Yes folks, it has been a while since I have posted. Lets just say it was a combination of work commitments and a period to observe and collect thoughts. My focus in this post is on the 2012/13 Barclays Premier League season and its all about the strugglers with a special look at the two North London giants.
Defensive stats and trends
Fourteen (14) games have been played thus far. It has been clear to see that team defences have struggled with even the established top 4 clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City struggling to keep goals out early on. This settled a bit with Manchester City returning to their stinginess in the back from last season, while Arsenal and Chelsea who started well defensively have begun to ship more goals than they would like. Manchester United has been very leaky in the back but they have offset this with an impressive goals per game figure of 2.4. As it stands Manchester City and Stoke City have conceded the fewest goals with Arsenal and Chelsea behind them. The shakiness of Thomas Vermaelen for Arsenal and David Luiz for Chelsea have contributed largely to poor defensive showings on occasion from both sides. At the same time both sides have not defended well as a team. Chelsea’s superior standing certainly has been due to their ability to put together more wins and score more goals. Stoke has always been notoriously tough to break down especially at their Britannia stadium.
Traditional contenders for top 4 struggle – Whats wrong?
These two North London clubs have traditionally challenged for top 4 status in the Premier League with Arsenal being a frequent qualifier for the UEFA Champions League. Arsenal has qualified for the Champions League for 15 years in a row while Spurs has played Europa league football for the past few years after getting a taste of Champions League football a few years ago.
Many pundits felt that Arsenal had a great start to the season before the recent dip in form. I beg to differ. It is always difficult to lose your two best players from the previous season, especially if one is Robin Van Persie who scored 30 odd goals. The other loss being the reliable and much improved midfielder Alex Song. Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were signed to fill the gaps and integrating them into the existing setup for the beginning of the season was the challenge for manager Arsene Wenger and his staff. What resulted was a slow start with two goalless draws against Sunderland and Stoke City where the team lacked penetration in the final third of the pitch and the few chances created were wasted with Giroud being especially culpable.
On the other hand, Arsenal showed a new found defensive resilience. The team’s defending had clearly improved, especially in and around their own penalty area. In their third game they defended tightly and counter attacked nicely against Liverpool yet again getting a clean sheet in a two nil victory. After some good results against Manchester City and Southampton they stumbled to their first loss of the season against Chelsea. They have been on a rocky road since and one of the turning points was the injury to Abou Diaby in that Chelsea game. His dynamism in the midfield in tandem with the crafty Cazorla was a big positive for Arsenal and this has been sorely missed since. Arsenal has struggled to break teams down at times and of late have been shipping goals at an alarming rate. They also seem to lack a plan to get past packed defences or sides that defend with ‘two lines of four’. Arsene Wenger was at one point also considering a new system employing three central defenders with two wingbacks to stem the flow of goals. One problem that stands out in the defence is the lack of communication in the center of defence. Very often both stoppers are caught square and one through ball as a result is beating both men. The form of captain Vermaelen is especially worrying and he has not imposed himself in the heart of the back four sometimes making some ‘schoolboy errors’.
Even though the contributions of Walcott and Giroud have been encouraging, recently, there seems to be a school of thought that if Cazorla is shut out of the game Arsenal can be impotent as an attacking force. A few teams this season have employed tactics to keep Cazorla off the ball and forcing him deep which has worked in limiting Arsenal. Some teams have also pressed high on Arsenal not allowing Arteta to take the ball off the back four and start the play. This has also thrown Arsenal off their stride. We await Wenger’s tactical shift to accomodate for these strategies of opposing sides. In addition to that the team does not have the depth of quality to challenge for a title and the activity of Arsenal in the January transfer window will be interesting.
Spurs had a tough start under new coach Andre Villas Boas but just when it seemed they had steadied the ship they lost at home to Wigan in a toothless display followed by a 2-1 defeat away to Manchester City. They were also were badly beaten in the North London derby by Arsenal. Spurs have been playing a high defensive line and against teams with quick forwards/wingers that can time their runs from behind they have been found wanting. An example of this was in the game against Arsenal where Theo Walcott exploited the space in behind. They have clearly missed new signing Moussa Dembele in midfield with his incisive dribbling and passing from deep as he was injured on October 16th, however, he returned to action in the 2-1 victory over Liverpool this week.
Villas Boas has shown a lot of faith in Jermain Defoe and the experienced striker has so far delivered with seven goals while Gareth Bale has been very consistent with some excellent displays on the left side. AVB has maintained the Spurs tradition of two out and out wingers in Lennon and Bale but there are clear issues in the back as veteran William Gallas has produced several mistakes resulting in goals against. AVB has departed from his usual 4-3-3 system and shown the willingness to try a 4-4-2 formation when he lined Spurs up in that fashion against Arsenal. Unfortunately a red card for Emmanuel Adebayor did not allow us to see how this would pan out but a combination of Adebayor with Defoe would be an interesting front pairing of pace and power. AVB has always believed in a lone frontman with two wingers and a three man midfield so we anxiously await the return of Adebayor from suspension to see if the manager will once again line up his side as 4-4-2. Another interesting development is the recall of ‘the forgotten man’ Michael Dawson who was also handed the armband on his return. With Dawson back and the emergence of talented young stopper Steven Caulker I expect Spurs to improve defensively.
New signing Jan Vertonghen has also begun to settle at White Hart Lane and the returns of left fullback Assou-Ekotto and midfield enforcer Scott Parker are anxiously awaited by the Spurs fans. The verdict is still out on Spurs under AVB but with a strike force of Defoe, Adebayor, Bale, Dempsey and Dembele they cannot be written off.
Will these two top four contenders continue to struggle for consistency? Or will they rise to the occasion and cement a top four spot?
We anxiously await…