Case for the defence

by & filed under News Review.

This is the monthly post from Jonathan Blaustein. Make sure you follow him @JblauPhoto

I’m laying in bed on Christmas Eve, hiding from my kids.

The holidays have just begun, and I’ll be on stay-at-home-Dad-duty for the next 15 days, so I’ve got to catch the quiet when I can.

Outside my window, snow covers the tops of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the dead, brown grass in my pasture looks like something from Vincent Van Gogh’s last painting. (I announced last night that the raven was my current spirit animal. I suppose everyone’s entitled to a mid-life Goth phase.)

It’s winter, and Unai Emery was appointed in May. That means we have half a year to judge him on, and the state of the Arsenal rebuild in general.

In my last two columns, perhaps I’ve gone light on the analysis and heavy on the humor. Everyone’s always ready to have a laugh, but this month, I decided it was time to dig into what I’m actually seeing, in bigger picture terms.

Why now? Why Christmas?

Well, yesterday was the 21 year anniversary from the day I met my wife in a coffee shop here in Taos. (It’s still there, and in business, but has changed names and hands 5 times since.)

It got me thinking, we’ve been together since we were 23 years old, and now we’re 44. We have two children, one who’s soon to be a teenager.

It’s the entirety of my adult life.

And still, it’s not as long as Arsene Wenger was in charge at Arsenal.

Arsene’s methods won him titles, fans and acolytes over his term, and though it was before my time as a fan, by all accounts he was once incisively sharp.

I knew him in the 2011-18 phase, when like an old boxer, he could still summon the random haymaker to win a big game, (Bayern, Manchester City away) or shoot a tight window to take home a trophy, (3 FA Cups,) but it was clear the ruthless hunger to win it all had left his belly.

Because if he’d still had it, still been willing to look hard at himself in the mirror and change, he’d have put more work, innovation and resources into the defensive part of the game.

And he just couldn’t be bothered.

In my time as a fan, I watched one genuinely competent, really high level Center Back pairing, and that was Koscielny and Mertesacker, in the one year plus that they were both healthy.

That’s it.

From the decline of Thomas Vermaelan to the dim-bulb that was Gabriel, there was not much quality back there, beyond the French-German pairing.

Fullbacks would play high up the pitch, and few were defensively sound, save Nacho Monreal. (Who’s now succumbing to Father Time.)

What I’m saying is, neither the philosophy nor the players were particularly attuned to defensively sound football.

And it went on like that for years.

Unai Emery inherited Wenger’s squad, and the only real addition has been Sokratis, who has clearly been our best central defender by a fair margin. (Rob Holding being #2, before he got hurt.)

As a rebuilding parable, I should say that I’m a life-long fan of the (now) Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are in Season 3 of a full-blown re-build, and are finally on the way up, winning games and getting attention. They have the right kind of athletic slashers and sweet shooters that are crucial in today’s NBA, in particular for their ability to play defence. (3 and D)

Two years ago, I read a quote by Coach Kenny Atkinson that said that while he’d love for his team’s defense to be better, it was impossible as he didn’t have any good defensive players.

No excuses. He just said, we’ll be better on defence once we churn over the roster our way.

They did. And now the Nets can play defence.

So what has Arsenal’s obvious problem been under Unai Emery? And why did we blow that game to bogey-team Southampton? (Another regular occurrence in my time as a fan.)

Defence.

If you accept that Emery knew he was dealt a bad hand, and is doing the best he can until reinforcements arrive, it makes his preferred systems and choice of players a bit more obvious in hindsight.

If you know your defence is crap, and you want to win games and succeed in your first year, then you employ systems that make the entire team defend from front to back.

You utilize pressing, or in our case, a lot of counter-pressing.

You want forwards who are athletic, hardworking, and will track back and tackle.

Has he used players like that?

Of course he has.

Danny Welbeck when he was available, and Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan throughout the season.

Who didn’t make the cut?

Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, who don’t play defence. (Or in Ramsey’s case, haven’t in 5 years.)

If you have a shitty defence, and need to employ team defence, how can you include players like Ozil and Ramsey, who either get pushed off the ball and don’t win it back easily or often, or are so obsessed with getting forward that they forget to track back consistently?

In midfield, you’d want to have steel to balance the precarious backline.

And what have we seen? The emergence of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira.

Why does everyone love them? Because for all their youth, energy and skill, they’re both obviously tough-as-nails.

Where does Granit Xhaka come into this equation?

Well, let’s say that Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are the two model wingers so far this year.

They provide graft, pressing, energy, good pre-assists, and the very occasional piece of end-product.

But there is little clinicality, and even worse, no genuine master-level creativity, a la Ozil or occasionally Ramsey, with his flicks and headed assists. (Let’s put a player who offers both aspects of the game on our shopping list, right fellas?)

Xhaka, for all his mistakes and slowness, is a regista-style pass master, and he’s big and tough to boot. So Xhaka’s passing in general, and long-passing in particular allows for another method of advancing the ball quickly to the strikers.

That’s right, the strikers.

I don’t care if you call them forwards, center forwards, strikers, or number 9’s, Arsenal have two goal scorers in good and great form in Alexander Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Not only are they clinical match-winners, (as I’ve written previously,) but they are also willing to press, and in Lacazette’s case, harry like a bastard. (All props to PEA, he does the work too, but I might include Lacazette on our growing bastard list.)

Right, the bastard list.

That’s another thing I’d do, if I were Unai Emery, and I knew my defence was crap. (Athletically, technically, etc.) I’d bring in a bunch of bastards to help toughen up the team, stave off physical beatings, and protect my offensive players since we’ll need them to outscore our opponents.

We all saw the Burnley game, and over the course of the season, it’s been well-documented that Emery has removed the pushover label from the Arsenal official uniform.

2018-9 Bastard List: Lichtsteiner Sokratis Holding Torreira Guendouzi Xhaka Lacazette The spent husk of Laurent Koscielny Kolasinac

That last name, the Bosnian Tank, brings me to my final point about Emery’s strategy in his first six months: make use of a 3-man back line more often that we might have expected.

The injury bug hasn’t been kind of late, and it has hit the center backs worst of all, if you consider the general unavailability of Kos, Mavrapanos, and now Holding for big chunks of time.

Given that Nacho has also been crocked, (and now Hector,) that has forced Kolasinac into a larger role than he’s had perhaps his entire Arsenal career. And everyone knows he’s a better attacking wingback than he is a defending fullback.

So to empower/develop him, and help him become an important part of the Emery machine, (he’s been gangbusters lately,) we’ve seen some funky-ass combinations of 3 non-natural CBs, including the backlines at Southampton and Burnley.

Oh yeah, I’d have one last trick up my sleeve: bring in a sweeper keeper. Bernd Leno.

So there you have it. My long-winded analysis of how we got here, when HERE is level on points with Chelsea for 4th on Christmas Eve, and undefeated in the Europa League qualifying round.

As I wrote in August, making the Top 4 AND winning the Europa League will be a tough ask. It’s still possible, which is exciting, but I wouldn’t change my prediction that it’s a long shot.

Right now, I’d say the question is, can we beat Chelsea either in a Europa League Final, in the race for fourth place?

Can we do one or the other?

And to that question, I’d say yes. It’s certainly possible. We might have a direct path to the Champions League this season.

But then again, most rebuilds take years, not months. Just ask my fellow NY Giants fans, who just saw that going from 3 wins to 5 wins, instead of worst to first, is the normal way of things.

We may have lost our unbeaten streak, and will probably lose in Liverpool next weekend. (I’m not worried about Brighton.)

With our current defensive lineup, I don’t think it’s realistic to win at their place. Top defenders, like what they have in Virgil Van Dijk, have size, athletic ability, technical skill, and toughness.

Arsenal have Shkodran Mustafi.

So for now, I say, Trust the Process. Let’s see where this season ends up, and give the Swen/Raul/Unai team a few transfer windows before we see the true incarnation of Emeryball.

I wish you guys a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and I’ll see you again in January.

  1. I forgot to make fun of Jose Mourinho, now that he’s been sacked. RIP Jose. Hope you have fun managing in Scotland. I hear the winters are brutal up there.

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190 Responses to “Case for the defence”

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  1. WengerEagle

    Have to be honest, think that Liverpool will beat us.

    They have so much momentum behind them, we’re in a bit of a lull and confidence isn’t exactly sky-high. Add into the equation that it’s at Anfield a place where we’ve been battered a good few times in recent seasons and they will be right up for it.

    Would be very happy with a draw and a strong performance, can’t see us largely containing them for 90 mins though.

  2. WengerEagle

    You can take only one player from our previous sides for the current one, who do you take and why?

    Think that I’d go for Hleb, Rosicky if not for the fact that his legs were panes of glass.

  3. jwl

    Daily Mirror – Arsenal are on the verge of completing an £18million deal to sign Ever Banega, according to reports from Spain.

    The Sevilla midfielder’s agent is believed to be in London ready to thrash out a deal to reunite his client with his former boss Unai Emery.

  4. Paulinho

    Would love Hleb, put him behind Laca-Auba and enjoy.

    Rosicky is close behind though and you could argue that he was better balanced of the two in terms of goal threat. Rosicky when fit was a consistent scoring threat as well as being great at surging from deep and linking play. Hleb was better against the press though, Rozza could go missing at times against it (like he did at Anfield in 07/08 when Hleb was MOM).

  5. Samesong

    WE

    It be one those moments Auba has a chance to make it 1-0 and misses and the salah scores and they go on a rampage.

  6. Samesong

    Our biggest Achilles tomorrow will be playing it out from the back. Speed merchants be forcing them mistakes. Nervy start.

  7. bennydevito

    Samesong; that’s what worries me; we’re not going to get many chances against Liverpool and can’t afford for Aubameyang to miss so many chances. What do people reckon the line up will be?

  8. gambon

    Hleb was a terrible player.

    Absolute hipster player that delivered almost nothing but looked good while doing it.

    2.5 goals per season from attacking midfield. A decent full back can match that.

    Got found out very quickly after leaving Arsenal.

  9. WengerEagle

    Yeah prefer Rosicky’s all-round threat that he carries, we’re so stupidly reliant on Auba and Laca for goals so a fit Rosicky could get you double figures ish I reckon with a full season of football, would have easily broken that mark in 07/08 were it not for the injury.

    Hleb was brilliant besides his allergy to shoot the ball,a pretty significant flaw though. Threatened many a television set watching Hleb bitch out of pulling the trigger over the years.

  10. Marko

    Technically true he didn’t get nearly enough goals and assists for his talent. His ball retention was on point though

  11. Paulinho

    Hleb was the reason Sagna got 11 assists that season. When Hleb left so did Sagna’s relevance is an attacking threat. No surprise Bacary put him in his all all time XI players played with.

  12. Marko

    Another thing I noticed about Hleb is yeah he was great with the auld cut backs but he was literally incapable of crossing the ball. Could not get the ball off the ground and in the air

  13. Paulinho

    WE – Unlike Iwobi he could actually strike it pretty well with both feet so even more infuriating. Match at Old Trafford in 07/08 summed it up though: Brilliant but ultimately mugged by a team full of goal scorers.

  14. WengerEagle

    Samesong

    Have far more faith in Auba than I did Giroud but he’s not adverse to spurning sitters in big matches himself, still can’t believe that he missed so many clear-cut tap-ins at Stamford Bridge in particular.

    The worst Anfield memory BY FAR was the 5-1 demolition job in 2014, they literally could have scored 10 plus if they really wanted to but complacency got in the way.

    4-0 up after 19 mins and that was factoring in they missed a couple of great chances, Toure an open net from yards out point blank. Suarez also nearly scored a top 10 PL goal of all time with that volley that smashed the post.

    He didn’t even get on the scorsheet that day would you believe. Involved in everything though.

  15. WengerEagle

    Paulinho

    Ozil suffers from the same reticence in front of goal, guy never shoots even though he’s technically a sound striker of the ball.

    Think that ultimately it’s a psychological shortcoming,deference to the extreme masqueraded as being ‘unselfish’ or ‘efficient’ when in reality, its more often than not a cop-out.

    Looking for a pass when it’s not on isn’t being efficient and how many times has that been the case with Hleb or Ozil?

  16. Paulinho

    WE – Yeah both were/are guilty of it. Always had more time for Hleb though because he would dribble through congestion whereas Ozil skirts around it. Didn’t mind him passing it square because he had opened up the game with his dribbling. He still did it way too often though when as you said, it’s better for the team to actually shoot.

    Always thought Ramsey had a great balance in that respect.

  17. WengerEagle

    Paulinho

    I’ve always had time for Ramsey, often wonder how high his ceiling could have been were it not for that thundercunt Shawcross.

    Credit to him how he’s gone on to be a very good player as we’ve seen with the likes of Eduardo, Alan Smith, Cisse, Luke Shaw how it can be the end of the road for a player at a certain level.

    Still remember his early days though where he was a noticeably quicker runner.

  18. Paulinho

    WE – Yep, injury definitely took that edge away.

    He used to be able to dribble in a two-footed way as well, use the outside of his left foot at times to evade a player. Became a bit more conventional after injury and relied on industry a bit more; lost that flicker of ingenuity, and whenever it reappeared he would get injured again and it was back to square one.

  19. Tony

    It’s been reported in the DM that we offered £35 million for Pulisic whereas Liverpool has bid £45 million.

    Make of that what you will!

  20. Guns of SF

    Now im reading that Ozil out with a knee injury suffered on Thurs.
    Weird. but not unusual
    Anyhow. there is not other way but for him to leave in Jan. This is too much.
    I have a strong feeling 2 AM will come in Jan.

  21. Guns of SF

    Pulisic would pick Liverpool over us. Why wouldn’t he?
    We need to find a young gem. If Banega is coming in, then we need the other to be young. Auouar or someone in the mold.
    Pulisic is talented but he has been relegated to a sub with Dortmund… lets see how he pans out.

  22. Guns of SF

    Why would he chose us over Pool? They have CL, a great team, likely to win the league…
    We are going to sell him a dream- from a 5th place team.
    Its a no brainer. I actually think if we were sitting in 4th or 3rd, attracting a strong recruit in Jan would be easier.

    We need youth who can impact us now. I mean Banega might be a revelation, and I hope he is. I rate him but we need impact players now.

    Ramsey is gone hopefully in Jan so we can recoup something… Ozil hopefully the same. If that is the case…. around 40M can go to a player or 2

  23. Guns of SF

    I do think we should keep Laca. I personally think he offers us much movement and fight in the final third. Auba and him work well. We can make this work in a 3-5-2 if we get a proper AM. that would make a real difference with both of them and we can play them together. Perhaps Banega will be put in this spot?

    If we get true winger then we can revert back to a new formation

    Hard to say… but I do hope that Ramsey leaves in Jan. I will have much respect for him… Kinda like when Olly left allowing Auba to come in. Bittersweet although Auba blows him away

    I want to fast forward to Jan already and see what we get.

  24. Emiratesstroller

    I have been one of the few supporters of Ozil who post on Le Grove. This is in part because I see beyond his wage packet and look at his creativity and talent.

    Unfortunately it has been clear this season that the player has lost both motivation and performance and has become in effect a “luxury” we can no longer afford.

    The so-called illnesses and injuries suggest to me that Ozil is either a hypochondriac or just not want to play. Frankly the “variety” of reasons for
    his absence suggest one or other reason.

    What is clear is that Arsenal do not have on their books an alternative. Ramsey is on way out of club and frankly neither Mkhitaryan or Guendouzi are adequate replacements. Both are in my opinion squad and not starting eleven players.

    Aubameyang and Lacazette need decent service not just from wing play but
    from a player of Ozil’s craft but with a more intensive energy level and reliability. The question is will Banega from Seville be that solution?

  25. Guns of sf

    Emirates

    Ozil might have depression or something mentally related you are right. May be some sort of phobia or anxiety? Who knows but if that is the case he needs help and treatment. Bench him until he recovers but if this is just plain bad attitude and lack of adapting to a new coach then send him out ASAP. I think that it’s really perplexing .

    I mean press, defend and play with fight and energy? That is all that is asked but that is not working! Baffling

  26. Emiratesstroller

    Apart from genuine craft in midfield the major worry has been our defence.
    Let’s be honest the absences through injury may be one problem, but it is the
    lack of quality as well.

    The only player at the club who might make the starting lineup of a top 4 EPL
    team is Bellerin and that is more for his offensive play than his defensive solidity.

    None of our Centre Backs would rank in the top 30 players for the position in
    global football. The lack of proper investment in those positions has been a
    longterm problem.

    Players like Holding and Mavropanos may be long term prospects, but neither
    would make the bench at any other major EPL Club let alone play in starting X1.

    This is a problem that the club needs to solve urgently if they wish to qualify
    for CL or EPL Title. The gulf in this department between us and the other top
    4 teams is massive.

  27. Guns of sf

    Yes lots of issues certainly with the defense

    I’m of the kind that adding better attackers and a winger will alleviate the need for our defenders to bomb forward as much as they do. Chelsea have Pedro and wilian and attacks happen from all over the field with hazard in the middle

    Our fullbacks provide attacking width but that leads to our center backs being out under pressure from long balls or pact strikers

  28. Guns of sf

    Ditto Liverpool they have world class attackers on both wings and center it makes things easier for the defense to be well …. defenders

  29. Tony

    All critiscism and jokes aside I’ve thought for a long time that Ozil has some form of mental condition.

    If this is the case shouldn’t we be seeking insurance compensation for his salary in the same way as if he was injured.

    Maybe we’re not acknowledging any such condition in an effort to sell Ozil, but if no ffers are forthcoming then we should put him on our not-fit-to-play list and get compensation for the insurance company.

    Tricky one to prove or disprove but then again so are his phamtom knee and back injuries that come at very regular opportune game times.

  30. kc

    Our highest paid player is too scared to play in big matches. This is the only conclusion that makes sense to me. Just get him out of here asap. I’d be fine with paying half his salary just to be rid.

  31. Guns of sf

    How is ozil even marketable at this juncture! Other teams know what’s up and i can only assume they will try an get him on the cheap as they know he doesn’t feature in our plans and is a headache.

    I expect some low offers for him but we need to take what we can now. No point in the ozil drama going until end of season

  32. Dissenter

    Emirates
    You’ll change your mind about Ozil on New Year’s Day after he posts three assists against Fulham.
    That’s how you roll.

  33. qna

    Think Saul is going about this rebuild quite methodically. He needs 3 or 4 transfer windows to get this squad to anywhere reasonable levels.

    I think this Jan will depend on opportunities rather than a plan to go out and fix certain areas. That will happen next summer. For now we have to wait and see if any decent offers come in for players that we plan on moving on anyway and also any players that are available for a reasonable fee.

    I don’t expect any truth about Ever Benaga. He doesn’t fit the age profile of the list changes that are in front of us.

    Rabiot is going to move in Jan and ideally we get that done for the cost of Ramsey.

    I really can’t see anyone interested in Ozil. We will have to pay to move him on. Terrible, terrible decision to give him this ridiculous contract he is on. Pure stupidity.

  34. HillWood

    How many £ millions does the academy cost
    Does it represent value for money
    Or would the money be better spent buying ready-made players