One of the take home points from the opening weekend of the 2017/18 Premier League season was just how little has changed at both Arsenal and Liverpool with the defensive issues that plagued their respective efforts last year still alarmingly present in their first matches this season.
Arsenal just about grabbed a 4-3 victory at home to Leicester City in what was the pick of the weekend’s football however it was the inability to keep the back door shut which will concern fans who hope for a real title challenge this term.
At Vicarage Road it was the same story for Jurgen Klopp’s charges with their forward line performing absolutely perfectly. It says a lot when you score three goals away from home in the Premier League and still fail to come away with all three points.
Coaching the real issue
Sadly however, all talk of potential incomings and strong recruitment don’t actually make either sets of supporters rest any easier because it is clear by now that the huge defensive problems for both teams actually stem from the style of coaching at first-team level.
Playing free-flowing, exciting football in attack is brilliant but if you can’t be organised defensively then it will ultimately be useless. Last season Liverpool were probably the best attacking team in the Premier League, perhaps level with Manchester City, yet a sheer inability to keep goals out prevented either team from reaching their full potential with regards to the title race.
You just need to look at the team who eventually lifted the trophy, Chelsea, to see that a solid defence is the key to winning championships. As it is in the NFL, it is in the Premier League. Antonio Conte’s side were efficient enough on the counter attack but it was in defence where they were truly exceptional.
Gary Cahill performed far above his natural ability whilst David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta swept up nicely alongside him. Organisation was absolutely key with the system setup to repel attacks. N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic’s shielding presence just in front of the back-three made Chelsea appear impenetrable on occasion. Liverpool and Arsenal simply don’t have such a mechanism in their teams.
At Chelsea last season everybody knew their position and where they were supposed to be at specific junctures in play. Arsenal have long been a team with very little positional responsibility and this stems directly from Arsene Wenger’s desire to play the aesthetically perfect football match every single week.
Admiration doesn’t win titles
To a degree this should be admired but admiration does not win titles.
So often we see the North London club’s defensive midfielders overlapping the full-backs in attacking moves. This is fine in matches where you are comfortable, see Matic’s marauding display against West Ham United on Sunday afternoon, but when you are up against it you must dig in and be organised.
On Friday evening the hosts started with a midfield double-pivot of Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka and going forward they were a handful but there were mistakes there. Charging forward prevented them from being in position to do their jobs.
Jamie Vardy enjoyed great and regular success getting on the shoulder of the defensive line and running in behind. Rob Holding, despite his best efforts, couldn’t lay a glove on him.
Elneny and Xhaka were nowhere to be found to cut out these passes to him or at the very list one of them could have opted to essentially man-mark Vardy for a spell just before and after the half-time interval when he was most dangerous, but that just doesn’t seem to be part of the thought process at the Emirates Stadium.
The Van Dijk conundrum
For the Merseyside club it was the same old story of not being able to deal with set-pieces in any fashion whatsoever. It says something that two of Watford’s three goals on Saturday came from corners.
The debate about Virgil van Dijk potentially arriving as Liverpool’s defensive saviour rages on and there is merit on both sides. The Dutchman would walk into Anfield as easily the best defender at the club, by some distance, yet it is once again a lack of organisation which is really costing them on the pitch.
Roberto Firmino was the Liverpool player entrusted with standing at the near post and dealing with the ball in. The Brazilian stands at 5’9” and winning aerial battles isn’t a strong point of his game.
Surely it would be beneficial to have a player who can truly attack the ball at the near post and clear the danger before it gets into the critical area just in front of the goalkeeper.
Van Dijk’s arrival wouldn’t change that, it was a pre-arranged tactic before kick-off; the Dutchman would likely take the position of one of Dejan Lovren or Joel Matip in the middle of the penalty area.
In open play the Reds continue to suffer from being unbalanced and it impacts their defence. The Hornets’ biggest threat was of course the set-pieces but make no mistake they tested Liverpool on the counter with the visitors again being too focused on attacking and leaving their backline isolated without protection.
Weaknesses not addressed and probably won’t be
One thing you can say about Arsenal is that they were playing with a makeshift defence with both Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi unavailable, added to that the experience of Per Mertesacker was also missing.
A central-defensive trio made up of Holding and two full-backs in Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac was always a recipe for defensive disaster.
Most supporters are frustrated because there has been a whole summer and the weaknesses of both clubs haven’t been addressed but it is clear that they never would have been. They are directly linked to how the two teams are instructed to play and it is unlikely this will change, especially in the case of the veteran French coach and Arsenal.
Whether or not the two teams have the capability to outscore their way to a Premier League title remains to be seen but all the evidence of previous seasons suggests not. Defensive signings may arrive before the window closes but for the moment the defensive frailties show no sign of disappearing and this has to encourage the teams around them.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn
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