The Case for the Defence
At this trying stage of the season, the issue of team selections is always going to be a prickly one. Arsenal were recently shaded by one goal in a very even F.A. Cup Semi Final against a team that cost roughly £130 million, whilst missing four defenders and a first choice goalkeeper and the criticism for the manager has bordered on pathological. This of course is because new signing and all round Golden boy Andrey Arshavin was left on the bench in favour of the brawn of Abou Diaby. Arshavin`s subsequent four goal cameo at Anfield has been used as a particularly pointy twig to affix the stick with which the manager is being beaten. Of course this largely ignores not only that Liverpool was a completely different game against completely different opposition, but firstly the lack of protection Arshavin afforded to Gibbs on Tuesday night, which was costly in its own way and would likely have been even more ruthlessly punished by Nicolas Anelka. But it also ignores that there is one manager in England who knows Arshavin`s strengths and, ergo, how to nullify them, better than Arsene Wenger. I will leave you to figure out who that manager is, but having watched Essien dish out an absolute master class in man marking against Steven Gerrard at Anfield ten days earlier, multiplied by Chelsea`s muscle in midfield to the power of Guus Hiidink`s inside knowledge of the Russian, I think Wenger`s decision made sense at the time he picked his team. You may think hindsight has proved Wenger wrong, I would not necessarily disagree, though there is no guarantee Arshavin would have changed the result, but I think the logic is simple enough for Wenger to be cut more slack than he has been in the aftermath.
With Arsenal now out of the F.A. Cup and with fourth place winking at us from the end of the tunnel, our focus is now more austere than it was seven days ago. When asked if players would be rested against Middlesbrough on Sunday, Wenger replied, "Yes, of course we think about it." In the same interview he explained that the prevailing reason for the slapstick defending on Tuesday night was down to fatigue. 'I am not happy with our defending but I believe that our defence has played many games and they were a bit jaded physically,' he explained.
'We cannot change many players, especially at the back. Offensively we have a bit more choice but at the back we haven`t got too much choice."
Of course this is a textbook case of Wenger protecting his charges; Gibbs has played the last four games, Silvestre the last three and a half and Sagna has just come back from a two match constitutional. Kolo Toure is the only member of the current makeshift back four who can justifiably claim fatigue. What Wenger does with his back four on Sunday will be very interesting. He will know full well that if defending as slapdash as that which was exhibited against Liverpool is repeated at Old Trafford on Wednesday the likeliness of the second leg being anything other than a procession will be high. Lest we forget there will be no Andrey Arshavin to dig us out of any holes (not that I would expect him to repeat the feats of Tuesday) and that Ferdinand and Vidic are hardly going to be as charitable as Carragher and Agger were in a game where circumstance forced Liverpool to go hell for leather. That said, Liverpool have recently garnered four goal hauls from United at Old Trafford, Real Madrid, Aston Villa and Chelsea. (As well as Fat Sam`s Blackburn). So we were in good company against one of Europe`s most potent attacking forces of late. However, the question is does Wenger stick or twist?
Whilst he bemoans a lack of choice in public, privately Wenger will know the chance for experimentation is open to him on Sunday. Upon announcing Gael Clichy`s back injury, the manager revealed he had thought about moving Bacary Sagna to left back, with Eboue in his natural habitat at right back. Gibbs has acquitted himself impressively for a boy with so little experience, but he will require his left winger to look after him. If Arsene has designs on playing Arshavin on the left on Sunday, this could be a move to consider. This time last year the currently in form Alex Song was afforded a run in the side at centre half and the option is also there to reacquaint himself with that position again, with Silvestre either moving over to left back or dropping to the bench altogether. Whilst the criticism of Silvestre of late has been overly harsh, it`s hard to argue that he has covered himself in glory in this three and a half game spell. Once again, familiarity might force Wenger`s hand again for with the United game in mind, as with Arshavin`s case on Saturday, there is one manager in the Premiership who knows Silvestre better than Wenger. Ferguson will have had Silvestre`s weaknesses catalogued for a number of years, selling him to us might prove to be the best piece of business in this season`s transfer market if Ferguson can feed upon these weaknesses and ensure United progress to another Champions League Final. However, Wenger expressed concerns that Song has not played at centre half this season and is therefore reluctant to fling him into that particular bear pit. The manager would also be aware that Song has hit a purple patch of form in midfield and will not want to countenance that by shifting him positionally. If you want an indication of how good Song`s form has been, ask yourself how you would have reacted twelve months ago had someone told you that his omission from the starting line up of a semi final against Chelsea would have been cited as one of the key reasons for defeat.
Yet another recourse of action might be to move Bacary Sagna to centre back and omit one of Silvestre or Gibbs. Sagna has the physical attributes; the pace and the bravery to play the position which might make Wenger think him better suited to the task of nullifying the bulldozer of Rooney. Whilst experimentation at this stage of the season can appear risky with so much at stake, most would argue that one of the biggest reasons for Arsenal making their only Champions League Final appearance to date was the emergence of Mathieu Flamini, who rather serendipitously turned out to be a decent makeshift left back. Against Middlesbrough`s shot shy attack, Wenger might well be tempted with any one of these options. Though it would be foolhardy to take a Boro side fighting for Premiership survival lightly, the price of failure on Sunday is less than it would be on Wednesday. However, Wenger will also be fully aware that the back four`s disjointed showing on Tuesday night would be a consequence of unfamiliarity as much as anything else. Silvestre was actually a first choice for a run of games in the autumn and looked assured with a run of games under his belt. However, he was partnered with Gallas in that spell, the Toure-Silvestre axis has been untried until this month, it figures that their first couple of games together might illicit signs of rustiness. Silvestre`s biggest weakness, other than the fact that he fudges his Alans every time the ball is played above his head, surrounds his lack of pace, but Toure has plenty in that department to suggest that he can make up the shortfall- as Toure has done for Campbell and Gallas. Arsene might be reluctant to break up the back four as it would give them another game under their belts as a unit and a crucial chance to enhance their understanding. So does Arsene stick or twist? Does he risk foregoing any potential telepathy? Does he uncover an unexpected solution to the recent defensive malaise? Gallas has been partnered with Toure, Silvestre and Djourou as first choice pairings this season, but it was the long term rekindling of the previously maligned Toure Gallas axis that led to our new found defensive stability in 2009. Experience might suggest Arsene sticks on this occasion and opts for the chance to nurture the roots of familiarity. These are the sorts of decisions that make or break seasons. As Lloyd Grossman might say, Arsene it`s over to you.LD.