Swansea v. Arsenal: defense wins cups

Arsenal take the trip to Wales today to face Swansea in the third round of the FA Cup and realistically this is Arsenal’s last decent chance to win a trophy this season. And if they have a hope to win that trophy, the FA Cup, they need to start with a solid defense.

Some of my favorite Arsenal memories are from the FA Cup. Freddie shucking John Terry to the ground and then curling in a David Villa-esque shot. His mop of dyed-red hair dancing all around as he celebrated in front of the Arsenal faithful. Patrick Vieira kicking the winning penalty and then lifting his last cup for Arsenal. All some of my favorite Arsenal memories.

That last one, though, was only a favorite memory in that we all knew that Vieira was leaving Arsenal. So, sentimentally I kept thinking that it was really nice to see him get to lift the cup, and of course, that he took the kick. The game itself was fucking dire.

I had to pay $30 to pay-per-view that game, and if I remember correctly Man U dominated Arsenal. Shot after shot came in from Rooney and Ronaldo and Lehmann was forced to make increasingly important save after save. Lauren looked like shit against Ronaldo, Bergkamp had as poor a match as I had seen from him, Pires’ best chance went well over the bar on and on it went as Arsenal looked like they were going to succumb at any minute to United’s pressure.

Go back and look at the stats. Arsenal took just 8 shots but committed 29 fouls and Reyes was sent off: Man U had 14 shots on goal, 55% of the possession, and 12 corner kicks (to Arsenal’s 1). That game was the antithesis of everything I had learned that Arsenal stood for: possession based, fluid, attacking football. On that day, we were the defense first team. Or as ESPN put it:

It was, in truth, a complete travesty. A sporting robbery of the highest order, with only Lehmann’s brilliance and a goal-line clearance from Freddie Ljungberg having kept Arsenal in the game at all.

But it worked. Arsenal won the FA Cup.

Defense first as a tactic works in cup games and especially in one-off cup games, such as a cup final. That’s how Chelsea and how Mourninho’s Inter both won the Champions League and how Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2005.

From the start of Arsene’s tenure to 2005, Arsenal actually used to have a damn good record in the FA Cup and most of that stemmed from the fact that Arsenal used to be a more solidly defensive team. This isn’t to say that Wenger won four FA Cups by playing like Chelsea did in the Champions League: Arsenal didn’t always play defense first, but they could if they needed to.

I went back through the history of Arsenal’s FA Cup matches from 2002 to 2012 and looked at goals for versus goals against and you will probably not at all be surprised to find out that the fewer goals that Arsenal allowed, the deeper they went in the cup. They also used to score more goals as well proving that it’s not just about defense, it’s both but defense matters more.

FA Cup

As you can see from the graph, Arsenal’s three best defensive records in the FA Cup (since 2002) are 2002, 2003, and 2005. 2009′s cup run was the best defense of the post-Invincibles but significantly, Arsenal’s defense has gotten worse since 2005 and despite the offense doing OK, Arsenal haven’t really challenged, with the exception of 2009 when Arsenal were stopped in the semi-finals thanks to Didier Drogba’s 84th minute winner.

That 2005 run, though, is significant because it’s Arsenal’s worst offensive output per game (1.29) but also Arsenal’s stingiest defense with just 0.29 goals allowed per game. In fact, Arsenal’s best cup run offensively was 2004 when they scored 3 goals a game. Those were the Invincibles, remember, and everyone had them tipped for the treble. That run was stopped by Man U 1-0, another dire affair, this time dire because Man U were the defense first team.

Tomorrow against Swansea I think we are going to see a game that is decided more by solid defending than by offense. Many people think Arsenal are going to go to the Liberty Stadium, control the game, dominate possession, and score with aplomb. If they admit any weakness it’s likely that “Arsenal might let in a goal or two” but that “we’ve got the talent that can win this”.

But in the last meeting of these two teams, at the Emirates I will add, Arsenal didn’t do any of those things. In fact, in that meeting Arsenal were beaten at their own game by a team which seems to have nearly perfected the Arsenal style; possession-based, free-flowing, attacking football.

That’s why I wonder if Arsene might not have a trick up his sleeve? Let Swansea dominate possession and passing, invite them to come at Arsenal and hit them with fast counter-attacks. It seems to me that this is a game tailor-made for Theo Walcott’s pace. Few teams in the League are going to play a high line like Swansea, few play the rondo football that Arsenal are known for, and few have as vulnerable a defense to counter attacks as Swansea.

We don’t know now what Wenger’s plan is and whether it will work. But personally? I wouldn’t mind a bit of that 2005 Arsenal tomorrow.


21 thoughts on “Swansea v. Arsenal: defense wins cups

  1. Vote -1 Vote +1Anirudh

    I remember that game and saying ‘screwthe beautiful game this once, we just won another trophy’.
    But curious to see how the same numbers stack up for all teams. Aren’t all teams conceding more these days?

  2. Vote -1 Vote +1Cliffy

    What I read is…we should get stuck in…put our bodies in the line and prevent Swansea goal with all we can…knick one when we get a counter…

    I can only be happy if we do that this game and get to the next round…

    But I think there is going to be more to this…Wenger has smelt blood…
    He has seen the whole fans atleast toying with the idea that he is getting things wrong..and that he is not good enough…From Christmas to now…despite a Bradford reversal..he has now managed to prove himself out again..to the doubters.

    The team might be short of confidence, but Arsene is growing in strength.. He has all the cards for Walcott..and come out with a statement in the line of…”I decide who is getting paid what”…meaning his hands are not tied in Theo’s case. He has resources to buy players… and touch wood…a full stength team ( what with even Abou Diaby training with first team).

    He seem to know what to do…I think the right way to get into this tie is go “devil may care” and hit Swansea for a six. You need to snatch the control from teams like Swansea and put them into place…something of the attitude what we showed against spurs.

    Its not like we should fear them…we dont have to..All said and done..they are 3 places below us..(or 4 with the in-hand game). We have scored a quarter more goals than them and conceeded less than them..

    I really doubt putting defense first is going on Arsene’s mind..he will definitely ask to cut supply lines to Michu..but beyond that..he is going to give Chico flores and Ashley williams a torrid time and ask the players to deliver cross after cross for Giroud. An go all offensive in set pieces..

    It wouldnt surprise me if Per gets a goal today..

    1. Vote -1 Vote +1Fournier Michael

      Well if you count being responsible for Swansea’s goal Per can claim that. Sorry I has been 7 years now I have been a miserable bastard thanks to supporting Arsenal football club I am not sure my family can take anymore of this. As every game even those we win I am hell to live with. We may have won scoring 7 vs Newcastle but that game was hardly won until the last 10 min. The score line does not give a fair reflection of how the Arsenal played. We are terribly lacking not just in the back 4 but everywhere when it come to how to play when the other team has the ball. it seems until the opposition cocks it up we have no one that can make a defensive play

  3. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1feng

    Theo seems to have decided he is a center forward whose job is only to hang around the penalty box, or to take all corners and freekicks.

  4. Vote -1 Vote +1Zeddington

    A modicum of defence would’ve won us this game, frankly. I think on the balance we were the better team, but for the first goal Michu was able to just glide through and finish without any resistance, and for the latter it seemed like all our defenders were stuck in time.

    Great finishes for our goals, and I love watching Giroud play – what an assist. I love how he just thwacks it at goal. But I couldn’t have been the only one cursing Wenger when he wen’t down injured. No CF on the bench (Poldi seen as a winger), and everyone in Europe already knowing we need an attacking player. Thankfully he got back up.

    If we progress we get Brighton & Hove Albion, a lower league team. Which means Swansea will either beat us at the Emirates, or we’ll progress and go out on penalties.

    1. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Shard

      You do realise Bradford was the first time we’ve lost to a lower league team under Wenger? But I did groan when we potentially drew Brighton. I watched them play yesterday, and they are like Swansea, and there’s no doubt they’ll look to play us the same way, and could cause us real problems.

      I think today showed that we need a midfielder who can shield the back 4. Arteta can do it, but not every match. Coquelin is probably not ready yet. And as you say, another striker too. I thought the same when Giroud went down. Do we know how exactly he got injured? Also, what’s the view on Ramsey? Was he tripped? I thought he was, but the commentators were adamant he tripped himself.

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1jop

        Laudrup did his homework on the zonal marking we employ. Overload the back zone and loft the ball into the space for a 3 on or 3 on 2 situation right in the 18 yard box.

    2. Vote -1 Vote +1Fournier Michael

      Wow I thought I was cynical. even I do not count loses before they happen. I may realistically believe that every game will be hard for our current squad but I at lest wait until they actually play the game before I count them out. (maybe that is my problem I just keep coming back for more only to be let down every year)

      1. Vote -1 Vote +1Zeddington

        Put it down to recent disappointments in cups to teams we should beat (Bradford, Brum, hell even PSV in the Champions League a few years back). The Bradford defeat was deeply disappointing, because it seemed like we had daylight to at least the semis.

        In any case, I think Tim’s hypothesis that defence wins cups is sound. Our defence isn’t all that tight, so we’ll struggle.

  5. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1ctpa

    Why do professional footballers need to be told that you’re playing too slow, like crap, with no energy, with a lack of intensity?

    Now that Gibbs has scored that first time volley, we can now say it is no biggie ;) Let’s play Gibbs through the middle ;)

    I’d rate Walcott a 2 today for getting on the bus on time and wearing the right colored kit. You can already see what kind of ‘star player’ walcott will be when he signs and he won’t be a Jack Wilshere.

    Vermaelen is my MOTM because if he had played, Michu doesn’t score that goal.

    it is a measure of his ability that when Diaby comes back, he shows you what you missed and what he can be. Rosicky comes back and he just lights it up. Ramsey has been back and even when played centrally, he’s just not there and may never get there again.

  6. +1 Vote -1 Vote +11NiltotheArsenal

    Michu is the new Didier Drogba.- the scourge of Arsenal.
    Szczcesny was poor on the 2nd goal.
    Gibbs was MOTM.
    Exciting 2nd half…for neutrals. Otherwise another nail-biting disappointment for Gooners. At least we have a 2nd go at this…

  7. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Bunburyist

    Swansea have figured us out. Actually, a lot of teams have figured us out. And by “figured out,” I mean “figured out our defense smells like a big stinky shit that’s just hit the air.”

  8. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Shard

    Worryingly, Sagna had his 3rd or 4th poor game in a row (in my opinion of course) Is he playing through an injury? If so, why? Jenkinson did well at the start of the season, but has disappeared since. Is this another sort of contract tussle that is going on and not reported on so much because Theo steals the English press’ attention? Sagna needs to rediscover his form quick. What happened to Mr Consistent?

    Bould needs to bash some heads together. Two poorly defended set pieces in a row led to the second goal. And the first was a typically annoying Arsenal conceded goal. Just when we’d started to apply pressure on their goal too.

    Oh well, we live to fight another day. In other news, Liverpool needed Suarez to show yet again how much of a shameless cheat he is to beat NON LEAGUE Mansfield Town.

  9. Vote -1 Vote +11ntta

    Did anyone notice that the what looked like huge shit stains on the uniforms were an accurate reflection of the at least the 1st half.

  10. Vote -1 Vote +1Caribkid

    At least we showed some passion, energy and desire in the 2nd half, even though our finishing was far from clinical.

    This was a microcosm of our season so far. Have yet to see us truly play all 90 minutes, faulty finishing and letting in undeserved goals.

    Oh well, we live to fight another day.

    1. -1 Vote -1 Vote +1Tee Song

      Agreed. As an aside, what is it about Koz’s defensive clearances that either end up as own goals or assists to the opposition? On the first goal, his clearance ends up a perfectly weighted assist for Michu to run onto and take it past Mert. Against Newcastle, his attempted clearance on Obertan’s cross put the ball perfectly between Szczesny and his fellow defenders for Marveaux’s tap in. Why can’t he seem to put a foot through the ball when he needs to? Is his positioning just off enough that he gets to those balls a fraction late? Slow reaction time? Poor foot speed? Lack of skill? I don’t know what it is but he seems to have a lot of touches where the ball ends up in dangerous area for Arsenal.

  11. Vote -1 Vote +1FCArsenal

    Talking of history in the FA Cup….

    Arsenal, between 1998 and 2005, reached the semi-final or better of the FA Cup in all years except 2000!!!

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