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Van Persie and Song may be gone but Arsenal have cause for optimism

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The inevitable questions over who will now score the goals for Arsenal were particularly pertinent in the aftermath of a 0-0 draw with Sunderland which suggested they were already missing their Dutch talisman. 

Yet many observers seem to have missed a crucial part of the Arsenal equation. There are two ways to cope with the loss of van Persie. One is the heralded ‘buy a replacement’ option, and find 30 goals from a new striker. The other is to simply concede fewer goals. Ideally Arsenal will hope to do both, but it is significant that for a team with such a poor record at the back in recent years there is little clamour among fans or the press for Arsene Wenger to bring in another defender.

In fact it is hard to think of a time since the ‘Invincibles’ of  2004 that Arsenal’s defence has looked stronger. Wojciech Szczesny is a reassuring presence in goal, a huge improvement on the days of Manuel Almunia. Laurent Koscielny was Arsenal’s unsung hero last year – when all around him were either losing their heads or fleeing elsewhere, he was the reassuring presence at the back for Wenger who kept things together defensively. Thomas Vermaelen, when he returned from injury, added another presence whom Arsenal could rely on, whilst Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs offer reliability defensively and a useful option going forward.

In fact, the only real concern regarding the back four is Vermaelen’s tendency to step out and follow opposition forwards, rather than keep in line with his fellow defenders, a habit which almost led to James McLean scoring for Sunderland on Saturday.

Of course it takes more than five players to defend, and this is where Alex Song comes into the equation. Song’s influence last season has been hailed by all those questioning Wenger’s judgment in offloading the Cameroon international. Yet his most telling contributions were going forward. Whilst eleven assists and some sublime skill cannot be ignored, Song was meant to be primarily a defensive midfielder. Yet his indiscipline in that position has been the main reason Arsenal have had such a poor defensive record in recent years.

Arsenal have also suffered from an incoherent pressing strategy; as Barcelona have shown a team playing a high line and fast short passing game need to press their opponents quickly and high up the pitch. This requires a discipline and hard working mentality that Arsenal have been found lacking.

The defeat to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final was the epitomy of all that had gone wrong with Arsenal. Two highly talented players, Szczesny and Koscielny, contrived to throw the game away with an error born out of bad decision making. And bad decision making is the inevitable consequence of inexperience. Added on top of all of that, a back four often ravaged by injury have rarely been helped by Song’s inability to stick to his position screening the area in front of them.

Yet last year, for all the difficulties they endured, it was notable that Arsenal’s defence had a much better record with Mikel Arteta than without him in the midfield. Arteta was not at Arsenal for the calamitous opening three games of the season, when they conceded 10 goals. He was absent for defeats to Swansea and Manchester United mid season, and also missed the last five games, when Arsenal conceded another eight. Five of the ten games Arsenal lost were in the ten games they were without Arteta. Arsenal won just one of those games. Arsenal conceded 0.92 goals with Arteta, and 2.3 without him.

Statistics are often derided but they are invaluable to properly understanding the game. The significance of Arteta is that unlike most Arsenal players in recent years, he is both a primarily attacking player who does not neglect his defensive duties and experienced. Often last season the Spaniard was effectively Arsenal’s main defensive midfielder, dropping back to cover the spaces exposed by Song’s rampages forward. Yet Arteta is not a defensive midfielder. If he can have that impact, imagine what a real defensive midfielder would do.

Whatever happens, Arsenal will at least be improved by Song’s departure for the sole reason that they will have a defensive midfielder who may not be quite as talented, but is certainly more disciplined. Yann M’Vila is being heavily linked with joining Arsenal this week, but even if he does not sign, Abou Diaby or Francis Coquelin are more reliable when it comes to sticking to that position between defence and midfield through which Arsenal are so often undone.

Arsenal conceded 49 goals last season. Based on the statistics that Arsenal concede an average of 0.92 goals with Arteta in the team, it is reasonable to predict that they would have let in only 34 with a real defensive midfielder playing in every match, just one more than Manchester United.

Now look at who Arsenal have signed this summer. Olivier Giroud, Lukasz Podolski, Santi Cazorla, and Nuri Sahin’s arrival is imminent. Attackers they may all be, but one characteristic they all share is that they track back and are team players. Podolski and Cazorla are also both experienced, while Sahin and Giroud are both title winners. Arsenal have often been let down in the past by inexperience and poor decision making, as well as attackers who neglect defensive duties. All of Wenger’s signings this summer seemed designed to eliminate that naivety by bringing in a know how missing from Arsenal in recent years.

It is unrealistic and improbable that either Podolski or Giroud will replace van Persie. To score 30 goals in a season is an exceptionally tough ask. But if Arsenal continue to show signs of improvement in defence, discipline and shape, helped by new assistant coach Steve Bould, and the new forwards can chip in with close to 20 goals each, a more realistic target than finding another player of van Persie’s quality, then there are more reasons to be positive than negative for the Gunners this season.

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Comments (15)

  1. Good article, intelligent and positive.
    On a side note- Manu got beaten easily by Everton and dont look good at all. I’m very confident RvP will be regretting his decision to leave in about 9 months time

  2. A masterpiece of writeup, thumbs up 2 u!!!!

  3. Good article. It’s rare to see balanced and considered opinions when it comes to Arsenal (or football in general), and I whole heartedly agree. The greatest teams in the Prem have mean, feasome defenses. I, personally, would be happy if Arsenal ONLY conceded 30 fewer goals instead of scoring 30 more with our new players. I’d love it if we could do both, but unless we can score 60 more goals than last season we really need to prioritize defense.

  4. Good upbeat report,after all the negative rubbish we’ve had to endure from others.However the exclusion of Mertesacker’s name and influence was regrettable. Wenger’s problem is going to be ‘who to leave out!’ First five games should tell us more about where we might be next May.

  5. Couldn’t have said it any better – spot on post fella!

  6. Spot on with your observations, the Sahin deal sound imminent, another big player with the mentality needed over the coming season. I Feel something’s special can happen with this group of players, albeit one more defender.
    Block19

  7. I’ve been pessimistic all summer but after reading this article and watching the prem this weekend you’ve got me thinking. Good job with article by the way

  8. Spot on man i totally concor with your observation… Thumbs up for you

  9. Great article, bringing to light many of the frailties that we had last season, as well as shedding light on the future vision our manager has for the team.

  10. While I agree with the article’s conclusion that Arsenal should be a much stronger defensive club this season, I think that the article misses a crucial point that many Arsenal fans have also failed to grasp:

    In a 4-3-3 alignment a team cannot afford to have a midfielder (the “DM”) just sit in front of the back four in the same way as it would in a 4-4-2 alignment. In a 4-3-3 alignment, the “DM” has to be more flexible–he must be able to go forward and initiate the offense. Why? Because, if the “DM” just sits back, it is too easy for the opposition, with an extra man able to defend, to shut down the movement of the ball through the midfield by the other two midfielders. When the opposition clamps down on those other two midfielders, the “DM” has to be able to venture forward and essentially take over the role of one of them offensively. This is what we saw Alex Song do at times last season–it is called “taking advantage of what the defense gives you”. And you will see it happening regardless of who plays “DM” as long as Arsenal plays a 4-3-3.

    When the “DM”, however, it is the responsibility of the other two midfielders to “rotate back” defensively, with one of them assuming the defensive responsibilities of the “DM”, even if he doesn’t necessarily move back towards his defensive end a great deal, and the other being ready to drop back into the middle of the field into the “CM” position. This is what did not happen all too often last season and what accounts for the goal difference between when Arteta was on the pitch and when he was not.

    Arteta, as he showed again on Saturday, is very conscientious about “rotating back” defensively. Rosicky does so inconsistently. And, Ramsey often neglects his defensive responsibilities–sometimes ignoring them completely, sometimes getting caught too high up the pitch in the offensive zone, and many times jogging back to his defensive end behind the ball instead of sprinting back as he should.

    Additionally, Arsenal’s wingers left a lot to be desired defensively last season as well. While Walcott actually has improved considerably in his own end, his positioning is often lacking and his size made it easy for opponents to shrug him off in challenges. Arshavin can actually make plays when he chooses to hustle on defense, but the problem is that he often chose to mope about rather than play hard in his own end. Gervinho did put in the effort, but often ended up out of position–a problem that Oxlaide-Chamberlain also suffered from due to his inexperience (although he improved a lot over the course of the season).

    As the article pointed out, defense isn’t just played by the back five–it must be played as a team by the whole team. It requires a bit of knowledge, but, above all, it requires desire and hustle–and all too often these latter two qualities were lacking at critical times in Arsenal matches last season, when the back five were left exposed.

    The article correctly pointed out that there is reason for optimism that Arsenal will be much improved defensively this season: Podolski, Cazorla and even Giroud have all shown themselves to be much more willing and conscientious about getting back defensively. Gibbs and Jenkinson have done so as well. And Arteta has picked up right where he left off last season. Additionally, Diaby and Wilshere (when he returns) have also shown that they are willing defenders as well. Walcott will never be a great defender, but even if he just continues to improve his defending a little bit, it will be a plus. And, Oxlaide-Chamberlain should be much better with a full season under his belt now and some guidance from Steve Bould. This should set a good example for some of the less enthusiastic defenders in the rest of the team and they are likely to show some improvement as well.

    As of yet Arsenal does not seem to have either the quickness or perhaps its the commitment that Barca has to press the ball quickly high up the pitch immediately after possession is lost. But, with more size and excellent straight-line speed, Arsenal could be surprisingly improved overall in its own end this season. With a couple of albeit nearly disastrous exceptions early on, the team did an excellent job of dropping back and maintaining its shape on Saturday. There will be many more, stiffer tests ahead, but the potential to significantly cut down on the number of goals conceded is there this season.

    But, please don’t expect whoever is the “DM” in matches this season to just sit in front of the back four all game long. Against some opponents, he’ll be able to do that, but, against some others, he will have to venture forward because the opposition is preventing the other two midfielders from igniting the offense. Instead of screaming at the “DM” when he does go forward, check to see if the other two midfielders are “rotating back” defensively when he does. If you want to see how that’s done, watch how Arteta and Cazorla move when the other midfielder goes forward. Most of the time you will see how it should be done.

    Finally, I disagree about Podolski and Giroud not being able to replace RVP’s scoring. Yes, Giroud missed a golden opportunity to score on Saturday. But, RVP missed his share of sitters, too (he didn’t score in the first 4 games last season). With Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud and a more experienced Oxlaide-Chamberlain the Arsenal offense should be more balanced than it was last season when the club’s offense invariably went through RVP and was dependent on RVP to score, especially when Walcott didn’t play well. It may take a few matches for the new guys to get their timing down, but, with a stronger defense, I can see the club scoring well enough to be right in the race by the end of this season.

    Remember: it isn’t necessarily where (how) you start that matters, it’s where you finish that counts.

  11. whoever wrote this article, big respect to your fair judgement. extremely well-balanced opinion. i think it depends on how the whole team reacts, and the quality of the replacement, that even big names departure can be used to reignite and reshape us to be a winning team. however i hv to digress on ur opinion about diaby .. he’s not defensive minded, and can be caught holding the ball too long. i reckon he’s not suited to be a DM .. however the likes of coquelin and frimpong, esp frimpong who gave big physical presence are more reliable.

  12. I think it is important to note, before we criticize Song unnecesarily that if there is a problem iwth arsenal’s defending, then Arsene Wenger is to blame.

    Arsenal aspires to play like barcelona but lack critical resources to play like that. If today barcelona has only 56% of play like arsenal typically does, they would ship in more goals. In teams that depend on tiki taka, possession, tachnical awareness of the requirements of keeping possession are more imporatant than other abilities. That is why Busquets and Valdez are better than Toure and Casillas for Barca.

    The reason why arsenal shipped in less goals with Arteta on the pitch has a lot more to do with his ability to keep the ball and team ticking better (an ability he horned in Barca’s La Masia by the way) than any defensive ability per se.

    Cue why arsenal were so much better with Fabregas on the Pitch.

    However, arsenal plays without the strict discipline reequired in barcelona as regards movement, positioning and pressing. Even Fabregas found it difficult to cope when he went to Barce as he testified last week.

    It seems the same at first sight, Barca and arsenal’s styles, but they are actuall a bit different and Song, provided he is humble and ready to learn will become a better player as a result. Check out all ex-barca player- Toure, Eto’o, and Ibrahimovic, they improve while in Barca and show their improved mettle when they left Barca.

    Football has progressed, arsene Wenger need to install better discipline in his players and not allow the players to much freedom – thats the job of a coach.

  13. Gud article indeed n nice comments frm people.

  14. If Van Persie left Arsenal for the money and for the trophies, then they should be glad he left. Why would you want a self-centered player on your team anyways? I play football myself and when I get a teammate that is very selfish and only about himself, the chemistry automatically goes down. I would rather play would a good chemistry team rather than self-centered players but who are also good. But Arsenal do have the team to have a very good season. Even with the losses of Van Persie and Song, Wenger has brought in Lukas Podolski, a starting XI German Winger, and Giroud, Ligue 1 leading scorer last year. Arteta is the glue for Arsenal in the midfield and has proved himself well. Then in the back with Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Mertesacker, they could hold down the goal well for Szczesny. This could be a solid year for the Gunners.