It appears that the penny has finally dropped at the Emirates. After years of playing progressive, attack-orientated football, Steve Bould announced in a press conference yesterday that the club, players and management staff have all come to realise that “keeping clean sheets wins games a lot of the time”. That’s the kind of thing a 13 year old kid playing Sunday League football could tell you, but it’s good to hear that someone from the Arsenal camp has finally worked out that results depend on how well you play at both ends of the pitch.
I believe the statement was more a media faux pas than a true Eureka moment, considering Bould made over 500 competitive appearances at centre-back throughout his playing days, and also turned out for the Three Lions on occasion. Yet it brings up the rather interesting question: hasn’t defending been the problem all along for the Gunners? Has it really taken them 30 games of a Premier League season to work out their problems have been at the back this year? Or for that matter, has it really taken Arsene Wenger nearly twenty years of Premier League football at the Arsenal helm to discover the club’s long-existing fatal flaw?
There’s a common myth that Arsene Wenger has never signed a good defender, and although perhaps the rumour is quite harsh, there is also some truth behind it. The French gaffer inherited the now famous Gunners’ backline of Lee Dixon, Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn, which underpinned Wenger’s initial success at the club. Of course, he infamously signed Sol Campbell on a free transfer in the summer of 2000, yet the controversial deal hardly required any particular scouting operation or consideration process – he was the Premier League’s and England’s best centre-back, and he was available for nothing.
But after Campbell, the inspired signings at the back tend to dry up; Gunners fans will point out Kolo Toure as a Wenger signing, but the City defender was actually a midfielder when the club bought the youngster back in 2002. And along the way, there have been plenty of stinkers to have spent some considerable time on Arsenal’s books; Phillipe Senderos, Pascal Cygan and Sebastien Squillaci to name a few.
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I am not suggesting that every Arsenal defender has been at the same standard as those three stooges, but considering the only truly exceptional defenders to have played at the club during Wenger’s tenure have been ones he inherited, signed on a Bosman ruling or brought up through the youth system, by which I am referring to Toure and Ashley Cole, a gap in the Gunners’ boss’s managerial abilities begins to emerge.
Of course, that was the whole point of appointing Steve Bould as assistant manager at the start of the season. He was to be the ying to Wenger’s yang, in a hope that between the defensive organisation of one and the free-flowing philosophical attacking styles of the other, a cosmic balance could be struck at the Emirates.
But after a few bore draws at the start of the season against Sunderland and Stoke, as well as a 2-0 victory over Liverpool, things seemed to turn sour in defence for the Gunners. There were murmurings of discontent, and an apparent rift between Bould and Wenger. The Frenchman’s monolithic hold on all things football at the club is well known, with his coaches being yes-men rather than having any considerable input on ideas regarding the first team, and no doubt Bould has been slightly miffed all season about his advice not being taken on board.
In Arsenal’s recent 2-1 victory over Aston Villa, the former England defender can be seen muttering the words “How many times must I say it to you?” after the Villains take advantage of poor closing down, allowing Andreas Weimann to score a speculative long range effort. Of course, you’ll never find definitive proof of whether the harsh words were directed at the players or Wenger, but either way it suggests that the notion of resilient defending is yet to be fully thrust upon the Arsenal roster.
Surprisingly perhaps, the Gunners have conceded the fourth least goals in the Premier League this season. But despite the impressive feat, it’s the Arsenal defenders that have taken the majority of the flack for the club’s rather lacklustre campaign. Thomas Vermaelen has been exceptionally poor, and was found wanting in crucial games, including the most recent North London Derby. Similarly, Bacary Sagna put in a woeful performance against Liverpool during their 2-2 draw at the end of January, and the right-back is expected to be politely moved on at the end of the season as a result of his bad showings this year.
But it is not just the defence itself where the problem lies. I am a big fan of Mikel Arteta’s footballing abilities, and indeed he is the proud owner of the most successful pass-rate in Europe. But for what his talent in keeping possession provides for the first team, it also takes away in terms of strength, pace, defensive awareness, height and power, which creates an imbalance in the Arsenal midfield. There’s no doubt the Gunners have missed Alex Song this season to soak up pressure in front of the back four, and also act as a spare centre-back for set pieces or when required to fill in whilst defending counter-attacks.
Many Arsenal fans will be hoping this season will trigger a change in Arsene Wenger. Although he will be forever loved at the Emirates, it’s safe to say that he’s come off the boil in recent years, and allowed the club to fall behind divisional rivals, and even local rivals, through his leadership. I believe the French gaffer will learn some of his lessons regarding the nature of the transfer market, the need to constantly improve to keep up in the modern game, and the importance of spending big as a symbol of intent to the fans.
But unfortunately, where I cannot foresee considerable change is in Wenger’s perspective on of the importance of defending. Bould’s words suggest that shutting up shop will be as big a priority for the rest of the season as scoring goals, but keeping two clean sheets in a row, against an out of form Swansea and an almost already relegated Reading, will not change Wenger’s entrenched attacking philosophy, where defending, good defenders and organisation will never be the initial concern.
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