Friday, September 28, 2012
Wenger's balancing act at Arsenal
Theo Walcott cracked a smile. When asked, the other day, what was different about this season to so many others for Arsenal, he responded "not getting beaten 8-2 by one of the Manchester clubs".
It isn't, however, the only difference. Far from conceding eight in one game, Arsenal aren't even conceding anything like that in five. With their backline breached just twice in the league this season, this is, defensively, the joint-best ever start of the entire Arsene Wenger era. The only other times they've conceded so few in the first five games have been 2008-09 and 1998-99.
As such, there is now at least more justifiable hope that they might finally replicate the Champions League semi-final surge or title challenge, respectively, of either of those seasons.
Of course, there's always a danger in reading too much into such a short stretch of games. At Thursday's press conference, Wenger himself made a point of noting how, despite last season's disastrous start, Arsenal ended up in third and actually improving on the previous campaign.
Even so, though, this season doesn't just look different on the table. It feels different. Arsenal have already played one of those Manchester clubs and claimed a creditable point away from home. And, once they meet Chelsea this weekend, they'll have faced three of the recent 'big six' in the opening six matches. Logic suggests that, other than playing Manchester United and Tottenham, the tasks will only get easier going up to Christmas. In that case, these matches might reveal more about the team than even Wenger realises.
"We got some belief against Man City," the Arsenal manager said. "[The Chelsea game] is another one, it's a different one. It's at home. We have played now three away games at Stoke, Liverpool and Man City so if we do well at home against the big teams it will of course have a big impact on our chances in the league.
"It's a bit early. I believe we have potential but we have to show we are capable of dealing with problems that consistency demands. We'll know more, certainly a bit more on Saturday afternoon, but much more after 10-15 games."
That's also why the Chelsea game is interesting in another way, though. Previously, it has been one of the fixtures that has most devastatingly disabused Arsenal of any notions. Take 2009-10. In the early part of that season, Wenger's side had been on a run of six matches won and 23 goals scored in their previous eight. Then, they hosted Chelsea and got barged over 3-0. Immediately after that game, Arsenal embarked on another run of winning eight and scoring 24 in their next 11... only to then be pushed aside 2-0 at Stamford Bridge.
Both of those matches, though, had something else in common other than bookending Arsenal runs. Didier Drogba was utterly dominant, scoring a total of four across the two fixtures. Famously, they weren't the only times he tore through Arsenal.
And, apart from just solving a problem for Wenger, the absence of the Ivorian actually signifies another reason Arsenal may have a little more to them this season. There has been something of a role reversal between the two biggest London clubs. In the very season where Chelsea have lost the sheer force of Drogba and attempted to move to a more sashaying style, the sleek Arsenal may have finally developed the durability that would have matched the striker.
"They wanted to change a little bit their style, that's obvious in their choice of players," Wenger noted. "When you think about Chelsea before, they had [Florent] Malouda, [Michael] Essien, [Frank] Lampard. They were physically, contact-wise, very impressive with Drogba on top of that. Maybe they do not have the same players now? Until now it has gone well for them, so it's a good challenge for us to beat them."
What Wenger doesn't say, though, is that Arsenal have so far struck a better balance than Chelsea. One of the common trends for the Stamford Bridge team this season has been a difficulty in linking old defence with new attack, with the two midfielders often looking ill-suited to the job or overwhelmed. Every one of their games has seen too much of an emphasis on one end of the pitch: either adventurous attack offset by under-protected backline or a more restrained formation removing much of the fire from their forward line.
It hasn't just been at Chelsea, though. The lack of true defensive midfielders pinning teams together has been a bit of a theme of the season, most notably at Manchester United.
Wenger appears to agree with Alex Ferguson's summer comment that the position is a thing of the past. Where he diverges from the United manager, though, is that, so far, Wenger has successfully implemented a defensive strategy right through his team, from front to back.
"There are no defensive midfielders at the moment. We try to find defensive balance collectively and we have less players who are purely defenders but we do have some who are physically strong in defending, like [Abou] Diaby, some tactically strong like [Mikel] Arteta. At the moment, we have a balance because everybody participates but we have less specialists."
That was also reinforced by one of Walcott's comments during the week. So far, Steve Bould has received a lot of credit for repairing Arsenal's backline but, judging from the winger, the work is much wider.
"The process of training has changed," Walcott said. "We do a lot of defensive work as a whole team, as a whole unit, getting your positions, getting into the habit, which we never really had before."
None of which is to say that Arsenal haven't specifically concentrated on their backline too. In other seasons, Wenger has been criticised for not replicating the partnerships of Tony Adams-Martin Keown and Sol Campbell-Kolo Toure. In this campaign, with three senior central defenders alternating and successfully integrating, that can't yet be levelled as a criticism. As Wenger puts it, it's not that he has selection problems in defence.
"I have selection solutions! It's not a problem when you have good players. You cannot play a season with two centre-backs. You want good players in every position. At the moment, we are doing well. Will just select the players who for me are most suited to the opposition we play... that's why I say I have centre-backs where we can mix a little bit and adapt to the opponent we play against."
There's also an intriguing response when the purist in Wenger is asked whether the lack of defensive midfielders is good for the game as whole.
"If you have defensive balance, yes... it gives us a bit more versatility going forward because everybody has the potential to go forward."
That word again: balance. And, for once, Arsenal will be hoping to properly balance the start of their season with the middle and end. That, finally, will have everyone at the club smiling.