In defence of our Defence
I’m optimistic about this coming season. The attacking trio of Auba, Lacazette and Pepe excites me. A midfield of Ceballos, Torreira and Özil excites me. The players coming through like Nelson and Smith-Rowe give me hope for the future, but what also makes me think we can make the top four and challenge for honours is our defence.
I understand that some may be sceptical. The pundits all say we are awful and last season we conceded far too many goals, but allow me to explain.
It started well…
Forgetting our opening two games against the rampant reigning champions and a Chelsea side who would go on to finish 3rd, the following 22 fixtures saw us go unbeaten. We racked up wins against the likes of Everton, Leicester, Sporting Lisbon and Spurs, as well as holding both Liverpool and United to draws.
Defensively we weren’t perfect but we were getting results and our defence seemed to be communicating well. Then it all went wrong. It was easy to miss at the time because the main cause of our collapse occurred 3 matches prior. When Holding went off injured against United we lost the keystone of our defence. He leads, he talks and he organises.
The collapse then started in earnest against Southampton. That was also easy to miss at the time. Bellerin picked up a knock and was substituted at half time. He would only make one more start (in our 2-0 win against Chelsea) before he ruptured ligaments and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
We went on the lose that game, conceding 3 goals for the first time since our first away match of the season against Chelsea. Southampton were playing their first game under their new manager and they had the ‘new manager boost’. That was what most people blamed for the loss, but the truth was more long term.
Our 22 game unbeaten run was over, but more importantly, we had lost two superb defenders. In Holding, we had lost our organisation and in Bellerin, we had lost our width and pace on the right hand side. Over the course of the season either Maitland-Niles or Lichtsteiner would be exposed time and again, while centrally we witnessed one mess after another.
What did Emery do?
Switching occasionally to a back four yielded mixed results. The system was brutally exposed by City and Liverpool and it didn’t fare much better in some of our away games, for example we could only draw with Brighton and we lost 1-0 to West Ham.
Therefore, a back 3 with wingbacks wasn’t working, and a back 4 wasn’t working. The only logical explanation at this point was that the problem wasn’t the system, it was the personnel. Now it’s easy to criticise the much maligned Mustafi. After all he is capable of horrendous and costly errors, however he played alongside Holding and Bellerin in our long unbeaten run, so he alone is not the problem. What necessarily follows is that Holding (and perhaps to some extent Bellerin) was the leader of that back line and without him things fell apart.
Cast your mind back to our FA Cup final win against Chelsea. He commanded the line and ruined Diego Costa.
When everyone is watching…
There’s an old saying, “when everyone is watching, no-one is watching.” In other words when several people have responsibility for a thing, there is an assumption that someone else is going to do it. Without effective communication mistakes are made, and that’s what happened too often last season. We had three at the back and they weren’t talking to each other or the keeper. Opposition players were left free or not closed down. Even with a back four the problem persisted.
There are too many examples to list, however when watching some of the goals we conceded it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than a lack of organisation and the odd mistake thrown in for good measure.
One more reason
There is another reason for our collapse at the end of the season. During the latter part of the campaign we prioritised the Europa League at the expense of the League. The fact that we could go away to Napoli and Valencia and win, yet lose at home to Palace demonstrates just how little attention the league fixtures got in that period.
In fact, in between winning away in the second leg against Napoli and our first leg against Valencia, we played 3 games and lost all 3, conceding 9 goals in the process. It was obvious that the coaching staff paid no attention to domestic games, which in hindsight cost us dearly. I believe that when that decision was made, United were resurgent under Solskjaer and Spurs had yet to have their own collapse. We were still neck and neck with Chelsea, so the route back into the Champions League would have looked more likely through the Europa League than the Premier League.
Why the hope?
Our right side has effectively gone from Maitland-Niles and Mkhitaryan to Bellerin and Pepe. There can be no denying that this is an upgrade and it’s going to give any opposition pause for thought.
With Auba on one side and Pepe on the other, opposing full backs will be more concerned getting forward, which in turn restricts how much width they can offer, and it’s easier to defend if the opposition is narrow.
Finally, it may seem simplistic but I believe that Holding will have a massive impact on our backline on his return. He’ll organise Sokratis and Mustafi (if he’s still at the club) so that we’re more coherent defensively, and with more assurances that we have cover, our full backs can get forward and cause problems in attack.
I wonder whether his return is the reason the club don’t seem as worried about bringing in a new centre back as us fans. Obviously, we do need another to replace Koscielny, however we have our £80 million defender, and we bought him in 2016 for £2 million.