It is common knowledge that the Arsenal defence is a significant cause for concern and there is huge debate among the fans about how to resolve the issues that are haunting the team on an almost weekly basis.
JustArsenal contributor Joe Allyson has put together an in-depth article analysing the different areas in the defence which is both interesting and insightful.
Read and enjoy.
Hey guys, to say I’m disappointed with the result against Tottenham is an understatement. I really can’t take what happened. That aside though, I’d like to say thank you for the response to my last article about the midfield.
Today, I want to look at the defence. Again, just like the midfield, which we explained using the 4-4-2 setup, we’ll do the defence and then look at how it relates to our beloved club.
In a flat-four backline, the two centre backs are designated number 4 and number 5, and it goes beyond just the numbers, they have different roles, and unlike most other positions, one’s nature matters a lot in choosing what position they play. Most number 4’s can’t play number 5, and the reverse is true.
Let’s dive in then.
Number 4. The man marker
Time immemorial, number 4 was considered the man marker, faster than his number 5, more aggressive and unrelenting. In possession, number 4’s job in some teams was to let the smart people play and mind his own business (Jaap Stam at United, Ramos at Madrid) in others, He was designated to carry the ball out (Ronald Koeman at Barcelona).
Out of possession, the first responsibility number 4 had, was to move wherever number 5 asked him to be. He was the first one in to make a tackle once an attacker evaded his number 8 and number 6 (refer to the midfield conundrum article for more on this). Despite the fact that 4 and 5 were typically on the same line, at the time of winning the ball back, the 4 was slightly ahead of the 5.
At set-pieces. Number 4 at set-pieces is supposed to find the biggest opponent player and make life as hard as possible for him, hence being called the man marker.
Physically, number 4 was meant to be a big, strong fast individual with unrelenting will to get the ball.
The man marker was is and probably always will be prone to serious errors in his defending mainly resulting from his natural desire to win the ball at all costs. In real life, we’ve seen what they do. Ramos, Carles Puyol, Pepe, Kos, they all sometimes look clueless.
Examples of the best number 4s I can name in the present game would be: Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Jerome Boateng, and Samuel Umtiti to mention but a few.
At our club, I’d name Sokratis, David Luiz, and in the recent past, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré etc.
Now let’s move on to number 5. The sweeper
The sweeper was meant to be the smarter one of the two defenders. Almost a coach on the playing surface. These players were sometimes (are sometimes) referred to as liberos.
In possession, the libero is charged with passing the ball out of defence. Much like his mirror in midfield, the deep 6 (regista version) he doesn’t necessarily have to find the smartest to pass. just the safest.
Without possession, Number 5 is meant to drop behind the other 3 defenders and watch the movement from the attackers, making calls as to whether to push up and press the ball, drop deep and wait to intercept, get tight and press the middle or spread out and kill the wings. You get it.
The libero is also supposed to have a good perception of his defenders in relation to the opponent’s attackers so they tend to know where to move in relation to how the game is flowing thus giving them the ability to cover holes before they even open up.
Let’s use a practical example that is still fresh in our minds. A long ball from the Spurs defence trying to beat the Arsenal high line. Whoever was the libero between David Luiz and Papa should have made the call for whether we were going for the ball or waiting for the second ball (From positioning, It looked like Luiz was the designated libero).
So the first mistake, Libero didn’t communicate with man marker. Yes, it was brilliant movement from Kane coming out from defence but also not making it into midfield. So he was neither the responsibility of number 6 nor number 4, but since 6 was challenging, The libero had to make the decision on whether the man marker should have joined in on the challenge.
The second mistake, the man marker has followed his natural instinct and gotten drawn to the ball. In this case, it is the job of the libero to assess the situation and prepare for eventualities. Number 6 is under the ball, number 4 is late so now he is the only one left, also he had a number 8 (Guendouzi) falling into the 6 role as it would correctly be. Luiz gets the decision wrong again here. He is still maintaining his position as Sokratis goes for the challenge (in which he was clearly disadvantaged)
At this point, the situation was irredeemable. Another error, which people seemed not to notice, a fraction of a second after Kane wins the header, Sokratis turns around to chase, and also seems to be interested in Lamela before he notices that Luiz is heading there. It looks like they have a brief moment where they are deciding who is taking who. I would blame that on the coach. The reason why there’s a man marker and libero in defence is to remove that extra need for communication. That delay seemed to come from an instruction from the coach on who should mark who. Thus, causing Papa to think he was making a mistake in chasing Eriksen.
Before I go into naming liberos in the game today, I’ll start with the greatest of all time. Franz Beckenbauer. He was amazing and famed for being the cleanest defender ever (left the pitch with his shorts clean always).
Liberos sometimes had a weakness for overthinking things a lot of the time (they still do) and hence many times they get caught flat-footed because they anticipated one thing and the opponent did something completely different, or overestimating the abilities of their teammates and being let down.
Now in today’s game, there are a really limited number of Liberos. Matts Hummels looks like the best I’ve watched among those still playing, Raphael Varane, Harry McGuire, Aymeric Laporte, I’m actually struggling to remember them.
Going back a few years, Adams was a good one, Rio Ferdinand is probably the best I watched extensively, Ricardo Carvalho, Per Mertesacker. I’ll just stop there.
Tactical application for Arsenal.
I’m not that old so I haven’t watched too much soccer. I started watching soccer in 2001 and really understanding what I was watching in 2002. I have learned one thing though concerning Arsenal; in all those years, we’ve only really had one libero that I watched with the ability to analyze his game, and that was Mertesacker. Beyond that, Arsene Wenger always made the mistake of playing two-man markers which always resulted in the kind of goals we saw yesterday. Gallas + Squillachi, Kos + Verm, Touré + Campbell, Touré + Djorou, all number 4 combinations.
Take a look back, and you’ll notice that the successful arsenal teams (of the drought era) have had a proper marker sweeper combo (Touré + Senderos 2005, Mert + Kos for the FA cup years). What we’ve struggled with, is finding a sweeper we can actually trust over an extensive period of time.
Let’s not act like the coaches did not know this. Wenger’s flirting with low-quality sweepers proves he knew what the issue was and also Emery’s trust for Holding proves the same thing.
Currently, Arsenal does have sweeper type players at its disposal. Chambers, Holding, Saliba (I admit it’s judgement from YouTube clips) I think we need to drop one of our man markers in favour of a libero without moving to a back 3.
On a final note, the lack of a libero is not a problem that only affects Arsenal. The kind of goal we conceded on Sunday, and the one scored by Salah the previous week are not only limited to us. Most defences that play two-man markers face those issues. Ramos + Pepe at Madrid gave away their fair share, Boateng + Dante is probably the biggest comedy show I’ve watched I’m sure if you put your mind to it you can find others.
Thanks for reading. Have fun in the comments…