If Arsenal was a human being, we’d say it was sick.
We’d say it had a chronic illness, extending for years.
But what is this illness? To treat it, we need to know the diagnosis, before we can get to prognosis or cure.
I could write many thousands of words on this – but here I’ll be brief.
In this first part, I’ll give an initial overview of my views on what caused us to be borderline relegation fodder.
And yes – THE Arsenal is borderline relegation fodder. A club with thirteen league titles. Thirty major trophies. One of the best stadiums and training grounds on Earth. One of the best-supported clubs on Earth. And a club with many records, achievements, distinctions, and firsts in the footballing world.
But then the league table, nor the pyramid system, care about how big a club is. If we are not careful, then we could be playing second-tier football for the first time since before WWI.
It’s not hyperbole to cite at all. And it’s ignorant to ignore this probability, even if some think it’s remote.
So how did we go from title winners to top-four challengers, FA Cup winners, Europa League finalists, and borderline relegation fodder in the last several seasons?
No defensive culture
Look at the George Graham era. This was built on a sound defence. The famous back four, plus David Seaman, John Lukic, Martin Keown, and Andy Linighan, were all drilled and schooled in the arts of defending. And not just defensive skills, but structure. Graham was an expert at building a structure, and this is why we had the successes in 1989 and 1991 as champions of England. The 1994 Cup-Winners Cup win was rooted in a sound defence. Parma, at the time a top side with Asprilla, Brolin, and Zola, battered us. But then we held out due to resoluteness drilled over many years.
To use more recent examples, Atletico Madrid under Simeone has had success in a similar mold. Liverpool saw van Dijk as the lynchpin of their defensive enhancements. Around 15/16 and 16/17, Liverpool was a comedy defensively. Now, they are European Champions and could be English Champions with this foundation installed.
Teams these days just run through our midfield at will – and it’s an open fact that our midfield/defensive structures are non-existent.
So until we can get a defensive culture back at the club, then we’re in trouble.
This is something that was here under the latter part of Arsene Wenger. And Emery naturally couldn’t resolve this.
Sokratis was good last season. But this season has been weak. And Luiz – enough said of him, the better. I genuinely don’t see how he won the trophies he did at Chelsea – including our debasement in Baku of course. I genuinely think that the gorillas he saw in Rwanda taught him how to defend. He does defend like an ape after all…..
OK, that may be a bit strong. But Sokratis and Luiz are way too error-prone and lack the psychological discipline to be top-level defenders. Luiz, in fairness, had strong defenders and an established structure around him at Chelsea. But many Chelsea fans said that he was error-prone, and his faults have been intensified at Arsenal.
Part of this defensive culture is not just working on the shape on the training ground – it’s about having defenders with the mentality to concentrate and be rigid. All defenders make errors, but the best players in any era are those with both the mentality and technical skills. We have some of the latter, but not the former. And we will continue to concede 50 goals a season, or more until strong defending is a cultural norm at our football club.
The use of Torreira as a pseudo-number 10 and Xhaka’s poor tracking contribute to this issue too. Until we get a sound midfield configuration, like Liverpool has, then we won’t be in the running for much.
A soft touch
Arsenal as a side is transparent. People know how to play against us – it’s about running at our defence, exposing our midfield, and utilising the channels since we don’t track our runners.
Brighton deservedly beat us – largely since they isolated our midfield weaknesses.
Villa almost beat us due to the same.
Spurs were 2-0 nil up at one stage due to this – when Poch was their manager.
And Frankfurt beat us for the same reason.
And let’s not talk of our away form. Our issues are intensified there, and it seems our home form is now under the same negativity.
It used to be that sides used to rough us up or park the bus to defeat us. About 5-10 years ago, it was how Arsenal were “sons-in-law” – nice guys who were meek and mellow. We were a highly technical side who didn’t like it up ’em. Now, we’re seen as a soft touch. Brighton warranted their win – without a doubt. But man for man, we’re better than them, and it took a tactical plan from Graham Potter who I’m sure didn’t take much time to analyse our structural deficits.
We’re a team without shape and form, and we’re just a runt that can be pushed aside at ease.
The Brighton defeat highlighted how many teams this season have played us – we don’t track runners and have no real structure.
Freddie identified this to be fair, in some recent press conferences.
But then talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words.
If we’re to stop being a soft-touch, then we need to eradicate our soft-touch persona.
Gary Neville, the former Man United full-back, current Sky Sports pundit, and former Valencia manager, said lately that our defenders are uncoachable.
This raised some ire in some quarters of our fanbase.
But then he’s right. He may have been a crappy manager, though he was a great defender himself and a good pundit now. And he has been on point concerning Arsenal on the pitch lately. Most of his punditry career has been highlighting (correctly) Arsenal’s flaws under Wenger and then Emery. And he’s not the only one on Sky – Souness was laughing (literally) in the post-match analysis of our Watford draw. Carragher has said similar to them, as even has Redknapp. Our own Big Tone, in the post-match Leicester City analysis, said that our off the ball structure was poor. All of them are right, and have been for years. They probably, secretly, get tired of analysing us since they know the same talk is required.
And if some of our players are uncoachable, then what does this mean? Some have been here under Wenger, Emery, and now caretaker Freddie, and still make the same foolish errors.
If we assume that Wenger (to whichever limited degree), Emery, and now Freddie, are coaching them in defensive structure, then it’s not unreasonable to think that the players cannot pick up new skills.
There are always levels for players. There is a reason why some pro footballers only stay in the Championship. Or start in the PL, but descend to the Championship, League 1, League 2 or even the non-leagues.
In short, some players aren’t that good.
There is a limit to how much they can improve, and their innate skills and abilities.
And let’s be honest here – how many defenders do we have that could get into the top English or European sides? Bellerin, Tierney, and Saliba could. Luiz was on a top side at Chelsea, granted. But he had a good structure (Terry and Cahill) supporting him. Sokratis was at Dortmund, a big German club no doubt. But he may have reached his level and cannot improve further. Holding and Chambers aren’t so young anymore, and whether they can reach their potential is moot. Kolasinac may have impressed in Germany, but in his time at Arsenal has been mixed at very best. And Mustafi? Yes, he did reasonably well at Valencia, which is a big club in a top league. Yet despite being in the 2014 WC winning side (with Ozil) he has not performed with any consistency at Arsenal. We all know he’s committed numerous prominent gaffes that have cost us at key times.
We know that we have many error-prone defenders – but then if they are being coached, it’s either they’re not following instructions or instructions aren’t being given.
Either way, the capacity of the defenders to improve has to be questioned.
Like the above two points, this commenced under Wenger, and Emery did little to correct this.
It’s not a stretch to say that the best sides have the best players. And the best players have the elite mentality, technicality, and desire.
We need to get to that level – which we’re far away from.
In part 2, I’ll mention recruitment, managers (including Freddie) and KSE’s role in our woes.
MarbleHallsTV is an Arsenal social media account on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. Been a Gooner since the 90s, inspired by Ian Wright, then Bergkamp, Vieira, Henry, Pires, Campbell, Rosicky, Koscielny, Ozil and Sanchez. A digital marketer/entrpreneur by profession, born in UK living in the Americas now.