Josh asks: Are ARSENAL real title contenders?

After such an emphatic attacking display against Blackburn, the question has come around, are we REAL title contenders?  Many people will suddenly sit up and take notice after another Premier League victory in which we scored 6.  However, are they getting ahead of themselves?  I will look at what we have put right from last season, what attributes might make us plausible title contenders, and what still needs putting right.
Some might say that Blackburn at home is a game which any team contending for the title must win.  However, to come back from 1 goal behind on two occasions within the first half is admirable in itself.  Sam Allardyce’s side was never going to come and play expressively.  In seasons gone by, the team would have got frustrated, desperate and wasteful in search of an equaliser.  However, this season, there seems to be a new belief that we will score goals and that we can break down teams that want to ‘park the bus’.
The reason for this confidence is shown in 1 stat alone: in the Premier League this season we have had 13 different goal scorers.  Last season we seemed reliant on Van Persie or Arshavin to come up with either a goal or an assist.  This time around, we are scoring as a team, from all over the park.  No one sums this up better than our current top scorer, new hard man at the back, Thomas Vermaelen.  He has been on the end of free kicks, corners and popped up with two beauties from outside the box.
This quality actually sets up apart from out rivals in my opinion.  If you look at the other top teams, Chelsea rely on Drogba and Lampard, Man Utd rely on Rooney and Giggs, Liverpool count on Gerrard and Torres.  If those teams lose their star men, they may well struggle for goals.  The new 4-3-3 fluid system allows the whole team to get into scoring positions which means that, should we lose anyone to injury, we have others who are able to grab goals.  The attacking depth that we have allows for us to rotate within the squad, without losing the goal threat; not many teams can do that.  Only Man City have a squad that can plausibly do that.
Despite all the attacking prowess, I believe that the crux of our legitimacy as challengers will be our ability to defend.  Andy Gray said that if “Arsenal can defend half decent, they will be there or thereabouts.”  I think he is spot on.  Against 75% of the teams in this league, we will be able to score goals and if we can be solid at the back, we will win those games.  Against the bigger teams, we will have to defend at the top level to win.  We did well against Manchester United and if it was not for two individual errors, we would have won.  However, against Manchester City, we were poor.  We cannot be inconsistent like this in the big games.
I have one big concern about the way we are defending at the moment.  The problem was highlighted massively against Man City.  I approve very much of Wenger’s demands that we defend from the front, press the ball high up the pitch and protect the back four much more than we used to.  The formation allows for Song to provide added protection should teams break through towards our goal.  We look solid when teams attack through the middle but we seem very shaky at full back at the moment.
I have mentioned this before but it has been exploited again, this time by Blackburn.  Wenger has always believed his full backs can give the team and extra option in attack.  However, sometimes this will actually work against us.  Often, the full backs sprint forward every time we have the ball, despite the fact that in some attacks, they are not needed.  If we are opening teams up at will, the full backs can stay back.  I do not buy the argument that they provide extra width as often we have attackers out wide anyway.  Too many times Clichy and Sagna gallop forward when it is not needed.
At City, with the scores tied at 1-1, Clichy continued to bomb forward despite the fact that City’s threat was on the counter with the pace of Bellamy and SWP.   Clichy’s attacking urgency left us exposed and three of the goals scored against us were from that side.  On some occasions, to do less is to do more.  Clichy needs to think more about when he goes forward.
I am also very much against the idea that both full backs go forward at the same time.  It leaves us with Gallas Vermaelen and Song to cover.  If teams break quickly, they are under immense pressure.  As we found at on Sunday, this was exposed to great effect by an average side.  A good side will really punish us.  If Sagna goes forward, Clichy should stay back, and vice versa; and if the ball is lost, they should sprint back, not jog.  For Blackburn’s second goal, Sagna JOGGED back when we lost the ball.  He only appeared on the screen when the ball hit the net.  That is very poor.  At the end of the day, they are defenders and they must improve defensively as they have both been poor of late.
If we can improve on how many goals we concede, that will make a huge difference to how far we can go this season.  Clichy is the weak link at the moment, but he is not a bad defender.  The other 3 especially are very good defenders, but they still need to defend as a unit and defend sensibly to prove this.  If we can achieve this, we may well see one of the most solid Arsenal defences under Wenger.  Vermaelen has brought with him leadership qualities that are evident in the way he leads the back four.  Not only does he appear commanding in the air and on the floor, but he exudes confidence for the rest of the side.  His arrival is getting the best out of Gallas and a title challenge is built on a very good defence.  These two are the foundations for that, I just pray they do not get injured because then we will have a real problem!
There is one area that worries me the most though; our goalkeeper.  Almunia has looked out of sorts this season and it is worrying after such an impressive one last season.  His positioning, decision making and movement has been questionable to say the least.  Hopefully his virus was the problem and he can get back to the levels of last season.  There still remains one question however:
Is Almunia good enough?
I am not entirely sure.  If you look at Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool, they have a keeper that will not only keep them in games, but will also WIN them games with heroic man of the match performances.  Almunia at his best will make the saves he would expect to but I do not see him pulling off quality save after quality save during a game in which we most need him.  He does not appear commanding and this has a knock on effect for the defence.  One of the reason Man Utd’s defence has suddenly looked like leaking goals is due to Foster’s poor form.  What a difference Van Der Saar makes for them and what a difference a top class keeper could make for us.
The fact some people have said Mannone should take the no.1 jersey after just 3 games speaks volumes.  Almunia will never be world class and if we harbour serious ambitions to win the League, I would bring someone in with the ability to change games in our favour.
Although it is important to have your own house in order, a title challenge this year may depend on our rivals, and mainly on the fact that they are now weaker.  Manchester United are not the team they were over the past 2 seasons and I feel they will drop points in similar fashion to their match vs Sunderland.  Liverpool are too reliant on Gerrard and Torres again and the sale of Alonso has made them considerably weaker.  I feel they will struggle at tim
es this season.  The main worry is that Chelsea seem to be determined to win the league this season.  They have the team to do it, as long as Drogba is fit in my opinion.  Hopefully the African Cup of Nations will have a detrimental effect.  How our rivals do this season will have a massive effect on our season and hopefully their will be a few more surprising results this season.
It is still early days and at the moment I am confident that this season we can do something special.  We are relying on the fitness of Gallas and Vermaelen but I feel this team will always score goals.  Getting the balance right between attack and defence will be crucial.  I will look back at these things in 12 games time and see if we are still title challengers.  For now, it is too early to say we are REAL challengers; only time will tell.

LOGIN to Comment
LOGIN to Comment