Be bold, Steve!
This is a long overdue move. Pat Rice was joined at Arsene Wenger’s hip as his assistant, an association that dates 16 years since the Frenchman joined the club. He has been part of Arsenal’s glorious past as well as its less stellar present. But it is clear that Arsenal need to reverse course with some new thinking especially when it comes to the defensive end.
There have been times this season when Arsenal’s defense stood out looking sharp and pre-emptive but as demonstrated against Norwich, Blackburn, Wigan, Swansea, QPR (take your pick) it has been more undisciplined and reactive. With such massive variations in performance there is no possibility of a default setting. But the statistic of 47 goals conceded stands out as another egregious example of a defense gone bad. Arsenal will not win any future Premierships if this continues.
At the heart, Arsenal rely on a centre back pair in Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny who show the requisite skills individually but in conjunction seem to be at odds. Vermaelen in particular with his attacking instincts gets caught out of position frequently and his method then to tackle his way out of that jam are sometimes subject to a referee’s worst interpretation. Per Mertesacker suffers from no illusion going forward but he is about a step slower for the pace of the Premiership. Johan Djourou waxes and wanes in his performances and he and Vermaelen get shunted around depending on injuries and the exigencies of a team involved in multiple competitions.
Bacary Sagna is still one of the best right backs in the business but he faces a long off season re-fracturing his right leg. At left back Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos have shown they don’t fear going forward but the problem lies in their more porous ability to stop counter attacks. With Arsenal’s midfield looking less incisive and assured in possession, Alexander Song has thrust himself into the role of creative spark with more pronounced forays into the top third. Unfortunately, Song has shown to be more remiss in controlling the backfield in the absence of Mikel Arteta or an off day from the former Evertonian.
Last year it was set pieces that deflated Arsenal’s season. This year they have considerably improved in that department but a soft midfield highlighted Arsenal’s Achilles heel against strong counterattacking teams that break in numbers. When you play such a high line and compress the field you’re playing percentages. There has to be a corresponding recognition that it takes inches to be onside. Maintaining a defensive shape and being disciplined is key to dealing when losing possession which has plagued the Gunners more so than any past season (the passing accuracy has been the lowest in years). The sight of so many sides floating a long ball down the centre or quickly snapping to the flanks to surge upfield while Arsenal gather their defensive wits has become all too familiar.
These are some of the vexing issues that Steve Bould faces in his role as Wenger’s new assistant. However the biggest challenge he faces are two fold.
One, chart a course to bring back the philosophy that defense can be used to subjugate and win matches. This is nothing new to Wenger. It was the way Arsenal became ascendant in the late 90s for about six years. The 2004 Invincibles share a stunning resemblance to this year’s unbeaten Juventus side. Plenty of creative wheels but more so an intimidating, forceful back line that buckled the knees of the opposition with each tackle. Teams were afraid of playing Arsenal. After 2005, defense fell of Wenger’s radar and it coincides with Arsenal’s dip in fortunes.
Two, to get Wenger to invest in defenders who make that transition possible. This is easier said then done with a manager as stubborn, thrifty, and micro-managing as Wenger. But Bould also has the luxury of hindsight having seen the after effects of seven years of short termism. The Arsenal manager’s choices in this critical area have been scattershot, built on expediency, and the economic bottom line. Bould cannot afford to be a rubber stamp in Wenger’s budgeting and has to be a forceful and independent minded advocate of bringing backfield quality to the Emirates. Pat Rice was hired more for his ease working with Wenger and not for any fresh insights or activism. Bould along with Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon were part of the famous four that brought Wenger his first success in the Premiership. It was a template for future success.