Defective defending from Arsenal and Fulham a reminder of where priorities lie
For Claudio Ranieri and Unai Emery, the critical difference is time. Where Emery’s mission plan is to oversee the biggest cultural change at Arsenal in over two decades, to sweep away the stagnation of the late Wenger era and reinvent the team as a force for the modern age, Ranieri has a little under five months to fulfil his primary purpose at Fulham: saving them from the grim reality of relegation.
Emery has time in abundance, Ranieri in anxious scarcity. Where both need to spend the most time – as became obvious after roughly one minute on New Year’s Day – is on their respective defences. As Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has shown since joining Arsenal last January, playing on the left and through the middle in various combinations across a front two or three, excellent attackers tend to come good in any system so long as it allows for self-expression. With defenders, the system is all-important. Finding the right shape, balance and a sense of collective organisation requires a good deal of close attention and patience.
Neither Emery nor Ranieri have their system quite right at the moment. It took Arsenal about 60 seconds to leave Fulham’s back line horribly exposed for the first time in 2019, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles dancing through unopposed but unable to tee up Alexandre Lacazette. What followed, from both sides, was a game devoid of defensive consistency.
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On the 15 minute mark, Arsenal’s back three was rendered immobile by a few simple passes which ended with Ryan Sessegnon curling wide of the far post while under zero pressure. A few minutes later Sessegnon should have scored again after swiping at a neat cross from Andre Schurrle to the back post, while not long after that Arsenal scored one of their easiest goals of the season after a dinked pass from Alex Iwobi found Granit Xhaka to thrash home in the ocean of space between Fulham’s centre-backs.
Having gone with a back four against Liverpool at the weekend and been battered 5-1, Emery’s decision to revert to a back three of Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny made a certain sort of sense. Emery has been constrained by several key injuries in defence over the last month, but defensive experiments which have included Granit Xhaka at centre-back and several formation tweaks have not worked. Though Emery was doubtless right to drop Stephan Lichtsteiner, who has been badly chastised in recent weeks, it seemed like Arsenal could have afforded to field a more enterprising back four against Fulham in a way that they could not against Liverpool. Emery came round to that opinion himself and switched to a back four at half-time, bringing off the often hapless Mustafi for Lucas Torreira.
While Emery has been praised for his tactical flexibility and using different systems to good effect, his flip-flopping approach to defensive shape has its drawbacks. While the loose time constraints on his management mean he can still fairly claim to be at an experimental stage with the team, a good back line requires defenders to build relationships and that becomes more difficult when the set-up can change drastically over the course of any one game. That said, true patience accommodates for short-term uncertainty, setbacks and failures and, while Emery may have to settle things at some point, he has time to play with.
The switch to a back four certainly freed up the side going forwards. The fact Arsenal scored three goals in the second half was no coincidence, with the introduction of Torreira making for a much more effective link between defence and attack. As a diligent shield in the midfield, he arguably brings more defensive solidity to the team than a third centre-back anyway. He did make a rare mistake in the build-up to the goal from Aboubakar Kamara which briefly dragged Fulham back into the game, though there was suspicion of a foul in his dispossession by Jean Michael Seri and the zombified Arsenal defence subsequently did him no favours.
Meanwhile, having switched from a back four to a back three after his side’s 2-0 defeat to West Ham last month and picked up five points in three games since, Ranieri witnessed his defence revert to type against Arsenal. Cyrus Christie, in particular, was run ragged on the right, with Iwobi and Aubameyang creating chance after chance against him. Ranieri brought him off directly after Arsenal’s second goal, when he was bypassed for the umpteenth time before Sead Kolasinac teed up Lacazette.
While Fulham’s defence have marginally improved under Ranieri – they were, after all, beaten 5-1 at Craven Cottage in October in a game which heralded the beginning of the end for Slavisa Jokanovic – there is still much to do before they can claim to be well organised. Though they may have suffered a little from the absence of Calum Chambers against his parent club after several games in which he had done well in defensive midfield, the truth is that the back three were chaotic at times and moved around like sacrificial chess pieces.
Ranieri may write this game off as one which Fulham were never likely to win, but the goals they conceded showcased what supporters have known for some time. Christie, Tim Ream, Denis Odoi: these are not players who have excelled at Premier League level. Despite their ambitious recruitment in the summer Fulham neglected defenders with extensive top-flight credentials – Alfie Mawson the only real exception – relying far too much on defensive deputies who were not exactly infallible in the Championship. With time running out that must be rectified in January, when Ranieri should prioritise a pragmatic signing at centre-back. Gary Cahill has been mentioned as a possible Fulham target and they could certainly do worse than to sign a man with every major domestic and European honour to his name.
Meanwhile, though Emery may decide to wait until the summer, Arsenal also need a defensive overhaul. Mustafi stands out as someone who urgently needs replacing, though Laurent Koscielny is also entering the twilight of his Arsenal career and – as shown up several times by Kamara in the second half – the Achilles injury he sustained towards the end of last season seems to have left him extremely limited for pace.
Both Emery and Ranieri have much work to do, clearly, but their meeting at the Emirates should bring their defensive issues into sharp focus. This was a game which was defined by the same fundamental shortcomings at the back which have impeded both their seasons. For Fulham to survive and Arsenal to progress, improvements in defence must come first.
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