Paging Yao Ming: Wenger is looking for height
Arsenal gave up 23 goals from set pieces the same as last season. This amounts to 53.5% of goals conceded, the highest in the Premiership. The explanation given by Wenger after Arsenal’s humiliating loss to Stoke.
” We have conceded, I think, 21 from set-pieces and only 17 in open play. That is something we have to correct. It is the easiest thing to correct in the game but you still must understand the flight of the ball and want to be first to the ball. I feel we are sometimes a bit naïve.”
There was no mention of height as a factor then. But now three weeks later, Wenger issues another eureka moment.
“It’s something that’s easy to correct. We need to improve the size of our squad. We need a bigger variety in the height of our players. We need to be more capable of fighting against some characteristics than we have been this season.”
There is a scattershot quality to these solutions. Such statements only further the woolly headedness and confusion that characterize Arsenal’s defensive efforts in the last few years.
Both solutions point to different defensive aspects that are “easy to correct”. What is missing in Wenger’s “feeling his way through” is the associative component. This is where Pat Rice should step up with his input but Wenger seems to putting more of premium on a comfortable relationship.
Height is an obvious prerequisite for a central defender but to put that attribute to its best use you need exceptional positional sense and speed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the NBA. The best tall men are those with an uncanny ability to be at the right place and time.
David Robinson aka the Admiral with his commanding 7′ 1” frame also had the quickest hands and excellent spatial sense around the hoop on his way to becoming one of the NBA’s best rebounders and shot blockers. His defensive efforts lifted the San Antonio Spurs to their first championship ring. Yao Ming, 6″ taller than Robinson, came into the league with much fanfare; over time, has proven far less accomplished.
These qualities are honed through experience and it is small wonder centre backs start peaking towards the mid to late 20’s.
Kolo Toure is a good example. In his last season (2008-09) at Arsenal, the side conceded just 12 set piece goals as Toure cleared the ball 129 times, more than any player in the present squad. With Sol Campbell as partner in 2006, the Gunners only gave up 9. Campbell was already 30 years old and Toure five years less. This segues us to crucial aspect of set piece defending – it is a collective effort where each trusts the other to stick to their assignment. In the NFL defensive breakdowns are aptly called “blown coverage”. Much of Arsenal’s woes can be pointed to someone who forgot to do their job.
The best in the business Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have played five seasons together with the former close to 30 and his partner two years older. After this time spent together they epitomize discipline and focus.
Sticking Thomas Vermaelen with a raw 6′ 6″ centre back is not going to solve matters. Going to the French Ligue for a cut rate bargain is not going to solve the problem of experience and the learning curve. What you need is someone who gives you all these qualities in one package and proven themselves at the highest level. That someone should be a Brede Hangeland type with stats like 424 headed clearances topping the league. Fulham conceded just 10 set piece goals, the fewest in the league. That 13 goal difference could have been the difference between 4th place and the title. Therein lies the solution.