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.
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.