1-0 to the Arsenal. That used to be the chant used by opposition fans to highlight how dull and boring Arsenal used to be watch. Obviously, it was done to undermine the fact that Arsenal were normally winning at the time, but in years gone by, going 1-0 down to Arsenal normally meant defeat.
Fast forward a few years and that is no longer the case. The new chant directed towards Arsenal seems to be “we’ll score when we want”, as the Gunners seem to have just given up on the notion of defending.
At the weekend, Arsenal lost 2-1 at home to Man United. It was a game that Arsenal enjoyed the majority of possession and the best of the chances. Incredibly, United had only one shot on target but somehow managed to score twice. Go figure.
What was eye opening, from an Arsenal point of view; was how the Gunners responded to going behind. Despite dominating the game up until that point, Arsenal went behind through an unfortunate own goal. It was proper smash and grab stuff from United, and completely against the run of play – and they key thing to remember was; there was still over half an hour left to play. So logically, you would think that Arsenal would approach the game in much the same way they had they proceeding 56 minutes, keep doing what they were doing, and the chances would keep coming. There was no immediate need to change the game plan of philosophy.
But change it they did. Suddenly Arsenal were over committing men forward at every opportunity. Poor Nacho Monreal (already playing out of position and having an all round tough time lately) was standing there with a look of bewilderment on his face, as he left alone to try and decide which one to mark out of Rooney, Van Persie and Di Maria. It was plain to see for anyone watching, that Arsenal were suddenly very, very open to being punished on the counter attack.
I get it; you’re at home and a goal down and are desperate to get back into a game that you feel you have squandered the lion share of chances in. But approaching a comeback in this manner is a recipe for disaster. Arsenal we’re only one goal behind. One goal. There was over 30 minutes (plus another 8 for injury time) left to be played. Patience is the key. So long as your one goal down, you’re still in the game – but over commit and get done on the counter attack and its game over.
You need to stay in the game as long as possible. You hear all the great side say you need to be patient. They should have played the game in little 5-minute intervals. Say the first 5 minutes after going behind, just keep doing what you were already doing, which was leading to plenty of chances being created – don’t get a rush of adrenaline and lose the head. Then with each passing 5 minute interval, slowly commit more men forward and get more and more aggressive with a progressively higher line, and if in the last 5 minutes – even 10 if your feeling lucky – throw both the kitchen sink and caution to the wind.
Going about it the way they did was almost daring United to score a second. And even though United only got a second in the 85th minute, the opportunities were there. Arsenal got away with it when Rooney got flagged for offside when he was a couple of yards on, which would have put Rooney and RVP in a 2 on 1 situation. Had United been a touch more clinical with their passing, they could have punished Arsenal earlier than they did.
It’s not an isolated incident either, before the international break Arsenal played away to Swansea – a tough place to go. Yet despite leading 1-0 in the 74th minute, Arsenal managed to get done on the counter attack. They were winning 1-0 and continued to do what Arsenal do, and pile forward looking for a second. Possession got turned over and suddenly there was 2 Arsenal defenders facing a wave of 4 Swansea attackers. Madness.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking for a second goal, in fact, I’d encourage it. But you need to do so in a sensible fashion. Don’t over commit your full backs, let the forward 5 try and find another goal, and let the defenders worry about protecting what you already have. Retain possession and look for gaps in the defence. Use the clock to your advantage to draw out the opposition who now need a goal, and try and counter attack them instead – in other words be patient.
5 days before the Swansea game, Arsenal threw away a 3-0 lead at home to Anderlecht in the Champions League – again because there seems to be this mindset that doesn’t allow them to rationalize defensive duties. Almost like they were 3-0 up and sensing a rout, they went all gung ho and even when Anderlecht pulled one back, they thought they’d just go down the other end and restore their cushion.
The strange thing is, Arsene Wenger shouldn’t look so alien to this defending lark. He inherited one of the best defensive units football has ever seen; his double winning team in 1998 was a scary team to try and score against. Ok, so he inherited them instead of assembling them himself – but he went on to dismantle that unit and put together another pretty impressive defense that went on to be the solid foundation of his Invincible team.
Mentally fragile, soft centered and defensively naïve are clichés that have been used to describe Arsenal for nearly a decade now. The personnel on the pitch may change, but the narrative stays the same. Why has Wenger turned a blind eye to this issue for such a long time?
Last season, they looked like they may have been turning a corner; they were genuine title contenders for the majority of the season, and the won the FA Cup. This year was supposed to be a step further in the right direction, but it appears the opposite is true.
by Andrew Furlong