring an own goal, especially when so much has gone wrong beforehand, but Koscielny still had the chance to open his body and prepare for the ball across. Where he should have been sweeping clear with his left he was tied up and could do nothing to resist the concession. Technically poor defending.
We’ve covered the lack of individual responsibility and the blatant lack of defensive cohesion, however it is the constant reactive state of our defending that really grates. Bar Vermaelen, we rarely see a player take charge of a situation. The good things Djourou or Koscielny are undoubtedly capable of are often as reactions to previous misjudgements. There is still a distinct lack of positive, pre-emptive decision making. No one looks comfortable attacking the ball or even placing themselves appropriately to deal with dangerous delivery. As I’ve said, individual performances were poor on Saturday but a coherent defensive plan would go some way to mitigating that. At the moment we defend like individuals, no doubt giving rise to myriad individual errors.
There is work to do on the training ground. Players like Gervinho, Van Persie, Walcott and Arteta are capable of scoring against any team so let them get on with it; the rest of the side need to be drilled to rid them of the ridiculous errors which have become an unwanted trademark. Calls to get Steve Bould or even Martin Keown in to address this area are not without justification, although the errors are so basic that anyone, let alone men of the experience of Wenger and Rice, should be able to rectify much of this in a few short sessions.
We can at least draw comfort from Sunday’s results. This season is already off the scale in terms of ridiculous matches. The ability of Premier League teams to expose errors saw Sp*rs batter a rudderless Liverpool whilst United and Chelsea, usually immune to accusations of poor defending, could easily have shipped four or five each. This should act as inspiration as much as a cautionary tale to the wounded Arsenal side.
No one in the Premier League is infallible, despite what has been written of the early exchanges. Every team has their own weaknesses and, like last season, it will be the teams who best handle those that emerge with the most credit. United look a class above as they have goals from every area of the pitch and all players are on-form. Confidence is high.
As Wenger has alluded to more than once over the past week, our confidence is at 90 per cent. The team’s confidence will grow very quickly if we can cut out rudimentary defensive mistakes. Our defending has been so poor that improvement is eminently achievable. Lessons must be learnt quickly.