Ar­se­nal must tackle their se­ri­ous fail­ings

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Ken Early

Arsene Wenger’s team selec­tion yes­ter­day evening, with sev­eral se­nior play­ers rested in ad­vance of the Europa League semi-fi­nal next Thurs­day, let ev­ery­one know that he was re­signed to de­feat on his fi­nal visit to Old Traf­ford.

And yet, you won­dered if Ar­se­nal’s young play­ers could be much worse than the se­nior ones who have failed so many times in re­cent years. In the event, they were giv­ing a de­cent ac­count of them­selves un­til United scored fol­low­ing a mis­take by one of the most ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers in the Ar­se­nal team, Granit Xhaka.

The mis­take is worth con­sid­er­ing be­cause it re­vealed a lot about what is miss­ing at Ar­se­nal. Paul Pogba was com­ing through the mid­dle with the ball, weigh­ing up his op­tions, when Xhaka made his mind up for him by fling­ing him­self across Pogba’s path, and out of the game.

Pogba, who had not even had to fake a shot to tempt Xhaka into slid­ing out of his way, played it to Romelu Lukaku and then ran into the box to score.

Ev­ery player makes mis­takes in ev­ery game, but Xhaka’s mis­take was so ba­sic that it made you won­der what can be hap­pen­ing in Ar­se­nal train­ing. How can a pro­fes­sional player sell him­self so cheaply in such a sit­u­a­tion?

Teams that are good at win­ning the ball back don’t get that way by ac­ci­dent: you have to know what you are do­ing, and you have to work at it. Look at Jür­gen Klopp’s press­ing sys­tem at Liver­pool. There is more to it than sim­ply hyp­ing up the play­ers and telling them to get after the op­po­si­tion.

For play­ers in a Klopp team, there are two ba­sic rules you have to fol­low when you’re press­ing an op­po­nent: you stay on your feet, and you don’t com­mit a foul. If you break ei­ther of these rules you will be hear­ing all about it from Klopp.

What Xhaka did showed us that things are dif­fer­ent at Ar­se­nal. You can do these sorts of things and stay in the side. This is why Ar­se­nal, for a long time now, have been prone to the sort of ba­sic de­fen­sive lapses that should not hap­pen at a top club.

Think back to Jan­uary, when they lost 4-2 to Not­ting­ham For­est in the FA Cup third round – the first time they’d been knocked out of the com­pe­ti­tion at that stage un­der Wenger.

At 0-0, For­est won a free-kick on the right and Ar­se­nal set up a two-man wall on the edge of the box, just a yard or two from the goal line. But the Ar­se­nal de­fend­ers in the cen­tre stood along the six-yard line, ap­par­ently obliv­i­ous to the fact that the po­si­tion of the wall meant that any op­po­si­tion player could stand goal­side of them and still be on­side.

Fas­ci­nat­ing

None of the Ar­se­nal de­fend­ers no­ticed, but Erik Lichaj and For­est’s set­piece taker Kieran Dow­ell both did, and a mo­ment later an un­marked Lichaj had headed Dow­ell’s driven free-kick into the net from barely a yard out.

The Europa League is Wenger’s last chance to leave Ar­se­nal on a high, and the semi-fi­nal against Atlético Madrid is fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause Atlético are the anti-Ar­se­nal. This is a team that doesn’t just know how to de­fend, but ac­tively loves de­fend­ing.

Their coach, Diego Sime­one, summed up their at­ti­tude in the won­der­ful trib­ute he paid his play­ers after the 1-1 draw in the first leg: “The team had to keep go­ing ev­ery minute. That’s the most beau­ti­ful thing about foot­ball . . . You guys have no idea how dif­fi­cult it is to de­fend. Foot­ball is about play­ing and play­ing is the fun part, but you’ve got to have balls to de­fend with 10 men for 80 min­utes.”

Wenger be­lieves his team plays best when ev­ery­one is hav­ing fun, and he has al­ways tried to en­cour­age a vibe of con­fi­dence and cre­ativ­ity, to the point where it ap­pears as though he avoids work­ing on de­fence be­cause he doesn’t want to cloud the play­ers’ minds with neg­a­tive en­ergy.

Sime­one turns neg­a­tive en­ergy to his ad­van­tage. Xavi Hernán­dez has mar­velled at how Sime­one can get a tal­ented player like Koke to sub­mit him­self so com­pletely to the de­mands of Atlético’s de­fen­sive sys­tem, to chase and scrap like a man with one-tenth of his abil­ity. It’s be­cause Sime­one knows how a team can be bound to­gether through mu­tual sac­ri­fice; the team that bleeds to­gether, stays to­gether.

He un­der­stands that, in a strange way, play­ers are hap­pi­est when they are suf­fer­ing. The deep sat­is­fac­tion Atlético’s play­ers had at the fi­nal whis­tle last Thurs­day is a feel­ing that Ar­se­nal’s play­ers have had too sel­dom in re­cent years.

Some me­dia spec­u­lated that Thurs­day’s first leg amounted to Sime­one’s au­di­tion for the Ar­se­nal job. It’s true that Sime­one’s idea of what foot­ball is all about is in tune with the an­cient, half-re­mem­bered rhythms of Ar­se­nal in the pre-Wenger age.

But the idea of Sime­one re­plac­ing Wenger di­rectly is ridicu­lous. The cul­ture shock would be too in­tense, for Sime­one as much as for the Ar­se­nal play­ers.

It’s enough for Ar­se­nal to learn from the ex­am­ple of Sime­one and his team. As they seek Wenger’s re­place­ment, they should not be look­ing for a “states­man”, or a “healer”, or some­one who is good in press con­fer­ences, or some­one who has a rep­u­ta­tion for play­ing “pro­gres­sive” foot­ball.

They should be look­ing above all for some­one who un­der­stands the power of strug­gle and sac­ri­fice, some­one who will push the Ar­se­nal play­ers to their lim­its, be­cause deep down, that’s the kind of coach most play­ers re­ally want.

Ar­se­nal should be look­ing for some­one who un­der­stands the power of strug­gle and sac­ri­fice, who will push play­ers to the limit

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