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Arun Pradeep
Wednesday, March 06, 2013 at 18 : 02

EPL: Arsenal in free-fall


You can take four good defenders but they don't just become a good unit by accident. The durability has been down to the characters themselves but also down to hard work. And it can be repetitive and tedious. Then it works. In training with George (Graham, former Arsenal coach), we would constantly work on forwards against defence. At first it was one on one, with the ball thrown to the attacker and the defender working him. Then two vs two, to learn how to work as a pair. Then a back four moving together - getting organized, dropping off to cover the run (of the opposition).

'No, no, no, stop. Like this,' George would interrupt. He would stand with his arms outstretched. 'My shoulders are the centre-backs and the palms of my hands the full-backs,' he would say. And he would move his arms to show how the movement of all four components should be linked. - Former Arsenal captain Tony Adams, in his autobiography, Addicted

Wojciech Szczesny ran backwards a couple of yards, stood hunched over, and nervously jumped up and down. His white gloves were dangling either side of him, his arms ready to snuff out any surprise attempt to chip him from afar.

Then he waited. And waited, at the back of the large expanse of green that lay in front of him.

No one came. Not a solitary red shirt cared to track back to cover his goalkeeper, until a Lillywhite breached the defense. Aaron Lennon blindsided Thomas Vermaelen from the left, running into the Arsenal penalty area before collecting Scott Parker's exquisite through ball.

Szczesny, for his part, did not start running for the ball till Lennon had entered the penalty area, and by then it was too late. Lennon comfortably rounded Szczesny before putting Spurs 2-0 up. Szczesny picked himself up from the ground and started gesturing furiously at his backline, while Vermaelen, the Arsenal captain, looked on forlorn and disconsolate.

"Right, you're not going to come out running, are you?" the great Tony Adams would say to Alex Manninger, then a novice 'keeper who was deputising for David Seaman during the 1997/98 season. Manninger was in his early 20s then and had cost Arsenal a goal in a match against Middlesbrough by charging out of his area when he should have stayed put.

Manninger, Adams recalled, "would smile and shake his head. I enjoyed helping him, telling him when to leave his line and furthering his education process and he responded like a good professional".

On Sunday, Arsenal's back four were playing so far away from Szczesny at times it looked as if they had shipped off their goalkeeper alone to White Hart Lane to deal with Spurs. "The 2-0 (lead) gave them confidence to defend well and that's what they did for the rest of the game," was Arsene Wenger's now customary myopic observation after the match.

In truth, however, Spurs created the far superior number of chances on Sunday that, if converted, would have turned the 1-2 defeat into a riot. In a bid to shield his defenders from criticism arising from the lapses that cost the Spurs game, Wenger said that prior to the defeat to Tottenham, Arsenal had had the best defensive record in the league away from home. They still hold that record - sharing it with Manchester City now, 13 goals conceded in 14 away games - but there have been rumours that the defensive rigour that accompanied Arsenal's positive start to the season has been undermined by Wenger curbing the free hand given to Steve Bould, the former Arsenal defender who was promoted to Assistant Manager this season.

Bould was part of Arsenal's famous back four of the Nineties, winning three league titles and even a 'Double' of a Premier League title and the FA Cup in 1998 under Wenger's reign. Following Bould's appointment in the summer of 2012, Arsenal had started this season with three successive clean sheets and scored 24 goals in their first 10 matches across all competitions, while conceding only eight. They won six of their first 10 matches, drew three others and lost just once.

Now, however, the Gunners are out of contention in three of the four trophies they aimed to win at the start of the season, with their Champions League hopes hanging by a thread following a 1-3 demolition job at the Emirates by Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Round of 16. Defeats to Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers put an end to their League Cup and FA Cup ambitions respectively, while they are 24 points behind Manchester United in the title race.

Worse, Arsenal risk finishing below Spurs in the EPL table for the first time since 1995. "I still think we will fight for it," said Wenger when asked if Arsenal would continue fighting for fourth place. "That's for sure."

It's been eight years since Arsenal's last trophy - the FA Cup in 2005 - and Wenger finds his position and apparent immunity from the board increasingly questioned. It is clear that without a significant infusion of funds, Arsenal will not be able to secure the talent that will keep it at the top as well as retain those that will easily earn much higher than they do at the Emirates.

The club's principal owner, American billionaire Stan Kroenke, only recently let it be known that he would not consider selling the club to a rumoured Middle East consortium that is reportedly willing to make a huge bid for Arsenal. However, boasting one of the highest priced ticket schemes in the league and a wage bill disproportionate to the club's recent achievements, Arsenal will need to change things for the better soon, or they will further slide down the path of mediocrity.


More about Arun Pradeep

Arun Pradeep is a sports journalist who has covered international cricket and tennis events. A keen follower of European football and enthusiastic blogger, he has written extensively on the sport for the New Indian Express. His biggest dream is to see AC Milan play Newcastle United in the Champions League final with both teams sharing the trophy. Against better judgement and despite nebulous prospects, Arun firmly believes a writer's life is the best there is, even if his mom ends up footing the bills, as she often does.