Tuesday 22 May 2018

Colander-like defence puts hole in Wenger's title theories

Arsenal will never be challengers until they sort their rear guard

Arsenal's Petr Cech with Liverpool's Simon Mignolet at full time
Arsenal's Petr Cech with Liverpool's Simon Mignolet at full time

Jim White

If, as their manager insists they are, this is an Arsenal side equipped to challenge this season then, for the second successive home fixture, they were doing a very good impression of a team a long way short.

Thin at the back, over-elaborate in front of goal, unable or unwilling to undertake important defensive functions in midfield, this was a vivid demonstration of what has driven their supporters to distraction over the past five seasons. Same old Arsenal, always frustrating.

Yet, Arsene Wenger tells us he has the squad to make a proper tilt at the title. Before kick-off here he let it be known that as far as attacking resources go, he will be doing no business in what remains of the transfer window. "On the striking force, we have players," he wrote in his programme notes.

There certainly won't be any bid for Karim Benzema. The Frenchman tweeted yesterday that "Real Madrid is my home", a residence made all the more comfortable, presumably, after using hints of Arsenal interest to procure himself a swollen new contract.

But if Wenger believes that he can at last stop the pretence that he possesses a side full of character and instead actually field one, there can be few gathered in the Emirates last night, their palms dampened, their throats dry, their blood pressure touching thermo-nuclear levels, who will agree.

Never mind attacking additions, what Arsenal urgently need is someone to shore things up at the other end, someone to make life a little less fraught and panic-stricken. How this game made it to 90 minutes without a goal was the new Arsenal Stadium Mystery. The score could have been three all within the opening quarter hour. Not through attacking prowess, not through the application of twinkle-toed trickery, but through scrambling misdirected passes, attempts to trap the ball bouncing off the shin and failure to track runners. That it remained scoreless was largely thanks to the woodwork, a myopic linesman and an astonishing save by Petr Cech (below right with Simon Mignolet).

Cech's introduction to the defence-free environs of his new club was given a further challenge in this game by being obliged to play behind an entirely untested second-string centre-back pairing. Well, not entirely untested. The replacements for Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Gabriel and Callum Chambers have played together before and indeed kept a clean sheet: against Wolfsburg in the Emirates Cup.

Here, though, against a strong, muscular, direct Liverpool, they showed all the resolve of a sand castle as the tide comes in. Poor Chambers, in particular, was lacking in self-confidence and self-belief.

There has long been a sense at the Emirates that fear and panic lurk in the stadium infrastructure, ready to bubble to the surface at any mishap. Though it wasn't paranoia that gripped those gathered last night, it was a genuine sense of jeopardy inherent in having the colander where a defence should be.

As early as the second minute, the alarm was spreading. "Get stuck into them" came the cry from a worried man in front of the press box. The wonder round the ground must have been how Joe Gomez - big, strong, a genuine defender - was not picked up from Charlton and allowed to join Liverpool unchallenged. What an addition to this Arsenal squad he would have been.

The fear dripping down the stands was not that the home side wouldn't create and conjure, but that they don't have the steel behind the silk to respond to the robust tactics from their opponents. Every time he bullied forwards, Christian Benteke's rumbling presence unleashed ripples of panic among those watching. Which was no great surprise given that every time he did, there appeared to be only one man trying to get in his way.

Francis Coquelin - the one member of the Arsenal front six with a hint of defensive responsibility - was obliged to make desperate last-minute intervention after desperate last-minute intervention.

If the blind panic that replaced Mertesacker and Koscielny is indicative of the depth of Wenger's squad, then what happens when Coquelin gets injured and is not there to fight the fires started by his pyromaniac defensive colleagues is not a thought to induce calm in the Emirates.

Wenger responded to the defensive frailty in characteristic fashion: by going on the attack. It is an endearing tactical plan. But you suspect it may not be sufficient when Manchester City and Chelsea are playing as they are.


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