Defensive balance needed at Arsenal

Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger has done a good job for Arsenal over the years. He has built some brilliant teams, he has developed some of the best players in the world, and kept Arsenal at the top with much less spending power than his competitors. However, one wonders whether his time has finally come to an end.

For Arsenal to start challenging for major titles in the next few years, they must address their lack of defensive organization. This has been a frustrating aspect of the team under Wenger for a long time, and now with the club’s increased budget, the Arsenal board and fans have a right to demand more from their team, and from their manager.

The majority of people say that Arsenal defensive problems are down to the fact that they did not buy a centre-back, and a holding midfielder, in the summer. However, this blog would argue that instead, their problems are related to a poor defensive structure throughout the team. People are right to criticize Wenger, but wrong in their reasoning.

You cannot always simply ‘buy’ a good defender to improve the defence, in the same way that you can buy a talented attacking player that will make an impact. What many fail to understand, including Wenger it seems, is that defending requires more team-based skills than attacking. To score a goal, you only need 1 or 2 good passes, and a good shot. To avoid conceding a goal, the team needs every player focused on their responsibilities at all times. Arsenal do not have that kind of discipline within the team, and that is why they have only kept 3 clean sheets in the Premier League this season.


Per Mertesacker

Far too often they have dominated possession, before being caught out on the counter-attack due to momentary lapses in concentration. Per Mertesacker has come in for some criticism of late, particularly on social media, but unfairly so. He might be a slow defender, yet this would not matter if he was given the protection he needs. If midfielders are providing cover, then the only attributes a centre-back requires are leadership, strength and aerial prowess, all of which Mertesacker has in abundance.

Arsenal lost 2-1 to Swansea City on Sunday, and Swansea’s equalizer arose from when Arsenal had 7 players ahead of the ball. Given the fact that Arsenal were winning by 1 goal late in the game, players in the team should have been sensible enough to make sure there are at least 5 outfield men back, guarding against a potential Swansea attack. Some of the Arsenal players clearly do not understand their defensive responsibilities, and as manager, it is Wenger’s duty to drill this into his players.

Contrary to common opinion, this blog would argue that a good holding midfielder would not solve Arsenal’s problems. If anything, signing a player in the Claude Makelele mould could have the adverse effect of lulling Arsenal’s other midfielders into a false sense of security.

Aaron Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey

The modern game requires teams to defend, and attack, as a unit. Arsenal’s problem at the moment is that the mind-set of their players, particularly in midfield, is too one-dimensional. Aaron Ramsey has been something of a passenger this season, he very rarely tracks back, and is playing without much confidence. It is no coincidence that his excellent goalscoring form of last season came when he was contributing to the team in defence. There was a huge debate a couple of months ago about Mesut Ozil, who is currently injured. Regardless of whether he is playing out wide or centrally, he should be helping the team defensively, especially given that he had been out of form. When Arsenal are conceding goals due to a lack of help from midfield, Arsene Wenger must be accountable for not forcing his midfielders to start tracking back when they need to.

The mentality of this Arsenal team must change. Players must be prepared to involve themselves in play at any given time, rather than wait for their single moment to flourish. A sense of collective responsibility is needed.

However, the question is whether the players can develop a more team-orientated mentality under the current regime. Arsene Wenger’s tactical plans are geared entirely towards what his team do when they have the ball. Arsenal look to take control of games, and win them because of their technical quality alone. This approach has its limitations.

Mesut Ozil

Mesut Ozil

By having a lot of players focusing on what they do with the ball, a team is easily caught out on the counter-attack. When Arsenal lose possession, some of the creative, attacking players find it difficult to suddenly start defending. It seems they spend so much time in training practicing passing and ball control, that they do not see tracking back as part of their remit. They do not expect to have to defend.

Wenger’s major fault must be his failure to teach his talented, creative players the importance of defensive dedication. All successful teams appear to have an ongoing tactical arrangement, whereby some players will stay back, some will push forward, but at no point will anybody neglect their responsibility to the team. That kind of system is clearly not in place at Arsenal.

The concern is that, being such a stubborn manager, Wenger is unlikely to change things. If he has not addressed the lack of protection for the defence over the last 9 years, then why should we believe he will now?

If Arsene Wenger does leave Arsenal in the near future, then his replacement has a difficult challenge. The task of turning the Gunners into genuine title challengers will involve more work than simply finding good players in the transfer market. The next manager must change the whole mentality of this Arsenal squad.