AZ Alkmaar v Arsenal Report and Josh Looks At Our Defending

By Josh – An equaliser deep into injury time denied Arsenal all three points at AZ Alkmaar on Tuesday night but Arsčne Wenger’s side still have control of Champions League Group H.
The visitors seemed in charge for much of this evening’s game. There was no sympathy for an AZ who had been stricken with financial problems in recent days.
Arsenal simply soaked up the passion exhibited by the home team and home crowd before exploiting the first real opening that came their way.
That came nine minutes before half-time when Arshavin and van Persie set up Fabregas to slot home at the far post.
AZ kept battling but Arsenal seemed to have seen them off until the third minute of injury time when David Mendes da Silva volleyed home into the top corner after a ‘Hail Mary” free-kick was nodded down into his path.
It was a deep disappointment and ended Arsenal’s run of seven straight wins. They now only lead Group H by one point when, a couple of minutes earlier they seemed set to go five clear.
Many fans are still worried about our defensive frailties that are apparent for all to see right now, but, although we have conceded 11 goals this season, but we have scored 27. That amount of goals is a new record at this stage of a new season and there is no doubt that these goals have come from a new attacking focus. The way we are playing means we will concede goals and fans cannot have it both ways. The view that “we will score more than you” seems to apply to Wenger’s current philosophy.
The 4-3-3 formation focuses on two ends of the field. Much of the analysis has concentrated on the attacking side of things; getting the best out of Arshavin and Walcott and allowing Cesc a new freedom on the pitch for example. It has made us more fluid and more adventurous in attack and is one of the definite reasons that we have scored so many. However, there is one aspect that is crucial to the way the system works, and one thing that means we will limit to a greater extent, the amount we concede.
Last season we were too open through the middle and the one change has been the addition of a permanent holding midfield player. Song has been awesome recently and Wenger knows the importance of his presence. At times we are often defending simply with Gallas, Vermaelen and Song. When Clichy and Sagna venture forward, which is almost every time we have the ball, Song sits in as part of a 3 pronged narrow defence. This is where we have been broken against and looked susceptible. This worries me.
Wenger will point to the fact that our full backs add a lot to the side and that if we want to see such attacking football, we must take risks. I can slightly understand his point and the results so far this season prove Le Prof to be correct. However, should our attacking play falter at any time, we may suffer. The determination of this side to attack and get that goal, I fear may cost us at a certain time this season. In a game where one goal would be enough, I would like to see the back four sit in with Song as its protection. I am just worried that Wenger will never abandon the attacking philosophy, even in a tight game. It happened at Manchester City and teams will be aware of how to exploit it.
The interesting thing is that Gallas and Vermaelen are terrific defenders who sometimes are made to look stretched and over burdened. However, I think the way they have been performing has actually allowed us to play in the way we have been. Although we only have two clean sheets in the league so far this season, Gallas and Vermaelen have often ensured we do not leak goals. Only once were we pathetic at the back (away at Man City) and their partnership is crucial to that.
The trust Wenger has in the defence has probably given him the confidence to send out the side with such an attacking brief. One must not forget the third aspect to Wenger’s defensive trust, Alex Song. Towards the end of last season he began to show he had the potential to be a real force in this side. Yet this season he has been even better. The holding role allows him to patrol the area in front of the back four and put his stamp on the game. He is turning into a real powerhouse and has improved his mobility and most noticeably, his passing. With Fabregas and Diaby pushing high up the pitch, Song is often the safety ball and is afforded a lot of space in the middle. As he showed on Saturday, he can thrive in that area. His ability to find a longer range pass has massively improved, shown by his assist. Song is well and truly laying down a marker in that position and we really will miss him in January.
Another aspect defences across the Premier League that has been highlighted this weekend is set pieces. Liverpool have conceded 9 but Man Utd have conceded 0. IT is proving to be a crucial aspect of the game and one aspect that has often been an Achilles heel for Arsenal. We have conceded 5 goals from set pieces this season according to the stats (incl. Rooney’s penalty). I still get a nervous feeling when we are faced with an opposition corner because I feel we are still shaky. We do not have a commanding keeper to deal with crosses and we lack leaders in there. Vermaelen has added a huge amount to our ability to defend corners and I feel he will continue to be a massive influence on set pieces this season, both defending and attacking.
Wenger can no longer ignore this part of the game as it seemed he used to. Ray Parlour has been heard saying that Wenger did not put lots of work into them; that is clear from our inability to deliver many good corners. However, with the aerial ability of many teams in the League, a team like Arsenal, with the personnel we have, will always be under pressure. I am glad we mark man to man as each player has a responsibility. The Liverpool zonal system is a joke and I am glad that we changed our idea on it after Gallas pointed out it was not working last season. Hopefully the players’ hunger to do well will ensure each man does his job.
One thing I would like to see us do is leave at least one player up the pitch. Someone like Arshavin and/or Rosicky are not going to add too much to the defending side of corners. If we can leave them up the pitch, the other team will need to leave 3 players back. Therefore, the area will be far less congested and would allow the keeper a clearer view of the ball as well as a clearer path to it. We have started to be a big threat on the break again and what better way to develop this than clearing the ball to someone like Arshavin.
Peter Reid said on Super Sunday Last Word that he used to worry when his side got a corner against previous Arsenal sides. He was scared of the ability to break against sides and punish them from what seemed an attacking opportunity. If teams are worried about us when they have a set piece it can only be in our favour.
All in all, I have given my worries about the defensive side to our game but I guess I have to be realistic in my thoughts that we cannot have so many goals without running the risk of conceding. If we can succeed with this philosophy, it will be the greatest vindication of Wenger’s ideals to date.

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