Arsenal is a poor defensive team masquerading as one with a shoddy back four.
It is obvious to the spectator’s eye when a team is not assured in their defending. However, what is not obvious is who is lies at the heart of this unsure nature; is it solely the defense, or is there more to the problem? In Arsenal’s case, there is far more.
Ability-wise, is there a better centre-back trio in England than Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny? It is arguable, but they are near the top; I stress the term ‘ability-wise’, because in practise they are far from the finished product. There is validity in claims that these three would flourish in a unit that is defensively efficient.
Arsenal lack proficiency in an area of defending that is not often touched upon, but is executed to perfection by the top clubs: defensive transition.
The tracking back as a team when possession is lost is so crucial in modern football, but seems to be neglected by Arsene Wenger (perhaps to the angst of Steve Bould).
The Gunners were given a lesson in defensive transition against Bayern Munich in the first leg of their round of 16 tie.
Bayern were caught in possession after a long spell of passes, and Arsenal attempted to break through Cazorla. A ball was played through to Theo Walcott, who found himself one-on-one against Daniel Van Buyten, but with six on-rushing Bayern players streaming back either side of him.
Soon enough, Bayern had all but two outfield players in and around their own penalty area. Arsenal was thwarted; Bayern’s defensive transition too quick – discipline exemplified.
Contrast this passage of play with The Gunners concession to Tottenham in the most recent installment of the North London Derby. Wilshere lost the ball in Tottenham’s half, allowing Scott Parker to dart through a vacated midfield, one that was bereft of any Arsenal midfield trackers.
Arteta raced back, but was out of position horizontally, forcing Mertesacker to step up and leave a gaping hole in behind for the ball to be played to Aaron Lennon.
A Tottenham move which could well have been obstructed by a swift defensive transition from Arsenal’s midfielders and wide forwards.
Arsenal’s midfielders lacked the impetus to rally back towards their goal, to alleviate the pressure on their defenders by sheer weight of numbers.
Some possession-based sides have chosen to employ gegenpressing instead of the quick switch to defense, whereby players press instantly following the concession of the ball in opposition territory. This pressures the opposition into an errant pass, resulting in a regaining of possession in opposition territory. Passing through this initial wave of pressing, however, enables an opposition to dissect a stranded backline, as their midfield has been made redundant.
Therein lies the problem with gegenpressing, in that a team must carry it out with total aptitude in order to ensure a regaining of the ball.
Arsenal, with the immobile Giroud at centre forward, does not have the required players to achieve an effective high press.
The absence of a genuine holding midfielder – Arteta has been thrust into an ersatz anchoring role – has certainly contributed to Arsenal’s inability to transit quickly, but it cannot be treated as an individual responsibility; opposition teams are becoming more brutal on the counter, it is imperative that teams cover defensively as a unit.
Until Wenger implements a quick defensive transition – something that surely requires added fitness – his back four will remain in a state of disarray – not because they aren’t adept, rather because they aren’t being protected well enough.