Defending is easier for Wenger
'We always make the same mistakes' is a common enough complaint on Arsenal forums. It doesn't refer exclusively to our propensity for defensive errors but it's in the minds of many I suspect.
After the NLD Arsene claimed that it was easier to coach the team to cut out defensive errors than to get them to score goals.
'I believe it is always easier to correct the defensive side than getting your team to score goals,' he said. 'When you score goals you always have a chance.'
I wondered whether that might be the focus of the supposed 'conflict' between Steve Bould and the manager that Stewart Robson insisted was the case in a recent interview. Defensively we'd started the season well enough, for which improvement Bouldie was credited, but at the same time we were finding goals hard to come by.
It echoed a situation early on in Wenger's tenure when Tony Adams reportedly took issue with Arsene about the degree of defensive cover that the 'famous four' were receiving. Effectively Adams was insisting that the back four were better defenders when the team was playing defensively than in the open expansive style that Wenger favoured. The veteran quartet then went on to record their best defensive record in terms of goals conceded in '98/'99 of 17 goals, one better than under George Graham. In the same season they also recorded their poorest goal tally under Wenger of 59 goals. The following season saw the gradual dismantling of the old guard as Grimandi, Luzhny and Silvinho came in.
There's an obvious trade off between defensive solidity and attacking force. Clearly Wenger's instincts are to sacrifice some of the former if it helps the latter. It's a question of balance and of familiarity. A settled back line playing regularly together, such as we'd enjoyed in the invincible season, is a good part of defensive strength. As Winterburn once told us, the strength in their game was in knowing each other's weaknesses as much, if not more than their individual qualities.
It's a common enough claim that Arsenal don't practise defending but recent seasons have seen us with a good defensive record from set pieces and others where we've done well in not conceding from open play but rarely both in the same season. It's clear that the squad are coached in the defensive arts but what we haven't managed to do is get the level of both disciplines right at the same time. That's possibly as much to do with the consistency that comes from playing together as it is coaching.
Since we last took the title in 2004 the title has been taken scoring as few as 68 goals and as many as 103 while conceding as little as 15 and as many as 37. It doesn't matter too much how many are conceded or scored what matters is how many games are won and as they can only be won by scoring I`d guess Wenger is right to insist we can't defend our way to success.
One measure does seem to support the view that attacking failure is more costly than defensive failure. Since 2004 the number of times we've kept a clean sheet in the league hasn't varied greatly ranging as it does from 12 to 16 in a season. We've twice matched the number of clean sheets we kept in the invincible season (15) and twice bettered it since then. However though we've twice bettered the number of games we've scored in, 36 in our title tilt in 2008 and 35 in 2005 compared to 34 in 2004 we also reached as low as 27 in 2006 and 31 in 2009. On that measure failing to score would appear more costly than the number of clean sheets.
It's also true that as the goals scored over each season has risen steadily and significantly over the last 3 seasons attacking intent appears to dominate current coaching methods. Perhaps reflected by the success that Spain has enjoyed over the last few years. Last month Wenger claimed that there are no defensive midfielders at the moment suggesting the age of the purely defensive type was over. It seems that we're never likely to achieve anything like a comfortable degree of defensive solidity but let's hope then we can cut out a few more errors while scoring plenty at the other end.