Wednesday 20 November 2019

Society's to blame but Wenger still needs fix for defensive frailties

Arsenal's manager believes his defenders have improved but Stoke City will put that theory to the test this afternoon, writes Paul Doyle

Arsene Wenger: 'We are more offensively oriented than we were'
Arsene Wenger: 'We are more offensively oriented than we were'

Paul Doyle

Arsene Wenger had just finished explaining why he was not overly troubled by the affair of the Wojciech Szszesny's post-match cigarette at Southampton when he decided to throw up a smokescreen of his own.

The questioning had moved on to the cause of Arsenal's defensive struggles this season and, as he occasionally does, the Frenchman mused on how social changes complicate his work.

"Maybe because our societies are less aggressive in the football education system you cultivate less that intense desire. It's more about the quality of the technique and maybe that creates less defenders," said Wenger as he outlined some of the reasons why it has been so hard to recreate the resilience of the famous Arsenal back four that he inherited when he arrived in London nearly two decades ago or, indeed, the rearguard that he built for Arsenal's season of invincibility in 2003-'04.

"I believe as well that young boys practise well on quality pitches, whereas before it was muddy and you could tackle and throw your body in - it created opportunities for defenders to work naturally on their defensive techniques. Today it's all more standing up. There is less physical commitment because the quality of the pitches is much better."

Wenger suggested that Chelsea's John Terry is among the last of a nearly extinct breed of defensive leader, adding that Terry's team-mate Gary Cahill may emerge as another one "in five, six or seven years - he is the right age but you don't find many any more."

Wenger is looking for one this month to bolster a defence that has leaked too many goals this season, undermining his team's title aspirations.

Yet irrespective of Wenger's ruminations about the times we live in, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a substantive cause of his team's vulnerability has been inexcusably shoddy individual and collective performances from players who should be capable of better. In other words, it has often seemed like Arsenal's coaching and attitude - and, in fairness, injuries - are more to blame than external forces.

Still Wenger believes that his current crop of defenders are improving. "I think we are not far, we are getting there," he said.

Today Wenger's side will have an ideal opportunity to prove that because Stoke visit the Emirates. Five weeks ago at the Britannia, Mark Hughes' side inflicted a painful defeat by exposing basic organisational and mental failings in the Arsenal defence, in which two young players were given little useful support by the experienced Per Mertesacker, whose performances this season have been so erratic that, according to Szczesny's father, Maciej, even the goalkeeper has been made to look bad.

Although Stoke seldom pose Arsenal as many problems away as they do at home - their last win in Gunners' territory came in 1981 - Laurent Koscielny expects the visitors to test Arsenal's ability to cope with the basics of defending.

"It's a typical English game with lots of long throws, long balls, win the second balls," says Koscielny, who missed the defeat at the Britannia through injury but did play in Arsenal's last league game, the defeat at Southampton when their defence was similarly feeble.

"[Stoke] are very different to a lot of other teams who try to play with the ball on the floor and pass," continued Koscielny, who acknowledged that, with players such as Bojan Krkic, Hughes' side can also threaten with guile. "They have quality and play well now because they try to play with the second ball afterwards. They have some good technical players so it will be tough but we know that and will be ready for it."

Wenger went on to intimate that, to an extent, his side are conceding more because they are more focused on attacking. "I think we have more offensive players in midfield than we had at one time. We are more offensively oriented than we were," he said.

But that explanation also glosses over an uncomfortable truth - that the defensive midfielders whom he has deployed this season have not performed well enough. That, too, is a fact that Arsenal supporters want Wenger to address through recruitment. There is certainly no need to wait for some social transformation to present a solution.

Observer

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