By Tim Todd, Early Game Specialist
Swansea came the Grove and took a huge gamble to play defense first against an in-form Arsenal side. But in the end their gamble paid a jackpot as took their chance and left Arsene Wenger and the collected Arsenal faithful bitterly disappointed.
There is a fallacy in football that defending first is easy. It’s not easy, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Defending first means that the players can’t make any mistakes. Since the defensive team is sitting deep in their own half, any mistakes that they make are compounded by a lack of space to recover and shift. So, the defensive team has to be extremely efficient in defense.
And when they get the ball in attack (which they always will), they have to also be extremely efficient in offense and exploit any chances the opposition presents. That was Garry Monk’s plan against Arsenal and that is exactly how they beat Arsenal.
Arsenal fans shouldn’t complain about this tactic either. Arsene Wenger adopted the defense first stance away to West Ham in December. Wenger conceded possession and beat the Hammers 2-1. And as much as we like to complain and cry “boring boring” Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea adopted this tactic time and again in big games and won the League. The big difference between Swansea playing defense first and Arsenal or Chelsea playing defense first is in quality.
Mourinho and Wenger can get away with the defense first tactic because they have the quality up front to exploit spaces and create big chances. It is easier to play defense first when you’ve got Cesc Fabregas pumping in long balls to Eden Hazard who is passing to Diego Costa. When you have quality players like Cazorla, Fabregas, Hazard Costa, and Alexis Sanchez the tactic looks more like you’re trying to win. But it’s a much different prospect when you’ve only got Jefferson Montero and Bafetembi Gomis. Which is what makes it such a gamble for Swansea to attempt.
That leads me to the second fallacy in football; defending first means you’re not trying to win: no one is telling the players not to shoot when they get the chance, no one looks disappointed when they score a goal, and no one is dressing down their teammates when they win the game. They are trying to win, they are just trying to win in the most efficient manner possible. And doing so with lesser quality players.
Wenger, though, after the game claimed exactly that:
We were unlucky I think against a team who refused to play completely and just defended. We couldn’t take advantage of it. They came just to defend with four defenders and six midfielders. If you win – fantastic, if you lose people say, ‘Why do you not play?’. They won so they are fantastic.
Garry Monk saw the result differently:
We could have come here and gone toe-to-toe but they could have hurt us. We didn’t have a fully fit striker. There are times you have to be adaptable. If people don’t like that it’s not my problem. The idea was to get to the last 20 minutes, still be in the game, make our substitutions and try to win.
Both managers are correct in their assessment of the match. Wenger is correct that Swansea came to defend first and that Arsenal couldn’t break them down: Arsenal only managed 5 shots in the first half and didn’t register a shot on goal until the 58th minute. That is simply not good enough. And when Arsenal did get a good shot, late in the game, Alexis and Walcott both struck tamely right at Fabianski. If they had shot the ball almost anywhere else, we would be telling a different story today.
Meanwhile, Monk is correct that if Swansea had tried to go toe-to-toe with Arsenal the Gunners probably would have won the game easily. So, he didn’t do that. Wouldn’t you have done the same thing?
In the aftermath of the match there are many people second-guessing Arsene’s substitutions and I suppose that, the obvious criticism, is warranted to some degree. Walcott for Giroud didn’t make any sense. Walcott is a runner, he needs space to run into in order to terrify defenders. Space in that match, with Swansea sitting so deep, was non-existent.
But for me, the biggest criticism of the match is that Arsenal have two weaknesses which managers are now publicly talking about. The first is that Arsenal lack fitness toward the end of games. Garry Monk isn’t the first manager to say that he wanted to get to the last 20 minutes of the match, Monaco’s manager, Leonardo Jardim, said something similar when he bragged “We knew that Arsenal were always strong in the first half – and a lot less in the second” after the French side beat the Gunners 3-1.
The second weakness is that Arsenal are susceptible to crosses and headers. Arsenal have now conceded 12 of their 34 goals allowed from headers. That’s the worst percentage (35%) of any team in the League. Wenger himself is even aware of the problem and in the post match presser stated:
We knew exactly what could happen. It was not even a break. We were warned of the kind of goal they could score with Montero kicking the ball in the air and we were short in jumping for the ball.
Koscielny has looked strangely uncertain in aerial duels this season and I wonder if his injury is still bothering him. Last season Arsenal allowed just 8 of 41 goals off headers and the season before just 6 of 37, so this season’s sudden increase is a bit worrying.
In the end, the result is especially painful because it means that Arsenal’s chances of finishing in second place are nearly out of our hands. It also makes next Sunday’s match against Man U a must win game. And as Arsenal fans have seen time and again, United will almost certainly “refuse to play completely and just defend”.
That’s entirely their right. It’s Arsene’s job to find a way to break that down.