In the aftermath of Sunday’s temporary setback, critics have predictably piled on Arsene Wenger for our defensive failings. However, he wasn’t the one on the field – Thomas Vermaelen, Nacho Monreal and others were. Say what you will about offside traps or zonal vs. man-marking or formation – it comes down to some pretty fundamental footballing in my book.
Our boys are paid handsomely and, rather than looking too far up the hierarchy, we do have to point the finger of blame in the proper direction. Simply put, a player at this level should not allow an opponent to make a run behind him without tracking him (in man-marking) or making absolutely sure that a team-mate has picked him up (in zonal marking). Similarly, a defender MUST close on the man who has possession of the ball.
On Bale’s goal, no one closes on Gylfi Sigurdsson, allowing him plenty of time to make eye contact with Bale and place the ball perfectly. Given his form, as well as his position on the pitch, it is unconscionable that Mikel Arteta allows him to slip through unmarked. The fact that so many players rage for an offside call is similarly distressing. More on that in minute.
Lennon, who had been dangerous in flashes in the first half, more so than Bale to that point, starts from about 30-yards out, runs in front of Monreal, who releases him, and behind Vermaelen, who simply does not notice him. The pressure on Scott Parker is half-hearted, allowing him ample time and space to see Lennon’s run and play the pass through.
Whether this comes down to systems, tactics, or coaching is beside the point. We should expect players at this level to understand some basic concepts – Communicate. Follow runners. Close on the ball. Play the whistle. The fact that they didn’t depends less on the coach or the system and more on the players. If Arteta is marking Bale in a zonal system, why release him? Especially towards goal with his pace and finishing – without knowing that someone has picked him up? Did Monreal call out to Vermaelen before releasing Lennon? It’s hard to tell from the clip. There’s one moment after Lennon’s goal in which we see Per Mertesacker and Vermaelen facing upfield – there’s no sign of any discussion about what just happened. This doesn’t mean that the players didn’t talk, just that we don’t see it on camera. If Vermaelen, as the captain and as the one who didn’t realize that a player ran behind him, did not bring defenders in to talk and to get everyone back on the same page, then the armband comes off, simple as that. Promote Arteta and give Jack Wilshere the vice-captain’s role.
After a goal, there’s a good thirty seconds to a minute for celebrations and getting the ball back to midfield and so on. If our keeper and our captain don’t use that time to figure out what happened and prevent it from happening, we’ll continue to see what we saw – two essentially identical goals, two minutes apart.
At the coaching level, if we were playing an offside trap against two of the fastest players in the Premier League, I do have some questions for Wenger and Steve Bould. At the players’ level, we don’t have the speed in our back-line to recover if it fails. We’re playing at White Hart Lane, and the home team can usually expect a few calls to go their way. Even if that’s not the case, expecting players to communicate over the sound of the fans well enough to maintain an offside trap may just be a fools errand. That does come down to coaching, but it also comes down to the players on the field.
It’s a shame too, because other than those two plays, and a spell of a few minutes at around the 25′ mark, we were looking impressive, probing, passing, attacking, and defending with verve and energy.
Still, as bad as it felt, it’s not as bad as it seems. We may have lost this battle, but the war itself remains undecided.
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