Up-and-down Arsenal remain uncertain at the back

“Of course, we cannot afford to lose another game. As players, as a club playing for the title, we don’t want to lose a single game. But we have lost, the defeat is there. We cannot change that. We just have to keep on going, try to be focused a little better and achieve things. Now the title becomes a bit difficult, as we have lost the second game of the season. I think losing here is going to be the best warning we can be given. We can’t think we are untouchable.” – Emmanuel Adebayor after Arsenal’s defeat to Fulham.

And then the Gunners went ahead and lost to Hull, pushing Arsene Wenger to the brink of physical sickness.

There was a lot of good publicity following Arsene’s babes thrashing of Sheffield United in the Carling Cup and then all the hard work was undone by the Tigers victory at the Grove. Then to top it off, after having a few nervy moments at the outset against Porto in the Champions League, the Gunners once again hit their stride knocking an impressive four goals past the former champions.

Arguably, the only difference in Arsenal’s last three games (and many, many more in the past few seasons) has been the result only. The manner of the performance always stays the same. The only reason why Hull won at the Grove was because Giovanni hit a screamer, which he is unlikely to do too many more times this season, followed by the Gunners conceding a header from a corner, which has been a long term staple of their well-known defensive problems. Everyone has highlighted the weaknesses in Wenger’s team for some time now, and we are likely to be doing so for a considerable time to come.

According to Wenger, the problems at the back come from a lack of height, leading some so-called commentators to wonder whether the loss of Philip Senderos is now being felt more gravely than anticipated. But the goals which Arsenal have conceded, particularly against Fulham and Hull, had nothing to do which the size of the backline, but rather it had everything to do with the quality of marking on show.

It doesn’t matter how tall or short you are, if you cannot mark your opposition tightly and deny them free space in the box, you’ll get punished. Provided the defenders are hanging off the coattails of their marked opposition, and they remain tight to their marks when the corner is being taken, the attackers will struggle to get a header on target even if they do outsize their marker. Unfortunately for William Gallas, against both Brede Hangeland and Daniel Cousin, he was the party at fault for failing to heed to these basic rules of defending.

The concern around Gallas is that he failed to learn his lesson after his experience at Craven Cottage. Gallas – with the pace, power and back-catalogue of last ditch tackles – is without doubt a quality defender. But equally, these repeated mistakes are basic errors – it’s about upper body-strength, aggression and getting your arm across your forward – and as the captain, Gallas is responsible for leading by example. As the leader of the team, diligence in improving on mistakes must be at the core foundations of his duties. Combined with all the fallout from his behaviour at St. Andrews last season, questions must surely be asked for how long the Frenchman can hold on to his privileged position in the team, with Cesc Fabregas waiting patiently in the wings.

But the blame should not be only placed on Gallas. Manuel Almunia is clearly not a good enough goalkeeper to win trophies. Petr Cech, Edwin van der Sar and Pepe Reina are in a different league to the Spaniard. Bar last season’s North London derby at the Emirates, Almunia does not have one stand-out game for the Gunners and compared to former Arsenal greats, Bob Wilson and David Seaman, the Spaniard is found badly wanting, especially as he is one of the veterans of the current side.

It’s easy to nit-pick, and sometimes the reality is that scorelines are misleading. For all the wonders and joy neutrals got from seeing Hull win at the Emirates, the fact remains that Arsenal could and should have been several goals to the good before Phil Brown’s team even had the opportunity to think about mounting a comeback. We could easily have been talking about a 5-2 win for the Gunners. If Arsenal would only take half their chances in every game they played they’d be winning at a cantor week in and week out.

So the question remains, with this current state of flux where Arsenal can cream an opposition in one game, then lose embarrassingly to an inferior team in the next match at home, and then return in the Champions League to thump a top level team yet again, for how much longer can Arsenal stay in the impasse of transition? For how much longer can they play without consistency? What happened to “one-nil to the Arsenal?”

Arsenal went to Bolton and Blackburn in their last two away games and scored seven goals. It’s hardly panic time yet. But after going one-nil up over Hull, it is doubtful whether Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool would allow their opposition to get back in the game. Arsenal, for several years now, have always given teams chances at the back, and after too-many barren seasons, surely it’s time for a change in fortunes.

There is a dissenting opinion which leaves Arsenal’s defensive insecurities straight at the manager’s door. The argument goes as follows. When the unknown professor took the top job at Highbury 12 years ago, Wenger was blessed to inherit one of the most solid backlines in English football history. As a result, Wenger’s lack of tactical awareness as a defensive coach was covered over, and thanks to his grueling and fresh take on health and fitness, Wenger was able to eek every drop of life out of his stalwarts at the back, all the way up until the time of the “Invincibles” when Martin Keown was still a fairly regular starter alongside Toure or Campbell at the heart of the defence.

During these years, not only was Wenger benefitting from a backline which fell into his lap, but he also showed his talents in the transfer market in strengthening his defence, bringing in the likes of Patrick Vieira, and more recently Gilberto and Flamini, to sit and offer the extra line of protection for his back four. Now all of that has gone, and no one has adequately stepped up to plug the defensive midfield hole in the starting line-up, and the gaps are beginning to be exposed.

Wenger is under a little bit of pressure. Not Juande Ramos levels of pressure whereby the manager is walking a tightrope on a daily basis, but pressure in the sense that everyone knows that Arsenal can do better but they are letting themselves down. Many point to the next generation to come through the ranks for inspiration, but there is a sense that for two or three years now we have all been waiting for the Carling Cup babes to make it on the big stage, and we are still waiting. For the here and now Arsenal are not winning trophies and they do not look like they are going to change that this season either.

Has Wenger taken Arsenal as far as he can? Or alternatively, does Wenger rate his team higher than he actually should?

Perhaps the answer is neither. Perhaps the answer is that Arsenal has stayed the same while the Premier League and the teams around them have pushed on.

Arsenal remain devoted to their total-football, slick passing, and easy on the eye take on the beautiful game. And they perform that brand of football arguably better than anyone else domestically or abroad. Yet, while such an approach is guaranteed to win the praises of pundits and football lovers alike, it is not a guarantee to always win football matches.

From Watford to Wimbeldon and Bolton to Stoke, the physical side of football has also been proven to bare fruits at the highest level, and Arsenal often seem to struggle with the more aggressive and gritty side of the game. Arsenal, in all liklihood, will persist with their beautiful style of football. In turn, another barren season could very well be in the offing.