Arsenal’s new found stability at the back during the second half of the season may have come about because the Gunners were less effective higher up compared to season 2007/08 .
The difference between Manchester United and Arsenal hinged on the respective club’s defensive record according to Arsene Wenger and in the first half of the season, it was disastrous.
The 14 starts Mikael Silvestre made in all competitions in the first half of the year saw Arsenal let in 22 goals but rather than pin the blame on the Frenchman, there has been a number of reasons for the improvement in defense.
Johan Djourou was brought in and instantly the Gunners looked more assured at the back. He created a complementary partnership with whomever he line-up with because of his size and it seemed the Swiss international was the answer. However, height was never the main issue. Djourou displayed some strong performances in the early period and the second half starting with the game at Chelsea (2-1) but rather, Arsenal as an attacking force was causing too much strain on the defence.
Arsenal were not any less effective in front of goal regarding chance conversion, the build up play was just lacking bite. Keeping possession was a form of defence last season as it denied any pressure on the backline while also creating pressure at the other end. This season after the loss of key creative men the Gunners were forced to find their chemistry again. In patches did we see that although Arsenal were now playing a bit more direct and getting the ball forward quicker especially with the pace of Walcott. This is not necessarily a bad thing but not having the same intricacy meant, the ball would come back more often and therefore teams were able to attack the space where Arsenal were not as organised in. The matches against Tottenham, Fenerbahce, Man City and Aston Villa were clear examples.
Playing an attacking game and one that seeks to retain possession means the back line must push up but with the increasing regularity of the attack breaking down, there was simply too much work to do.
“At one stage we had conceded too many goals, so we encouraged our defenders to be a bit more cautious,” says Arsene Wenger. The full back area, when they push forward exposes the channel for counter attacks. With teams sitting deep this was especially a problem in the early part of the season. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho who tries to keep a minimum of five behind the ball. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”
The affect of making the full backs more cautious has been fourfold: The space vacated by Clichy and Sagna was being exploited less (1) , it alleviated some of the strain on Denilson who had to cover a lot of ground (2) (although Wenger then moved to a 4-2-3-1), and also the centre backs (3), who had to push up to make up the space. And they are also stopping crosses coming in to the box, long thought to be Arsenal’s Achilles heel.
So while it improved Arsenal’s fortune’s at the back, it meant Clichy and Sagna were never going to match the heights of the previous season. Both were solid defensively but when they got forward often their crosses had been of a poor quality. Gibbs and Eboue have been able deputies this season and arguably have been better in the final third. Gallas and Toure were more assured at the back with the latter able to have the confidence to make his trademark forward bursts. The attacking play has improved recently with Arsenal getting back some of their intricacy and the defenders more positive. The most curious partnership has been of Djourou and Song, maybe one for the future?
In goal, Almunia has been mightily assured, his decision making on when to rush out and when not to has been of top quality. The Gunners have a peculiar playing style which means the ‘keepers must be adept at running out and kicking to keep play flowing and at times act as the sweeper. We saw two sides of Fabianski, one with confidence and one without but both were riddled with the same flaws; a lack of decision making, usually too eager to rush out but it shows the Polish stopper just needs more games to get an understanding.
Ratings: Almunia (7), Fabianski (5), Sagna (6), Clichy (7), Gibbs (8), Gallas (7), Toure (7), Djourou (8), Song (8), Silvestre (5).