Pragmatism must trump perfection if Arsenal are to rid themselves of defensive frailty

What we saw at the Emirates yesterday was a stark lesson in how to identify and ruthlessly exploit the weaknesses of your opponent in order to mask your own.

Jose Mourinho, ever the master tactician, had clearly studied this Arsenal side and recognised that its tendency to overplay the ball in the defensive third was a weakness ripe for the punishing.

I doubt, however, even he would have dreamed that his plan would be so perfectly executed as his side were gifted two goals in the opening 10 minutes, effectively killing the contest and allowing his team to switch into their favoured defensive formation.

Many will point to the stratospheric performance of David De Gea in the visitor’s goal as a key reason in the 3-1 defeat for Arsenal and, indeed, had it not been for the Spaniard, the Gunners may well have won the match comfortably.

Let’s face it, the sheer volume of chances created by the Gunners showed just how vulnerable the United defence is, to the point of being amateurish.

In truth, it was our own naivety that cost us at least a share of the spoils on Saturday, as it has been time and again this season and last.

Teams have worked out that the Arsenal defence can be pressed man-for-man in the defensive third and, on at least one or two occasions in every match, the ball can be turned over and the goalkeeper horribly exposed.

The same vulnerability is also true of Granit Xhaka when he picks up the ball from the defence – think the Manchester City and Watford matches.

The suicidal crossfield ball from Laurent Koscielney in his own defensive third, and the dithering and eventual dispossession of Shkodran Mustafi mere yards from his own penalty box were the latest examples of a trend that has been evident for some time now.

As many have rightly observed, we saw the same carelessness in the match against Huddersfield in midweek, but we escaped punishment by the virtue of the visitors’ lack of quality, a flaw that was simply not evident in Manchester United’s attacking play yesterday.

I have no complaint about how the team played thereafter because, quite simply, they were fantastic. Their movement and passing was, at times, mesmeric and, against most other sides, would have resulted in a slew of goals.

As it so happened, we were unfortunate to find ourselves scuppered by arguably the best shot-stopper in world football, at the peak of his powers.

For a side to have fashioned 33 attempts on goal, 15 of which were on target, and not to have scored more than one goal is simply astounding and testament to the level of performance from the Spaniard.

On some occasions you just have to acknowledge the one-off, freakish nature of a performance and accept that it was too good.

De Gea’s magnificence does not excuse our unfathomable need to overplay in the defensive third, however. We all understand the need to build from the back, play our football, and keep charge of the ball, but this team has to learn that discretion is oft times the better part of valour.

Koscielney had no need to loft the ball across such a dangerous area with high-pressing midfielders lurking. Mustafi could have slid the ball back to his goalkeeper or, better yet, just heaved it into space, when he realised he had dallied too long and allowed himself to be closed down.

These are lessons and weaknesses that must be addressed if we are to sustain any sort of top four challenge this season. Perhaps more than ever before, the head-to-head clashes against our rivals will be crucial, and gifting teams two-goal advantages is a sure-fire way to ensure defeat.

All the hard work done by our defence to restore some credibility, with three clean sheets in three games, was undone in 10 error-strewn minutes. We are, in many ways, now back to square one.

Our next league opponents, Southampton, will have surely noticed the joy teams have been getting by employing such a high press and will doubtless attempt to exploit through the likes of Nathan Redmond and company.

It this result is to be little more than a blip, we must ensure that, in difficult circumstances, pragmatism trumps the pursuit of perfection. In short, just get rid of the ball!

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