The addition of Laurent Koscielny to the back line and two screening midfielders is anticipated to help win the ball back quicker.
As soon as Thomas Vermaelen kicked his first ball in the Premier League Arsene Wenger would have known he had a bargain in his hands. The Belgian international had cost the Gunners €12 million in the summer of 2009 but the way he handled his first game – a 6-1 win over Everton where he got on the score-sheet – showed he was perfectly capable of being the authoritative figure Arsenal so needed at the back. This season, the début of €10 million signing Laurent Koscielny against another Merseyside club, the 1-1 draw against Liverpool, would have also sent similar signals despite the blemish of a harsh last minute red card.
The French defender was signed as a replacement for William Gallas and the partnership he formed with Vermaelen at Anfield showed some promising signs. Vermaelen is very much the more commanding one as he looks to attack the ball early, particularly in the air. Koscielny on the other hand, is a strong reader of the game like Gallas, although unlike his predecessor, he looks to mark his opponent very tightly in the attempt to win the ball back quickly. In fact, so good was he at stopping attackers last season that his coach at Lorient, Christian Gourcuff said he “never saw him [Koscielny] lose a one-on-one.” That obdurate defending very much impressed Wenger and his scout Gilles Grimandi and they were particularly keen in pushing through the transfer as they felt that ability to win the ball back quickly would be very important to the new defensive strategy of the Gunners.
As we saw last season, Arsenal’s attempts to recreate the tenets of Dutch Total Football – that of stretching the play in attack and making it as small as possible when not in possession – often created gaps in midfield. This desire to regain possession high up the pitch exposed the back four many times and left the deepest central midfielder isolated. To remedy that Wenger has look to make a bold move – squeeze the play further in front.
A high line was utilised against Liverpool and it was particularly effective in denying the Reds space in front of the defence, especially to the playmaker Joe Cole. They were also as effective in denying space behind, with David N’gog and co being caught offside five times. The same striker, however, was the benefactor of Arsenal’s eagerness to push their opponents up field as N’gog beat the offside trap to smash home. Similar problems were abound in the 3-0 win over Sturm Graz in pre-season as the back four were continually caught out by the quick pass from back to front. It’s a problem, Netherlands manager Bert van Maarwijk says that besets forward thinking teams because of the need to push the defence up the pitch.
“I think almost all the countries have problems with defence,” he said before the South Africa World Cup. “And this is partly because it’s very difficult to defend in modern football because you have to defend with space at your back. So, the best thing to do is learn to defend as a team.”
Van Maarwijk surprised many in the tournament with his over-cautious approach, abandoning the pressing game and defending deep. Instead Holland looked to play very compact in their own half and that was allowed by the presence of their two holding midfielders Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Indeed for Arsenal, the effectiveness of their high line seemed very much determined also on the protection in front – and that is an area Arsenal has particularly looked to work on.
In the two league games against Liverpool and Blackpool, Jack Wilshere partnered Abou Diaby in the middle. When Cesc Fabregas came on for Diaby in the second half of the second game, the structure remained the same. Two “holders” allow easily for a team to keep their shape and in regards to Arsenal’s style, allow them to squeeze space better. It’s a more efficient system than the 4-1-4-1 we saw last season when Arsenal defended because it doesn’t put as much responsibility on the deepest midfielder and allows a more efficient covering of zones. Pressing has also improved and the marking of players required when defending in the “Barcelona” style is very visible. The attacking midfielder – Nasri against Liverpool and Rosicky in the next game – press with the central striker and the two wide forwards to pin the defence back. The midfielders behind look to cut off the remaining passing options and that then allows the back four to get tight. It is almost a system of chain reactions and that better understanding should ensure space is compressed better.
There are, however, improvements that can be made. Liverpool, at the start of the second half, showed Arsenal’s vulnerability to aggressive pressing against them and by committing people quickly to the edge of the box exposed some shortcomings in the Gunners tactical understanding. It continued on the trend from last season so it is important Arsenal drop back quickly as a team so as not to leave the back five isolated and essentially defend as a “broken team.” Sebastian Squillaci comes in to help Arsenal in aerial duels but it is unlikely a new goalkeeper will arrive at London Colney before the transfer window shuts. The bid for Mark Schwarzer – although not a great step up – is one to minimise mistakes particularly from set-pieces and crosses.
All in all, these are promising changes for a side that is noted for their commitment to attack. They are not perfect remedies – in fact they are probably even more risky – but it is thought that they will help Arsenal decrease last season’s goals conceded tally of 41. It is perhaps as Gael Clichy says; the tweaks will have a more profound effect than just stopping goals as a better defence will almost certainly aid them in their attacking objectives. And that is above all what Arsenal are famed for. “Of course we can always improve and that’s what we want to do,” said Clichy. “As a unit, as a team, we want to be better defensively, and we know that if we defend well we’ll attack better.