Arsenal’s miserly defence already bearing hallmark of Bould
There’s something different about Arsenal this season – and it’s got nothing to do with the absence of a certain Dutchman. It’s as if the Gunners have been transported back in time. Back to the days when they despised conceding, when a solitary goal would be enough to secure three points; a period when clean sheets were treasured as much as goals and when fans would sing “We Shall Not Be Moved” with conviction.
Three games in and, dare I say it, Arsène Wenger’s class of 2012-13 looks like it has a bit of George Graham about it. The sceptics will mutter grimly that 270 minutes of watertight football against the likes of Sunderland, Stoke and an out-of-sorts Liverpool haven’t exactly stretched their resolve, or confirmed their status as defensive ogres once more.
And while I’d agree it is premature to draw concrete conclusions, I can say with a degree of certainty, having watched every second of their season so far, that these successive clean sheets were no lucky coincidence. The introduction of Steve Bould as the replacement for Pat Rice is beginning to look like a masterstroke.
The likes of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny have already waxed lyrical about their new mentor’s influence, passion and organisational skills, but even if they hadn’t spoken up, it’s obvious and apparent that Bouldy’s knowledge and experience are rubbing off.
For the first time since I marvelled at the Invincibles, Arsenal are showing just as much enthusiasm to protect their goalkeeper as they are to create pretty patterns and bomb forward to score goals. And it’s a sight to behold.
Up front, Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla are closing down people with purpose. Behind them, two rigid banks of four shuffle from side to side blocking spaces and intelligently steering their opponents away from the danger zone.
Some people saw the sale of Alex Song as a disaster, especially when the Arsenal boss chose not to recruit a new defensive midfielder, but Mikel Arteta’s discipline in the holding role has put the Cameroonian to shame – as has the equally sound positional play of partner Abou Diaby, who looks a player reborn.
Flanking the engine room, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Gervinho tracking back, putting in a shift to protect their full-backs. And then we come to the back four – a unit shorn of Bacary Sagna and Koscielny, incidentally – which has functioned magnificently. Sensible, cool-headed and organised, they’ve hardly given their rivals a sniff. In fact, no Premier League team has conceded fewer shots on target than Arsenal.
But let’s not get too carried away. The Gunners are still a work in progress, so you won’t find me predicting a sensational title triumph come May. Clawing back a 19-point deficit to the Manchester clubs will be near-impossible in just 12 months.
Too often in recent years, Arsenal’s focus has been skewed. Concentrating on attack, they’ve tried to outscore opponents, without giving enough care and attention to the damage that could be inflicted on them when they don’t have possession. And it has cost them. There can be no repeat of the 49 goals conceded last term.
This year, you can see there is a defensive game plan. At Stoke, Diaby stood in front of Peter Crouch every time a high ball was launched forward. It worked a treat. At Liverpool, the Gunners conceded possession knowing it would have to take a fantastic piece of creativity to break them down. It never happened.
Bould has brought some good old-fashioned George Graham nous and application back to the Arsenal set-up and it mustn’t be frowned upon. It’s just what the team needed.
The Emirates hasn’t yet rocked to the sound of ”1-0 to the Arsenal”, as Highbury did, but if the Gunners carry on the way they are, it won’t be long before it reclaims its place as north London’s number one terrace anthem.
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