x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Defence remains Arsenal's Achilles heel

Whether zonal or man-marking, the Gunners rearguard continue to struggle dealing with set pieces. They face their north London rivals Tottenham at White Hart Lane today.

Alex Song and the rest of the Arsenal defence have failed to solve their problem of defending set-pieces.
Alex Song and the rest of the Arsenal defence have failed to solve their problem of defending set-pieces.

Home fans will revel in it and the red corner of White Hart Lane will reserve an extra level of abuse for a seriously disliked defector. Emmanuel Adebayor hurtling around for Tottenham Hotspur in a north London Derby? A recipe for aggravation.

Wojciech Szczesny was a precociously confident teenage goalkeeper in 2008/09 when Adebayor was completing his final, intemperate season at Arsenal. The pair never played a first-team game together, yet ask the youngster how he feels about going head-to-head with the African centre-forward this afternoon and the careful compliments only last so long.

"He's a quality player and probably one of the best strikers I have ever trained with, so it will be very hard to keep him out," said Szczesny, inviting a query as to who won their training ground battles.

"Well, I'm the one who's still at the club," Szczesny said, and grinned.

"I was only a young kid so I think I might have let a few in, but I'm sure it's going to be a different story this time."

Sheer weight of numbers suggest it might be otherwise. Still just 21, Szczesny has established himself as Arsenal's first-choice goalkeeper, all but silencing demands that the club recruit experience in the position. The defence the Poland international organises, however, is not so reassuring.

Only bottom-of-the table Bolton Wanderers have conceded more Premier League goals than the 14 Arsenal have let in so far, at a rate of one every 39 minutes.

Their defending of dead balls has been particularly traumatic, a problem so persistent that it stretches back beyond Szczesny's debut season.

Since the summer of 2009, Arsenal have lost 51 goals at corners or free kicks. Of the 15 clubs who have kicked off each Premier League season since, none has suffered as many, and no other club lost more than half their total goals at set pieces.

A comparison with Champions League-qualified peers has Manchester City conceding 15 fewer and Manchester United at less than half Arsenal's tally.

Opponents also have done the numbers and observed Arsenal's erratic attempts to resolve the problem.

As an Aston Villa centre-back in August 2006, Olof Mellberg delivered Arsenal's new stadium with its first Premier League finish - from a corner kick. On Wednesday night he was part of an Olympiakos side who frayed home nerves upon cutting Arsenal's two-goal advantage - from a corner kick.

The Greek champions knew that set pieces were Arsenal's principal weakness. They just were not sure how the home side would attempt to defend them.

"Having conceded a few goals on set pieces you lose a little bit of confidence," Mellberg said.

"After a few games you start changing things. We didn't really know on set pieces how they were going to defend because they've man-marked in some games and they've gone zonal in other games." They were man-marking on Wednesday.

Mellberg said Arsenal are not the same team he remembers.

"A few years back, when we played at Highbury, they were unplayable at times," said the Swedish defender.

"They were the Barcelona of England; you basically never had the ball. In that aspect it was different as well. They didn't threaten as much as they used to. They were probably a little bit nervous defending, and they looked a little bit shaky on set pieces."

Szczesny said that Arsenal's varying tactics are a direct response to their 4-3 loss at Blackburn Rovers two weeks ago. There, Arsene Wenger's strategy of setting up the majority of his defenders in two parallel lines across the six-yard box and asking each to attack crosses that arrived in specific areas failed badly.

Blackburn twice scored at corners, twice flighting the ball deep beyond Arsenal's defenders before sending it back towards goal. Alex Song sent one delivery into his own net; an unmarked Yakubu finished another at the back post.

"I personally prefer zonal marking but it's the manager's decision what we're going to do," Szczesny said.

"We conceded a silly goal at Blackburn and we decided to change since then. It really doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it correctly and it works for you. I really don't mind.

"Why do I prefer zonal? I think it works better for us, and that's it."

A considerably more defensively astute coach than Wenger, Jose Mourinho, has argued that man-to-man marking on restarts should be used only when a side enjoys a height advantage.

While Arsenal raised their average height by signing Per Mertesacker, the 6ft 6in German central defender, and Andre Santos, the Brazilian left-back, who is 5ft 11in, in the last week of the summer transfer window, they remain one of the Premier League's smallest teams.

Adebayor, entering the derby on a promise not to celebrate a goal, may well find occasion to exercise uncharacteristic emotional control. A match that marks Wenger's 15th anniversary as the Arsenal manager serves to emphasise the clubs' contrasting summers.

Stan Kroenke, Arsenal's majority owner, last week filled a rare interview with praise for Wenger's qualities as "the ultimate evaluator".

He also said, unconvincingly, that the decision to add the Samir Nasri sale to Manchester City to Cesc Fabregas's planned departure to Barcelona had not been made over the coach's head.

At Tottenham, Harry Redknapp is working with the strongest midfield of his long career in part because Daniel Levy, the club chairman, ignored his manager's suggestions that cashing in on Croatian playmaker Luka Modric when Chelsea came calling in the summer was the wiser choice.

It will be a surprise if Redknapp's tenure at White Hart Lane lasts even a third as long as Wenger's across north London.

Levy is already sounding out candidates should he lose Redknapp to the English Football Association or other authorities. They will not need to be tactical geniuses to take goals from Arsenal at set pieces.


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