Why is our defence poor? – Part 2
I wrote earlier that the inclusions of Bellerin, Tierney and Holding won’t alone change our defence.
However, why is our defence crap?
In this part, I’ll explain where I feel we’ve gone wrong. For me, it’s in stages and has regressed year on year for a while.
1 – “The Banter Era”
Things were tight from the period between 2006 and 2013. Back then, we had to be austere, and not spend big. The stadium loan (which still exists incidentally) had a tight squeeze, and CL football was critical. Despite some challenges for top four from Aston Villa and Spurs, we managed to hold them off, and get our CL football, and last until the signing of Mesut Ozil in 2013.
However, I feel our defence at this point showed the initial cracks we see today. But it was ameliorated by a few other factors:
- A good midfield balance
Denilson was mocked, and still is even though he left years ago. But he brought a good balance between himself and Fabregas, since he was a defensive Ying to Cesc’s yang. Alex Song too brought some strong box to box energy, and Flamini had emerged as a decent DM.
Rosicky, Wilshere and Ramsey further added a creative and attacking edge, and overall we had a mix of tenacity and guile in the middle of the park.
This is something we’ve lacked until the signing of Torreira and Guendouzi, but then whilst Denilson wasn’t up to the level, Wenger had the right idea here.
Our overall issue at this time was youth, and being bullied by Man United and Chelsea. Sir Alex had Wenger’s number by this point, since he knew we lacked the ballers and hardmen of the late 90s and early 2000s.
- Defensive cracks
Players like Vermaelen were not at the level – even though he managed to fit in at Barcelona of all places.
Koscielny came in – and whilst he’s now a loathed player, he did do well for us. Koscielny despite some consistent play made some bad errors, and all of our defenders were in a similar mould. Mertesacker too added strength, but Senderos, Toure and Clichy were unhealthy mixes of capability and gaffes. Eboue was in the same bracket too, though Squilacci doesn’t bear mentioning….
Compared to the Wenger “winning years”, the crop we had in the “banter era” wasn’t at the technical and mental levels of Campbell, Adams or Keown.
This is no shame – all three are club legends and amongst the best ever PL-era centre-backs. But the cracks in terms of attitude and shape were emergent back then, and they haven’t been corrected to date. Sagna was our stand-out defender in this era, and underrated in many respects (outside of Arsenal mostly).
- Comparative sides
Between 2006 to 2013, United and Chelsea were strong. But there was no top six back then. And few pretenders to the top six throne, like Everton, Wolves, and Leicester existed.
Many teams these days are tactically able – and back then things were more skewed towards the top four.
So we could get away with weaker defensive positioning, since there were fewer teams around to punish us.
If looking at the league from 2006-2013, our goals against tally wasn’t bad compared to Man United, Chelsea and others at the top.
So whilst cracks were apparent, they were not holding us back. We weren’t really going to challenge for or win the league that much in this period, in reality.
However, they formed an important first step in our current defensive malaise.
2 – Midfield pattern worsened
Let’s fast forward to 2015/16. Our midfield featured Ramsey, Wilshere, Coquelin and Cazorla.
Cazorla was coming towards the end of his Arsenal tenure, due to his well-noted injuries. And Coquelin was pretty sporadically used. Ramsey and Wilshere occasionally partnered, and the pattern overall worsened.
This midfield pattern drop had coincided with the rise of Spurs and City. And whilst United had dipped once Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Liverpool was starting to rise. Leicester also won the league that season, and thus the competition was heating up.
Coquelin was also deployed as a number 8, and pressing high up the pitch, which was leaving us exposed in the midfield. This deployment was baffling at the time, but it was something opposition sides exploited.
We finished second in 15/16, and our goals against tally was fairly good, vis a vis the rest of the league. However, it wouldn’t stay on a good keel for long, and our issues at the back intensified in the following season.
3 – Intensification
Once Xhaka came in, he was partnered with Ramsey, and whilst this enthused fans, it was a grave error.
Both of these players were progressive. Ramsey was a classic box to box midfielder, who scored goals and contributed in attacks. Xhaka was and still is a regista, and a self-described false number 10.
So who was holding? Who was there to break up attacks or be mobile? Elneny set back – but then he’s not an aggressive midfielder really.
By 16/17, the competition intensified. The Lillywhite mob had their best ever PL season, and best league finish in decades. Klopp was getting in gear at Liverpool, and even Jose at Man United was winning two and a half trophies. Chelsea won the league comfortably, and City was finding its feet in Pep’s first season.
We finished fifth that season, though only a point behind Liverpool, but the midfield balance was a major reason why we didn’t get top four.
Our defence was pretty poor, and the midfield balance saw us concede more goals compared to 15/16.
4 – Latter Wenger/Emery
17/18 saw these negative traits come to a head, and this largely cost Wenger his job.
The defensive mistakes, bad midfield balance, and more intense top-table competition saw us finish sixth and lose to eventual Europa League winners Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals.
Unai Emery has sought to correct these points, and new additions like Sokratis have helped things. But he too has been prone to errors, despite bringing a more hardened edge.
Torreira has brought a new edge in our midfield as a more bonafide DM, and Guendouzi has brought more energy in the middle.
So there is change afoot – without question. Though it may take time to correct, and patience is key.
This is just my view on how we’ve declined over the years.
It’s not to say that our defenders have been bad. Since 2006, we’ve had World Cup winners, European Championship finalists, and players who’ve scored important goals in our FA Cup triumphs. Monreal and Mertesacker amongst others scored crucial goals in our 2014, 2015 and 2017 FA Cup successes.
But the structure, coaching, positioning, and unity of our defence (and side overall) has declined.
And what compounded this was the rise of others – including a certain club that has finished above us of late but hasn’t won anything to prove their “power shift”.
It’s a long haul, but we know what we need to do to get back.
Let’s trust that the trough will turn into a peak soon enough.