It is a legitimate thing to defend…in a legitimate way!
Last week was arguably one of the best we have had this season – first we won an away match against one of the best European teams (if not the best one), and managed to restrict them to no clear-cut chances, and then we won in Wales against Swansea with another brilliant defensive performance in which opponents had no shots on target. It’s not just that we won two away matches against tough opponents that made me especially happy, but also the fact that we managed to reply to our home defeats against those same opponents. And, all that without Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen and Wojciech Sczszesny in the first eleven, and with Lukasz Fabianski on the goal after more than a year without an appearance.
These two victories could hardly be described as typical Arsenal victories in the Wenger-era. Both opponents had bigger share of possession (both teams had 55 percent), but neither of them managed to transform possession into something more efficient.
These victories could hardly be described as „park-the-bus“-type of defending, given that we had more dangerous attacks and counter-attacks than both Bayern and Swansea. Both victories had brilliant defending based on sound foundations, and I think that is exactly how we should do it until we get ourselves a world-class striker.
Remember, not so long ago, we were defeated by Bayern at home and against North London Chokers away. In both defeats, the most heard comment with reference to the Arsenal games in South-Slavic languages was that Arsenal have „neither head nor tail“, since our performances in front of both goals had been terrible and expensive.
There are some people who seem to confuse terms „quality defending“ and „anti-football“. Restricting opponents’ chances in a legitimate way doesn’t necessarily means that you are an anti-football coach.
If you are a responsible manager, you will do your best to use club resources (including players you have) in the best possible way. You can’t make a banana-split out of a lemon, but you can make a decent lemonade.
Let’s take a look at another last-16 CL match. When AC Milan played Barcelona at San Siro, they completely nullified all Barcelona qualities, and switched Lionel Messi off. Barcelona had all that possession they wanted but in both final thirds of the pitch, it was AC Milan who got what is really important: a clean sheet and two scored goals. When their manager Allegri abandoned his tactics from the first game, and his players like Ambrosini opted not to fight for every ball, the Italian giants were destroyed and Messi scored two out of four Barcelona goals (one of them should have been ruled out due to offside).
There is a similar example from our favourite season 2003-04 when we lost 0:3 against Inter at home only to beat them 5:1 at Meazza. Inter were managed back then by Hector Raul Cuper and he came at London without Christian Vieri but still demonstrated the highest level of quality defending, and got themselves a comfortable victory. We all know what happened in reverse fixture. Cuper was sacked, and Inter appointed Alberto Zaccheroni as their manager. Zaccheroni didn’t follow the path made by Cuper and, despite Vieri’s return to the team, and Arsenal playing without Vieira, Lauren, Keown and Wiltord, Inter managed to lose not just the game, but also a high aggregate lead against us, which Cuper had left to Zaccheroni.
One might say (and it could be true) that Arsenal’s success during the Wenger-era was based on George Graham’s defense, and Arsene Wenger’s midfield and attack; before adding that problems only really started when Wenger tried to apply his way of defending which neglected the physical part of the game.
It is a great thing when you can have both fluent attacking football and results; something that we had with Invincibles. But sometimes one of those things has to be sacrificed, and we all know which one any fan would opt for. Our performances during the Champions League campaign in 2006 were hardly breath-taking (especially second leg against Villarreal), but we managed to knock-out Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal without conceding a goal in six consecutive games (ten, when we count group phase), and we were unlucky to lose against Barcelona in the Final. Speaking of Barcelona, we were very close to knock them out from the Champions’ League in 2011, despite the fact that we failed to make a single shot on target in second leg.
Now, I mentioned above the terms ‘quality defending’ and ‘anti-football’. If there is a team that represents everything that Wenger’s Arsenal hasn’t been, it’s Stoke City managed by Tony Pulis. Their football has been more like rugby, as it is full of horrible tackles that go unpunished thanks to the lenient policy by Football Association towards the actions of the ‘Butchers from Britannia’. Is it because FA wants to preserve traditional English football? Do they keep Stoke City afloat as some sort of ZOO in which the last examples of traditional English football based on muscles, tackles and challenges can be seen? In the first match we played against Stoke this season, their players made three fouls that deserved red cards. They got none.
But there is this thing called karma for that too. When FAnchester United lost to Real Madrid mostly thanks to the fact Nani got sent off, they couldn’t believe that someone could give a straight red card to their player. When Pierluigi Collina backed referee Cakir, I realized that the biggest problem United had in that game was the fact that they are used to the criteria of another bald referee, who tolerated a life-threatening tackle by Nigel De Jong in World Cup Final in 2010. And that’s how karma works: Italians put their trust into Pierluigi Collina who gave penalties and red cards against Juventus despite the status Juventus have had among most of Italian referees, and they were rewarded with 4th World Cup title in 2006, where they showed classy defending and being runners-up at Euro 2012; while England – who consider Howard Webb as their best referee – failed to reach any Final since 1966, and will mostly regret the poor taking of penalties and stupid red cards being received by FAnchester United players.
Alas, my point is, ‘quality defending’ and ‘quality football’ are not mutually exclusive terms; just like ‘beautiful football’ doesn’t necessarily means ‘quality football’. Being called ‘one-nil-to-Arsenal’ again wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen to us.
After all, if we continue with performances like the previous two fixtures, we might even earn a new nickname: ‘two-nil-to-Arsenal’!
Written by: Admir.