The most frustrating thing about Arsenal’s defensive troubles this season is the lack of any real obvious reason behind them and, by extension, a clear way in which to immediately improve them.
Under Arsene Wenger, this team’s defensive flaws were many and glaring. A lack of pressure on the ball, atrocious positioning, a tendency to over-commit, no midfield screen, basic individual errors – the list of things that needed sorting was lengthy.
And for that very reason, there was a great deal of hope that, if a new manager could address those flaws, we could be transformed by the start of the season into a miserly outfit that revelled as much in clean sheets as it did in goals scored.
And, in Unai Emery’s defence, he has addressed all of those aforementioned issues through days and weeks of hard work on the training pitch and with the help of video analysis.
The Spaniard’s side press in a much more organised and effective way, the positional sense of a centre backs is a million times better, Lucas Torreira has transformed our midfield with his tenacity and energy, and individual errors seemed to have been cut in half.
And yet, the statistics show that we are conceded just as many goals, chances and shots on target as we did last year under Wenger. That revelation is almost inexplicable.
Everything your eye and your instinct tells you about the way this new Arsenal side is playing suggests improvement, but the facts and figures tell a different tale.
Sunday’s disappointing draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers was the reality check that had, in fairness, been coming for a while. In fact, but for some excellent work from Bernd Leno, the feeling of angst may have been that much more acute.
It felt a little like we have gone back to square one, as if all our hard-earned progress this season slipped through our fingers and we regressed to the Arsenal of Wenger’s later years. We were too easily countered, too readily dispossessed, toothless in attack, and, on a number of occasions, caught with too many players ahead of the ball.
It had all the hallmarks of last season and brought a lot of us crashing back down to earth.
It’s worth remembering, of course, that every team has difficult spells during the season and that it’s simply impossible to expect to win every single match. We’re going to suffer defeats and disappointments this season, that’s just the way football goes and our expectations must be tempered as such.
That said, our chronic inability to fashion a cohesive first-half display continues to plague this side, to the extent that it is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. That has to change. Whatever rocket Emery gives his side at the break, he needs to give them from the start. We can’t keep hamstringing ourselves and expect to recover.
The boss also needs to come up with an answer for our nagging tendency to concede eminently presentable chances. Our goalkeepers have made some excellent saves this season, and it’s good to see how capable they are, but it would be better if we never had to see them break a sweat. The league’s lesser side will likely squander one or two of the chances they are served up, the better sides will gobble them up greedily.
Quite how Emery is going to address the problem of defence, while maintaining a side that attacks with as much gusto and pace as this one, is a real conundrum and one which I don’t envy him. Make no mistake, however, if we are to mount a sustained top four challenge, a solution will need to be found.
We won’t play as poorly every week as we did against Wolves, but we will have to tighten up if we are to show that we have progressed this season, and not merely slipped the emperor into a new shiny set of clothes.
Emery has at least a bit of extra time during this international break to get some heads together and come up with a workable solution in time for the resumption of hostilities later this month, particularly with so many important games on the horizon.