Liverpool and Arsenal are both still in with a chance of clinching a top four place this season, even if the heavy edge goes to Arsene Wenger’s side after the Merseyside-based outfit crumbled away at Southampton on Saturday, but which club needs a defensive shake up the most in the summer?
Tottenham’s recent back-to-back defeats in the league to both Liverpool and Fulham following a recent 12-game unbeaten run has created an opening for Arsenal to force their way back into the Champions League qualification places. As we all know, securing a top four position is what both constitutes and qualifies as success at the club these days, rather than any of those pesky pieces of silverware fans like to rave on about, but with a kinder run-in between now and the end of the campaign, being just four points behind their rivals and with a game in hand, particularly after the north London derby defeat, is a decent position to be in; it’s always easier to reach for something than to hold onto it and Arsenal may benefit from being the chasing party rather than the side looking nervously over their shoulder.
Nevertheless, despite being in possession of the fourth-best defensive record in the league this year and keeping 10 clean sheets, an achievement that only two sides can better (Liverpool being one of them), they can’t escape from the fact that as a collective this season they have been shambolic at the back at times. There’s a certain sense of inevitability about Arsenal that in big games against quality opposition that they will concede an exceptionally soft goal despite dominating possession. AC Milan manager Massimo Allegri termed it ‘sterile domination’ and the Gunners have made it an art form.
Of course, the promotion of Steve Bould to assistant manager at the start of the campaign and their decent start was prematurely hailed as a move of genius from Wenger, but when things haven’t gone according to plan, reports surface that the Frenchman is keeping Bould away from really getting his teeth stuck into the defence on the training ground. Whatever we do, we must not blame Bould for what we saw before us, Pravda-style.
At the same time, it helps if you cook with the right ingredients and to continue the cooking analogy one step further, there are more than a few rotten eggs in Arsenal’s squad. Seeing club captain Thomas Vermaelen dropped for potentially the team’s biggest away game of the season at Bayern Munich would have been humiliating for the player but it’s no more than his ordinary form deserves.
Elsewhere, Bacary Sagna has let his wandering eye see him regress into something approaching an understudy to Carl Jenkinson, which says it all, really, Laurent Koscielny only occasionally comes to represent a professional footballer with the odd outstanding performance in a big game and Per Mertesacker, possibly the most consistent of the three, should be considered little more than a decent stock centre-back rather than an essential part of the starting eleven. Throw into the mix the deeply average form of the Emperor’s New Clothes, Wojciech Szczesny, and they could feasibly be searching for nearly a completely new back four were it not for the quality Nacho Monreal and more than capable Kieran Gibbs at left-back.
Wenger has not helped his defence, though, in selling Alex Song in the summer to Barcelona and not replacing him with a real holding midfielder. Mikel Arteta can ‘do a job’ there, while Abou Diaby’s physical presence is a bonus whenever he’s fit and Jack Wilshere remains a tenacious little runt in the tackle, but they need someone who does the ugly stuff well and does it simply. Far too often the opposition is simply allowed to wander right through midfield and right at the back four and the Arsenal midfield is great with the ball but could work a lot harder without it.
The role of the holding midfielder is something of a modern fan fascination; nearly every major club in the top flight requires one if you were to listen to the team’s supporters – Manchester United (needed one since Hargreaves got injured), Chelsea (Mikel’s a busted flush), Manchester City (haven’t replaced De Jong) – yet they all seem to struggle on by without one and rarely ever seem to show any real interest in signing one and Arsenal are no different.
One side that does have one is Liverpool in the form of Lucas Leiva, but understandably given his injury troubles the past year or so, he’s ran out of gas already this season and he was just as guilty as anyone in the second half against Southampton of not getting in a tackle of Jay Rodriguez as he drove right at the heart of the team’s defence. He could do with a rest, but without a suitable understudy, what’s the alternative? The one thing the club would have gleaned from keeping Kenny Dalglish in charge this season at least would have been the likely acquisition of Mohamed Diame before West Ham went sniffing around.
Nevertheless, blaming Lucas would seem a tad harsh even if he has disappointed on the whole after being hailed as the saviour of Liverpool’s spine and they’ve developed a soft underbelly, despite keeping 11 clean sheets, the second-best record in the league this season, because of the rank incompetence of Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and at times Pepe Reina. It says a lot that the retiring presence of 35-year-old Jamie Carragher was ‘missed’ according to manager Brendan Rodgers during the 3-1 defeat.
Sebastian Coates isn’t fit for purpose on recent evidence and Jose Enrique seems unable to decide whether he’s actually any good or not and the club could do with as many as three new centre-backs in the summer, certainly more than Arsenal, a full-back option and potentially a new goalkeeper if the Reina to Barcelona rumours ever prove to be true.
When it comes to individual ability, it could be said that many members of Liverpool’s defensive unit are enduring terrible seasons from a personal perspective that surely won’t be replicated in the future. On paper, they look more talented than Arsenal’s bunch, yet they’ve conceded seven more goals in the league and shot themselves just as many times in the foot when they’ve been playing reasonably well.
Major surgery is required at both clubs when concerning their defensive rosters, but the difference is that Liverpool are likely to bring in a few fresh faces while the stubborn Wenger will remain reticent to any sort of change, instead choosing to stick his head in the sand and expect different results with the same personnel. One thing is clear, though, with both sides capable of scoring against almost any opponent, the relative weaknesses of both their defences are the main obstacle they must overcome before truly gaining a firm foothold as a top four presence, in what has become the most fluid transition of power in year in the Premier League. Knowing the problem is one thing, but solving it is an altogether trickier conundrum for two teams in dire need of a radical overhaul.
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