Wednesday, 23 December 2009

In praise of the Arsenal defence

Too often, there is a tendency to criticise when things go badly but not praise when they go well.

As a schoolboy, I can pay homage to this: if i get an 'A' on an essay, it is merely regarded as de rigueur and no praise is forthcoming. On the other hand, a 'C' is greeted with abuse from my teachers and interrogations about why I don't care about my work.

This isn't absolutely true with football. When an attacker hits good form - like RVP earlier this year - people are happy to credit them and give them praise. So to, when Cesc is at his purring best, the plaudits just come flooding in.

But when the defence performs well, there is too often a tendency to overlook it and treat it as something which is to be expected. This is unfair. Particularly, considering the way other teams praise their defence: the situation at Man United is exactly the opposite of that at Arsenal - when Vidic and Ferdinand were excellent at the back and their back four was watertight, we never heard the end of it. Partly, that was because of the media's infatuation with Manchester United: reportedly Fergie sequesters 20% of the salary of every football journalist in the country (excluding Amy Lawrence) and this is only returned providing they give positive coverage of United. But more, it is because United fans (there's a lot of them in London...) like to talk about how good their defence is. Or at least they used to.

Now, this blog does not suggest we should all become United fans. Not for one moment. But perhaps we should make like Angelina Jolie and adopt this particular character trait. For in Gallas and Vermaelen, we have the best centre-back partnership in the League this season. Both players deserve enormous credit for this. Since being stripped of the captaincy, Gallas had become a true team player and note how he was the only player out of 22 on the pitch who didn't join in, in Saturday's 'brawl'. Vermaelen has once again proved that the problem with Arsene Wenger is not the quality he buys - every player he has bought in the last three or four years has been a success - but the quantity: no-one doubts the quality of our first-team. It is the Armand Traore's and Theo Walcott's of this world who cause sleepless nights.

Gallas and Vermaelen complement each other brilliantly though: Gallas is very mobile and has great positioning; Vermaelen is a fantastic header of the ball and is good at organising us for set pieces. Watching them against Hull - during a lull in the second half I decided the focus on them - the close relationship between the two is clear. At risk of once again sounding like a United fan, it is imperative that Arsene 'signs Gallas up' to a new contract - his importance was underlined in last year's Champions League semi-final.

But at risk of contradicting what I've already written, it is probably our full-back play which has been more impressive. This is because the praise which should be accorded to the defence, is to the defence as a unit. And while the achievement of Gallas and Vermaelen should not be denigrated, they have been a constant throughout the whole year and have got used to playing next to each other. In contrast, the full-backs have inter-changed either through injury or team selection. It is a great strength when we can inter-change Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboué, depending on whether we want a little greater attacking strength, and not be punished for it at the back. The same is true at left-back: Clichy seemed to be recovering some good form before he got injured; Gibbs was excellent for a few weeks before his untimely injury; finally, to appreciate how the opinion of Silvestre has changed one needs to go back to May: then, he was described as 'geriatric' and was essentially branded useless. Now, comments about him have changed from auto-criticism to grudging praise. Against Hull, he was fantastic.

Meanwhile, this defence is having to play with a keeper behind it who is decidedly dodgy. Viewed in this light, their achievement is all the more impressive: to have the confidence to defend sensibly when your keeper is conceding almost everything fired at him is outstanding.

Indeed, two great truths stem from the statistic about us conceding roughly 50% of the shots on target on our goal this season: firstly, that we're not letting many shots on our goal as we haven't conceded that many this season. But this point alludes to a much greater point: our defence has been outstanding to deny our opponents many opportunities.

With RVP out, our attack appears decidedly weakened. If we can put a commanding 'keeper between the sticks - be it Almunia with renewed confidence, Fabianski, or someone new - we can make our old weakness a strength. And then, this could be a pretty special season.

Keep the faith,


Anonymous said...

Very well said. A special word for me on Sagna this season and his excellent crosses from the right. Brilliant.

Alex P A Simm said...

Adam, as you are well aware, I have never and will never award you any grade higher than a 'D'.

Now go and massage your nipples.

John, John Merrick

sa said...
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