Having watched our defence get torn apart by Manchester United, I felt the defence was an issue that needed to be discussed. First of all I have some stats for you all:
We began the season with a centre back pairing of Kolo Toure and William Gallas. That however changed when Gallas became injured once again. When Senderos returned from his own injury he got a run in the side alongside Kolo. During this time they kept 6 clean sheets in a row when they were both on the pitch, during a spell of 7 games.
Played: 7 Won: 7
Conceded: 2 (1 with Senderos off the field of play) (0.3 goals per game)
After this, William Gallas was welcomed back into the side for the visit of Bolton and remained in the side from then until January alongside Toure. During this time we:
Played: 14 (excl. Carling Cup) Won: 9 Drew: 4 lost: 1
Conceded: 10 (0.7 goals per game)
When Toure left for the ACON, Wenger had little choice but to go with a Senderos/Gallas partnership. During this period we:
Played: 6 Won: 5 Drew: 1
Conceded: 2 (0.3 goals per game)
Therefore, despite many fans’ criticism towards Phil, when he has been in the side we have conceded far less goals per game than when Toure and Gallas were together. Granted, they have played a larger amount of games together than any of the other combinations, but overall Senderos has played just as many with one of the other centre backs. The games have been just as difficult with him in the side also.
It seems that when given a run in the side Senderos improves game by game and has a brilliant record in the side. Is he a better natural centre back than the other two? Well…it is hard to answer that question as they are all so different. However, a combination of Senderos and one out of Toure and Gallas seems to work best.
Toure and Gallas are very fast players who are good in the tackle and like to defend on the ground. They often use their pace to cut out through balls and balls in behind. However, they both lack one vital thing, something Senderos has and that is ability in the air. Most of the goals Arsenal conceded with Toure and Gallas at centre back came from crosses and set pieces. We saw on Saturday that we are weak in this area without someone like Big Phil to dominate the area. Three of the goals Man Utd scored were from crosses and a lack of marking and dominance of the aerial ball.
The way we play when they play together however is more suited to our game. We play a very high line and look to put pressure on the opposition from the back forward. We can afford to do this with the recovery pace they both possess. However, as said, if we are pushed back into our own area, as we were on Saturday, we often find ourselves in trouble when someone like Senderos is not in the side.
The high line we play is risky with Senderos in the team as we rely on Toure or Gallas to make the recovery. On a few occasions it has been Senderos who tries to play the offside trap and is the last man out of the defence. When this happens, it is almost impossible for the other centre back to get back as his movement is away from his goal. The main advantage comes from the dominance when we are put under substantial pressure. Each one has its pros and cons.
I touched on what Toure and Gallas do not have but mentioned what they do have. Senderos is not blessed with pace, we all know that, and he can be caught out by clever forward play where acceleration is used. I ask you though, was Tony Adams that fast? No he was not but he read the game so well. You can see in Senderos’ game that he is exactly this and with time and time on the pitch, this will develop. Many defences have a blend of pace and height. Look at Manchester United, although Ferdinand is decent in the air, it is Vidic who generally will look to win the aerial battle, with Rio there to sweep up anything with his speed.
William Gallas did this alongside John Terry when he was at Chelsea and looks comfortable doing the same when he plays with Senderos. Cast your minds back to the Champions League run that took us to the final. At the heart of the defence were Toure and Senderos. During that time we kept 10 clean sheets in a row and we saw the perfect blend of height and pace. Toure was always there to clean up anything Senderos failed to win with the first challenge and we were solid when anything came long.
Toure has the tendency to be drawn out of position and this can leave gaping holes at the back. When this happens it is unlikely Senderos has the pace to cover him. The goals conceded during this partnership often came from defending of this kind. When Toure is disciplined, they have been our most reliable partnership
It seems to me therefore that a, if you like, little and large combination works best. However, their are times when this is not the case. When a team has two quick strikers and do not look to get the ball into the box so much, pace is often the key. Toure and Gallas are not always required to attack the ball in the air. Saying that, most teams are aware that Arsenal are weak in this area and look to take advantage of this. Below are three matches where we have been exploited in this area:
Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2 – Although we won the game, John Carew was an absolute nightmare as balls came in constantly.
Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1 – Berbatov controlled the game in the final third as he was given so much time to pluck the ball out of the air unchallenged.
Manchester United 4 Arsenal 0 – A clear example here as 3/4 goals came from balls whipped in.
Had we had a dominant figure like Senderos in these games, I am sure we would have been far more assured as a back line. There are still doubts over Senderos, he really needs to play brilliantly against one man to prove to himself really he can do the business at the highest level. That man is Didier Drogba. On countless occasions he has been a thorn in Senderos’ side with a mixture of power and strength.
The key for Senderos is to get a run in the side. It takes him time to settle and I am never confident of seeing the best of him when he is thrust into a game on the back of no playing time. Wenger has to make a decision but I feel the Man Utd game may have been a wake up call that we have looked more assured with a tall guy to dominate at the back.
With the centre backs dealt with I will move onto the full back options we have. Unlike the three centre backs we currently have, I am in no doubt that Sagna and Clichy are our 1st choice full backs; in fact I am sure every Arsenal fan is sure of this. This season they have been outstanding both defensively and going forward. Teams find it hard to get round us and hate it when the two of them get forward with an end product on many occasions.
What I want to look at is who we have in reserve and what Wenger could do if these players prove they are not yet good enough. We have seen that Wenger sees Hoyte and Traore as the natural back-ups to Sagna and Clichy respectively. As we saw on Saturday however, they still have a lot to learn. Hoyte is further along in his education and must learn fast if he is to have a future here. Traore is very much a rough diamond. His main problem is his positioning and Man Utd were quick to make the most of it with countless balls in behind him. He has the pace and attacking skills to be a good full back. His defending however must improve.
Hoyte has played well at times this season but Wenger’s decision to play him at centre back against Spurs backfired horribly has he was taken t o pieces by Keane and Berbatov. Itclearly knocked his confidence and on Saturday he seemed afraid to tackle or get forward. If he can get his confidence back he can be a good player for us when called upon.
However, it is clear that Traore is not yet ready to come in should Clichy need a rest or be injured. With three more than capable centre backs vying for two positions it is useful to have two that can play at full back. Gallas, as we have seen in an Arsenal shirt can play at left back, Toure on the right also. If Clichy is out I would like to see Gallas play there with Toure and Senderos playing in the centre. I just do not think Traore is ready quite yet.
With both full backs doubtful for Wednesday night Wenger has a big choice to make. Should Sagna make it but Clichy remain on the sidelines then I would like to see Gallas moved to left back and Toure and Senderos in the middle:
This would give us far more security against a good attacking side.
If Clichy is available but Sagna cannot make it then I would like to see something similar but with Toure moved to full back instead of Gallas:
You might remember the Champions League match at home to PSV last season when Toure played at right back. He got forward just as an Arsenal right back should. I guess one could argue that Toure is low on confidence after some shaky performances of late but the big occasions brings out the best in Kolo, normally!
There is always Eboue at right back if needed.
To sum up – Although many see Toure and Gallas as our main partnership, it is hard to say for definite that this is correct. Their are many advantages to having Senderos in the side, the stats do not lie after all. I guess it is good to have many different options.
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