Last season Arsenal conceded 49 goals in the Premier League. That’s more than any other side in the top four, and the second highest number conceded by a top eight team. To have conceded ten goals against Man Utd, four against Spurs, three against Chelsea and two against Man City is a pretty poor effort. Any team that realistically considers itself one of the top English clubs should not be conceding 19 goals against their four closest rivals in a league season.
Much of the blame for such poor defensive performances was laid at the feet of Pat Rice. The former assistant manager was, supposedly, in charge of the team’s defensive coaching. But is it possible that a defensive coach that oversaw a season in which Arsenal went unbeaten could possibly slip so far that he would allow his defenders to concede four away at Blackburn? Or, should we be pointing the finger at Arsenal’s defenders?
The answer should come this season with the involvement of Steve Bould. If Pat Rice really was to blame then surely Steve Bould – part of Arsenal’s legendary back four – will be the man to instil some purpose and discipline in this current crop of Arsenal defenders.
If Steve Bould can’t teach them how to communicate, how to hold a proper line and how to take responsibility then nobody can, right? Not necessarily. Great players don’t always make great coaches. It is said that for those who possess and exercise these skills so naturally it can often be hard for them to explain how they do it.
Moreover, whilst Steve Bould achieved an impressive level of success with the U18 side they did have a similar problem to that of the main Arsenal side – they scored plenty of goals but they also conceded plenty of goals too.
This can be explained though by the fact that Bould was under instructions to develop and prepare these footballers for the style of football that they would eventually play in the first team. Arsenal fans will hope that his role as Arsene Wenger’s assistant affords him far more time to work on the defensive principals of the team, especially considering that there is a new first team coach in Neil Banfield who will take some of the weight off of Bould’s shoulders.
However successful Bould and Banfield are though should Arsenal fans be concerned that their defenders are just not good enough?
They definitely have some concerns, but all members of the back four are problematic. Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna are exceptional defenders. Koscielny has improved remarkably considering that in 2009 he was playing in the French second division. The timing of his tackling is a joy to watch and he attacks the ball with an assured sense of purpose that is often lacking from Arsenal centre halves. Almost impossibly, he almost seems far quicker than when he arrived and he is no longer muscled off the ball.
Sagna is a class act. It is no coincidence that Arsenal’s form this season was good when he played and poor when he was injured. Defensively, he is easily the best right back in the league. He is remarkably strong, quick, an excellent tackler and good in the air. In the past his faults have been exposed when he ventures forward but in the last two seasons he has vastly improved his crossing and even has a handful of goals to his name.
The problems arise however in the other positions. Thomas Vermaelen, whilst an exceptional footballer, has a tendency to wander out of position a little too often. If he could improve his defensive discipline he would be the best defender in the team. He has all of the necessary attributes to be one of the best in the world and although he does display that talent on a regular basis he also has a tendency to switch off.
Per Mertesacker can’t really be judged at this stage. Koscielny had a poor first season and Mertesacker was injured for half the season so it really would be harsh to criticise before we have given him ample time to prove himself.
Left back is the real issue for Arsenal. Both Gibbs and Andre Santos have their positive attributes, but neither are Premier League winning defenders. By that I mean, are they as good as any first team defenders to have won the league in the last fifteen years? No. Gibbs might still have time to develop in to the player we want him to be but you would have to say that, regardless of his injuries, he hasn’t developed at anywhere near the rate the club wanted him to.
So, do Arsenal have a defence capable of winning the league? Probably not. Do they have a defence capable of conceding far fewer goals than they did last season? Absolutely. There can be no excuses for either the players or Steve Bould next year.
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