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20 September 2015

BACK TALK: Defending at Home v Liverpool

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fter a devastating start to the season at home against West Ham, Arsenal seemed to be getting things in order after the trip to Selhurst Park to take on what would be a difficult opponent in Crystal Palace. As I mentioned in last week’s column, we started shaky in that match as well, but by the end of the 90 minutes we had gained a proper defensive foothold and did enough up front to take all three points. On Monday night, we entertained Liverpool at the Emirates, which ended in a 0-0 draw and a fair bit of fan frustration.

A couple of things went wrong even before the whistle blew. Per Mertesacker was left out of the side due to illness, and Laurent Koscielny, his trusty sidekick of a centre half, had a back problem that forced him to watch the game from the stands. Though this pairing had a rough start to the season, they are far and away the first choice defenders in the team and missing them left us open to more shots on goal than should ever have been the case (by haltime, Liverpool had out-shot Arsenal 9-3). In place of these two preferred defenders were Calum Chambers and Gabriel Paulista.

Anyone who watched the match will likely agree that centre back is not the preferred position for Chambers, at least not at the moment. He can play in a number of positions (centre back, right back, and as a defensive midfielder), but due to Bellerin’s form and pace and the inclusion of Francis Coquelin in midfield, there was really no where else for the young man to play. It is encouraging that we have the depth in defense to survive a temporary loss of our numbers 4 and 6, but there is a significant difference in performance between both pairings. Chambers seemed completely out of his element in the first half and did a poor job of keeping Liverpool away from the goal. He didn’t seem to know when to make a clearance and, on one nerve-wracking occasion, tried to pass the ball out of defense right into the feet of Coutinho, who very nearly had a clear shot on goal. This forced Coquelin to commit himself to a slide tackle inside the box (as it happened this was a master tackle from the Frenchman, but could easily have been considered penalty-worthy by a poorly placed official). Chambers was off on his marking and looked to be a step behind during almost every play Liverpool made. He sured up somewhat in the second half, but this may be more a factor of Liverpool easing off on the attack and Arsenal gaining more possession and dictating play. It was not a good night for Calum, and if nothing else he should take it as a learning opportunity to apply in the next game he starts, whenever that might be.

Gabriel had a couple of shaky moments at the beginning, in particular an attempted headed back pass to Cech that had less pace on it than required, which almost gave Benteke an in at goal. He was a little slow keeping up with attackers in the first half, which contributed again to the unconvincing defensive work characteristic of the team. He did, however, end up having a much better game than his counterpart, making one last defender challenge successfully. Gabriel seemed calm for much of the game, even during the terrible start and put in a shift to get the job done where he could. He successfully made four tackles, on par with Ramsey and just one behind Coquelin. Overall a good game for him, which eased my mind in terms of who should be third choice right behind Koscielny.

For me, the man of the match goes to Petr Cech, who put on a masterclass between the sticks. He had already conceded three goals in two games this season, but justified his signing and silenced his critics on Monday. Singlehandely, he kept Arsenal in the game by making some truly spectacular saves. One of these involved quick reflexes to hand away a close range shot from James Milner at the near post. His biggest contributions would come close together as he parried away a sure goal from Benteke, who had gotten a foot to a low ball across Cech’s penalty area. Coming close behind would be a candidate for save of the season: Coutinho dazzled Bellerin on the right side of Arsenal’s 18 yard box, turning him inside out, and fired a perfectly paced and targeted ball across goal, which was aimed at the upper corner of the net. Cech somehow managed to dive across and get a finger to the ball, diverting it ever-so-slightly into the upright and out of danger. I would not have the same confidence in Ospina, Szczesny, or Martinez to put in a similar caliber performance.

So, from Monday’s game we learned a bit about the weaknesses of the defense in terms of quality of depth and how strong a keeper Cech still is at the age of 33. Chambers was the weak link in the back line, but he’s also had good performances in the past, so I think it’s something he can work on as he’s still rather inexperienced. Gabriel seems to be a solid replacement for Mertesacker or Koscielny when the need arises. It’s notable as well that without either our captain or vice-captain on the pitch, there seems to be an overall lack of harmony, at least in the back half of the park. In all, there is improvement to be made, but the team seems to be working towards that. After another week or so, when all players are 100%, we’ll hopefully start to see the Arsenal we all know and love.


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