Monday 27 March 2017

Nasri 'ballet' gets Arsenal's fragile defence out of jail

Arsenal 2
Fulham 1

Samir Nasri scored both Arsenal's goals in their win over Fulham. Photo: Getty Images
Samir Nasri scored both Arsenal's goals in their win over Fulham. Photo: Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

Arsenal sit proudly on top of the Premier League table but, after a match in which their supporters were mesmerised and traumatised in equal measure, one burning question persists. Is it really possible to win the title with a dodgy defence?

It may seem perverse to raise that issue following such a positive weekend for the club, yet the answer is likely to be fundamental in defining this most unusual of seasons. It is a simple fact that no club has ever won the Premier League while conceding goals with the regularity of Arsenal. The statistics also prove that this is a problem which is getting worse rather than better. Arsenal's 'goals against' column has risen steadily in every season since 2007-08 and, if they continue at their current rate, they will actually end this campaign with their worst defensive record since Arsene Wenger became manager in 1996.

Even Wenger was hesitant when asked whether his defence was currently good enough to win the league. "Defensive solidity is linked to consistency and that is what we want to achieve," he said. "We want to improve our defensive record. That is needed. Can we do it? I think so, but the answer will come in May."

Fulham manager Mark Hughes was twice a winner of the Premier League with Manchester United and, on Saturday's evidence, does not believe that Arsenal have the look of champions. "I thought we've given a template for teams who play them," he said. "They are not possibly as strong as they have been in recent years (at centre-back) and at times you can expose them. If you put them under pressure sometimes they are not used to it and they have to do things they haven't done much work on."

In that area, Arsenal are clearly missing Thomas Vermaelen and, worryingly, Wenger revealed that he would not return before the New Year. Even then, there is no certainty about finding a solution to an ankle problem that has perplexed Arsenal and left their best defender sidelined since September.

Yet for all the frailties, two other factors continue to give Arsenal legitimate hope that it will be different this season. Their main rivals are dropping points with surprising regularity, while Arsenal's own attacking options are now surely the most varied in England.

On Saturday, Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh and Tomas Rosicky were so scintillating in the opening 25 minutes that they created six clear chances. In the second half, Arsenal then had the luxury of being able to bring on Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott, while Cesc Fabregas also expects to return within a week.

The form of Nasri is particularly outstanding and he was so dominant in his duel with Matthew Briggs that Hughes substituted his left-back after 29 minutes. Nasri believes that his development has been accelerated by being left out of the France World Cup squad. "I'm more mature in my football now," he said. "When I'm in front of a goalkeeper, I am more relaxed. Before, I felt too much pressure."

Arsenal's first goal was scored by Nasri who, showing both pace and poise, latched on to Arshavin's pass, shifted the ball inside Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes before shooting powerfully past Mark Schwarzer.

Jonathan Pearce, commentating for 'Match of the Day', said it was like "ballet in the penalty box". The problem, however, was that while Arsenal's attacking players did seem to move in telepathic unison, there was nothing choreographed about what was happening in their own penalty area.

dazed

This was especially evident when Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny tried to clear the same ball and succeeded only in colliding with one another. Koscielny was dazed but did not immediately go down, leaving space for Diomansy Kamara to finish confidently past Lukasz Fabianski.

The pattern of the match turned completely on this incident and both teams created winning chances. The difference, though, was the individual quality of Nasri, who dribbled past John Pantsil and Schwarzer before brilliantly turning to seal Arsenal's victory from a narrow angle. It was Nasri's 11th goal of the season and, after a similar finish last week, good enough for Rio Ferdinand to christen him 'The Angle' on his Twitter page. Ferdinand's Manchester United are up next in the league and, with Chelsea also looming, December may just tell us if this Arsenal side really can continue to thrive in such swashbuckling style. Wenger's teams have redefined conventional boundaries in the past and, if this young squad are to fulfil his prophecy of eventually dominating European football, they may need to do so again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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