Thrift Shop Defending

barriecuda-120What did Arsenal have in common with me on Saturday, December 6th? We both slept in. While I lost a bit of time to hit the books, Arsenal went down several goals on their way to another embarrassing result at the Britannia.

Arsenal’s first two goals conceded were in part thanks to Arsene Wenger’s trademark thriftiness. How does that work out? Let’s look at our starting back-four: Gibbs, Mertesacker, Chambers, Bellerin. Yes, Bellerin. Why the relatively diminutive 19-year-old? Because Arsenal is so thrifty (read: cheap) that we couldn’t enter the season with adequate depth on defense. Arsene decided to live in a dream world and enter the season with a criminal lack of defensive depth that has cost us a good share of points.

Yes, I am aware we signed two pretty good players in Debuchy and Chambers over the summer. The former is a real talent and we were unlucky to lose him to injury early on; the latter is an extremely promising young player, though lacking in Premier League experience. That said, stopping the shopping there left us with a limited number of back-up options in defense with several of them (such as Chambers) having to simultaneously buffer central, fullback AND defensive midfield positions. Versatile players are a huge plus, but when your solution for a club perennially in injury crisis is to have a couple raw players covering multiple defensive positions that is poor planning.

Anyway, we all know the result of our summer. We started the season with 2 proper central defenders (Mert and Kos), 2 leftbacks (Gibbs and Monreal), and 2 rightbacks (Debuchy and Chambers), plus Bellerin. This means that our back-up options at fullback are simultaneously our cover options centrally. If a central player and a fullback simultaneously pick up injuries over the campaign, we become stretched paper-thin. This season we’ve seen it – resulting in Monreal moved to the centre (where he’s mediocre) while Chambers played on the left, or with Flamini deputising at rightback or centreback. Of course, Flamini dropping to the defensive line means that the defensive midfield position, where bulletproof Arteta operates, is down to one primarily suitable player for that role. What kind of team properly competing in four competitions (EPL, FA Cup, CO Cup & CL) calls that “depth”? Not to mention, we let Jenkinson go on loan – a rightback option that actually knows the team’s players and its tactical setup. (We miss you, Corporal Jenks!)

The net result is getting to see Arsenal defend like a circus act. Today, Chambers’ and Bellerin’s unfamiliarity and inexperience showed as the two looked totally incapable of operating cohesively. All the summer thriftiness and the unwillingness to keep a couple extra, position-specific players led to some of the mistakes we saw today. Start with goal #1 (apologies, our embedded images are acting up – hit the link):

Goal 1 via Arsenalist.com

Keystone cops routine aside, you can see the lack of certainty between Bellerin and Chambers in the box. Chambers misses a header and Bellerin looks like a Sunday-league player sandwiched between two pros. Coupled with the third-string goalie not commanding much of a presence, it’s an awful start that gifted Crouchie a goal.

Goal #2 is where it gets really ugly – via Arsenalist.com

Earlier today I heard someone blame Gibbs regarding the cross. It’s a well-delivered cross and I think it’d be unfair to Gibbs to lay blame here (for once). Where the problem lies is that pint-sized Bojan Krkic strolls past three Arsenal players for the tap-in. Drifts by Ramsey, prances behind Flamini, strolls past Mertesacker and finishes with ease. Now, Chambers might have got there, but watch closely – he’s busy marking Peter Crouch (#25) because he doesn’t have any idea who Bellerin has. Bellerin, meanwhile, has let Diouf completely free and if that ball were lofted high-across to the back-post, Diouf would have been just as unmarked as Bojan. The unfamiliar backline, plus Chambers’ inexperience sorting out marking during the run of play (I don’t know why Mertesacker was so out of position), had us in shambles. With a more capable and experienced set of defenders starting today – maybe ones who have the experience and presence to communicate more effectively – you have to imagine these kinds of mistakes would be less frequent.

Without going on about the rest of the game (frankly I don’t want to think about it) here’s the other notable takeaways. Anthony Taylor is a poor official who’s booking decisions are atrocious (look at the breakdown by Untold Arsenal for good reading). Arsenal could have easily been down by 4(!) goals if it weren’t for a debatable call – mind you I believe that call, and the penalty on Flamini, were good decisions by the officiating crew. Charlie Adam manhandling Alexis should have been a red; if you can’t keep up with a player’s talent, it needs to be more than a yellow when you haul them down cynically while not even pretending to play the ball. And Wenger bringing on Campbell (or any sub for that matter) on 91 minutes is folly – guys can’t get into a game in 240 seconds and as a player, it’s frustrating as hell when you aren’t cracking the starting lineup and are instead only given seconds worth of an opportunity to show your skill when the team has been behind for over an hour.

The only minor consolation of the day was the Chavs being reminded how unbelievably talented you have to be to come close to being Invincible. However, I refuse to let the slip-ups of our rivals distract from the fact this Arsenal team continues to fail, in the same ways, in the same places. It’s getting painful to watch and frankly, not worth waking up for.

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