For me, Arsenal’s defense is tough to talk about. No, I don’t get all teary…really…I swear…. Instead, our defense is so related to offense that I find the pair difficult to separate. Perhaps any team can say the same, but my feeling is that our current style of play makes defense flow into offense, and vice-versa, more fluidly than most. Our left and right backs frequently attack on the overlap, and the two central defenders rarely just sit back and hoof it forward. In short, there’s team unity in play, or not, on occasion.
When we press
When the entire Arsenal squad presses, from the defenders all the way up to the striker, anyone we play has trouble coping. Using that system, we pounced on Blackpool (August), Chelsea (December), and several other teams at seemingly random times. The constant pressure unsettled the enemy and quickly got the ball back for us, usually high up the pitch, on those rare occasions when we lost possession. Hurrah.
Our problem with this system is that the full-squad press is difficult to maintain all season. Sure Barca does it, but look at their table—it’s a two-horse race. Not so in England, of course. Stiffer competition requires higher levels of fitness and concentration over a longer period of time, all without a holiday break.
Partly due to injuries and partly due to mentality, Arsenal is incapable of maintaining those levels. This was the case in 10-11 and 09-10. Perhaps a few more like Wilshere and a few less like Bendtner would help, as would luck with injuries. Even then, a pressing approach all season may be impossible. Perhaps it’s a coaching/strategy/tactics thing. In any case, I hope we assemble a squad capable of full-field pressing much more often next time around.
When we don’t
Sometimes we revert to a more relaxed defense with a high off-side line. Midfield players roam while others stand around too much. In abstract, it is possible to defend this way—sitting back and absorbing—but only if the offense counters with pace and accuracy. Stoke, Fulham, Bolton, Man Utd., and many others played exactly that way against us, and a simple long-ball counter knocked us out. We attack, lose the ball, and they bomb it forward or a quick winger zips it down the side.
But we don’t do that often enough. When we sit back to absorb the attack, we tend to get the ball back deep in our territory. From there, our team slowly works its way out, pass after pass, into the other half. The ball is shuffled to one side, then back to Song, then to Cesc, then down the side again. By then, as stated last time around, every defender and his eldest relative has time to get into the box.
So what do we do?
1. If we can, we should press for more of the game in more matches.
2. If we can’t, and we sit back, we must turn defense into attack with greater pace and accuracy. We can counter on the ground with quick passes or rapid Walcott runs. Or we can launch it to RvP or Chamakh, who will hopefully have another strike partner nearby. No matter what, we have to keep opposition defenders on their heels.
3. Every now and then, we should mix it up. We played the same type of game over and over again last season. We were too predictable defending and attacking. Instead, we should play with more variety. In England, this has worked for Man U, Chelsea, and Liverpool. Perhaps Barca doesn’t need to do this, but they are, as noted by many, rather special. (I’m not calling for legitimate shape-shifting here—just a clever alteration when the occasion suits.)
4. Finally, something that smacked us in the face time and time again—we have to be big and strong against tall attackers on set plays. Duh. There’s no other way to say that. When we played against Zigic, every time, we should have had our tallest keeping him closely guarded. End of issue.
So, that’s how I hope we change our playing style next season. Simple but effective, I believe.
Next time, I’ll talk about funny words EPL commentators use. I promise, it will be cheeky…
George Sedgwick is the branch manager of the Philly Gooners and a regular contributor to the Arsenal Review USA Podcast. He’ll be blogging on a weekly basis throughout the summer…