Premier League 2019: Two important points against Unai Emery's Arsenal
I am sure I am not the only Arsenal fan who watched on helplessly as Watford scored its first goal on Sunday. Just when one was finally getting over that infamous 4-4 defeat at Newcastle, oh so many moons ago, we get a nasty little flashback. In many ways, this one was worse. This was not due to determined, brilliant football by the opponent and, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it was NOT due to defensive frailties or even a defensive error. No, this 2-2 defeat was carefully planned over several months on Arsenal’s training ground!
If you have watched any of Arsenal’s games this season, you have seen opposing teams line up 3 abreast just outside the penalty box as the Gunners stubbornly tap the ball around, trying to “play out of the back”. The best outcome I have seen so far is a throw in to the opponents, with the ball still in our third. As Lee Dixon commented (paraphrasing), “Just as I was explaining the folly of this approach, the Gunners provide a perfect illustration of my point!” Worst of all, they had barely escaped conceding on a similar play just moments before. It was like watching Russian roulette without the benefit of a spin of the chamber between pulls of the trigger!
I will confess I have never been a fan of “playing out of the back”. In American football, there is a strategy called the “prevent defense” (pronounced pree-vent dee-fense), where the team that is ahead by a narrow score doesn’t pressure the quarterback and instead tries to prevent any long gains by laying back in coverage. There is a corollary that goes “The prevent defense only prevents you from winning”. I think we have the soccer equivalent in “playing out of the back”. Playing out of the back just allows your opponent to score goals.
In all the time I have watched teams trying to play out of the back, there are precisely three teams I have seen doing it “successfully” – Barcelona, to whom the original sin belongs in recent times, Man City and PSG. Mind you, even Man City struggled through the first season when Pep Guardiola instituted it, coming within a whisker of missing the Champions League. What is the common thread in these three teams? An unlimited pocketbook, plucking the best talent every season. I watched Mauricio Pocchetino play this Russian roulette last season with Spurs, again jeopardizing their CL chances. Unfortunately, he has wisely moved on. Heck, even Real Madrid and Bayern don’t try this. I am referring particularly to when the opponents are pressuring you on your penalty box. Of course, nothing wrong with playing out when there is a bit of space.
Arsenal are a team who have conceded 50+ goals the past two seasons. Does it look like that will improve by giving your opponents the ball in your own third from almost every goal kick? An infant needs to first learn to crawl, then walk, then run, before you stick him in the Olympic 100m final, expecting him to win. Unai Emery should instead be dusting off the Sol Campbell rules of defense …
Rule 1: See ball near goal, thump ball away from goal.
Rule 2: In situations where you think Rule 1 does not apply, see Rule number 3.
Rule 3: See Rule 1.
First get into the CL, right the balance sheet a bit. Rinse and repeat! When we get to challenging for trophies and start to attract the best players, that is when you can do your Pep imitation.
There is no margin for error. As we saw last season, every point was precious – true for Man City and Liverpool, true for Spurs and Arsenal. Sokratis did not cost us these two points. Nor did David Luis. This game was done and dusted, but for Unai Emery’s insistence on “playing out of the back”. When that goal went in, if I could have reached into my TV set, I would have been wringing Unai Emery’s neck. Time to put Emery on notice. If we miss a CL spot by two points, he must be held responsible. The Arsenal brains trust needs to keep count of how many points are lost (and won) by playing put of the back. When a bunch of experts were asked to predict the order of the top 6 when the EPL transfer window closed, all except one had the Gunners finishing in the CL spots. The dissenter had us finishing 6th, because he thought Emery had just assembled a “ramshackle bunch” of talented players. If Unai Emery sticks to “playing out of the back”, he may very well turn this chump into a prophet.