If you listen to any football pundits or experts out there (ones in the British game anyway), they will tell you that the catalyst to a championship (Premier League, if you like) winning side is one with the meanest of defence as the backbone. Of course there’s a certain truth to that. They can’t all be wrong.
If you examine the records over the last 10 seasons of Premier League football, the 6 champion teams have conceded the fewest number of goals a season. The last time Arsenal was the team that conceded the least number of goals in the league, we were champions. No points for guessing the season that was, it was the Invincibles.
No of goals conceded in a season (parentheses denotes final league position)
2001/02 Arsenal (1) 36 goals, Liverpool (2) 30 goals
2002/03 Man United (1) 34 goals, Arsenal (2) 42 goals, Chelsea (4) 38 goals
2003/04 Arsenal (1) 26 goals, Chelsea (2) 30 goals
2004/05 Chelsea (1) 15 goals, Arsenal (2) 36 goals, Man United (3) 26 goals
2005/06 Chelsea (1) 22 goals, Liverpool (3) 25 goals, Arsenal (4) 31 goals
2006/07 Man United (1) 27 goals, Chelsea (2) 24 goals, Arsenal (4) 35 goals
2007/08 Man United (1) 22 goals, Chelsea (2) 26 goals, Arsenal (3) 31 goals
2008/09 Man United (1) 24 goals, Chelsea (3) 24 goals, Arsenal (4) 37 goals
2009/10 Chelsea (1) 32 goals, United (2) 28 goals, Arsenal (3) 41 goals
2010/11 United (1) 37 goals, Chelsea (2) 33 goals, Arsenal (4) 43 goals
I’m not saying that this is my discovery. In actual fact, there’s probably a lot of articles already out there about how solid defences can win championships. Greece (the country) was another prime example. Depending on their defensive resoluteness and organisation to win the Euro 2004. The legendary Arsenal defence of 1990/91 only allowed the opposition to score a miserly 18 goals, en route to recapturing the First Division title.
This season, we’ve played 7 league games and conceded 16 goals already. Granted, half of those came in a single match. However, even if we take the anomaly out, the numbers are not particularly positive to look at. Of course, we did collect 3 clean sheets during this run of 7 games. We can’t ignore the fact that except for Bolton, neither Newcastle or Swansea were expected to finish at the top half the table at the start of the season.
In total, Arsenal have already played 12 games this season. That includes the Champions League qualifier, Premier League, Champions League group stage and the Carling Cup. As usual, Arsene Wenger parades a different side out in the Carling Cup competition. Hence, it was no surprise that a different backline was selected for that match. Even if we take that out of the equation, Wenger has still picked 7 different starting back four in 11 games.
Newcastle – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs
Udinese – Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs
Liverpool – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sagna
Udinese – Jenkinson, Djourou, Vermaelen, Sagna
United – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Djourou, Traore
Swansea – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
Dortmund – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
Blackburn – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos
Shrewsbury – Jenkinson, Djourou, Miquel, Gibbs
Bolton – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
Olympiakos – Sagna, Song, Mertesacker, Santos
Spurs – Sagna, Song, Mertesacker, Gibbs
That itself, is a very uncomfortable statistic to look at. Anyone who has ever played in defence will tell you that, in order to build a good defence, is to have a fixed back four. Consistency of personnel is the key here. Understanding or the movement and positioning of the players around you, helps to be efficient in defending. It may be something as minor as knowing when to stay in line and when to shift out left/right to support a team mate. They all counts.
It does not augur well for our hopes to improve, when there are numerous injuries to the squad. That Alex Song, who is predominantly a defensive midfielder, has already played in the centreback position is indicative of the problems we have. The introduction of newcomers to the squad without a proper bedding in period, is another reason why our defence has not looked secure. Something which an experienced international like Per Mertesacker also admits.
The latest addition to the injury list is Bacary Sagna, arguably one of the best right backs in the current game. On one hand, I’m happy he had a successful surgery done. On the other hand, he will now miss at least 3 months of football, recuperating from the surgery. Although Thomas Vermaelen is pencilled in for a return in 3 weeks time, Sagna is one player we would definitely feel the absence.
His replacement will most likely be Carl Jenkinson. No disrespect to the former Charlton Athletic player, but he is nowhere near the quality of Sagna, yet. There’s bags of potential in Jenkinson but as we’ve seen from his displays thus far, it is a far cry from playing in a friendly in Asia and a competitive English/European tie. No doubt we’ll get 100% in attitude and desire but there will be times when the right side will be exposed due to his inexperience, during these 3 months.
Of course there are other alternatives. Francis Coquelin has been played at right back for a certain period in his reserves days. He has shown his ability and talent to play in the middle of the park, that it would be such a waste to stick him at right back. There’s also the possibility of switching one of Kieran Gibbs or Andre Santos over to the right side. If Gibbs really keep in his mind what he learned from Steve Bould, then it might not be such a bad shout to try him there.
However, more importantly, we have to learn to defend as a team like what Lee Dixon said. It is not only the job of the keeper and the 4 players in the back line. It is also the duty of the 7 other players to help ease the pressure on the defence. It’s a cliché but defending do start from the front. From Robin Van Persies right until the Alex Songs.
Of recent years, we’ve witnessed players ambling around, not tracking back and not being aware enough to help fill the space left behind my their team mate. Just a couple of days ago, I was watching a rerun of a 2003 game. First thing I noticed was how the flair players, the more inventive players at Arsenal, were chasing opponents all over the field. If a player the quality of Robert Pires or Thierry Henry could put in their fair share of defensive duties, there should be no one in the current squad who should even think about shirking their responsibilities.
I also remembered a time when Alex Manninger or Stuart Taylor had to play in goal because David Seaman was injured. Both did very well in Seaman’s absence. Partly because of their quality but mostly because of the reaction of the rest of the team. The other 10 players knew the substitute keeper was not of the quality of the 1st choice and worked extra hard to make Manninger/Taylor’s job a little easier.
The same could be applied here. Knowing that our first choice right back / centre back is not available, the rest of the squad will have to assume extra responsibility to help the replacements. The mentality has to change. Whatever the team lacks in quality, it should be made up in effort and desire.
Sometimes, the tiny things goes a long way.