It has been somewhat bemusing, given the talk of our new-found defensive resilience, to observe the erratic defensive performances of the last couple of fixtures. Just as we were basking in the warm glow of a newly-instilled focus on blanking the opposition, a questionable piece of squad rotation later and we’re all left shrugging our shoulders and scratching our heads in a fatalistic “Oh bollocks, here we go again” manner.
It is particularly annoying that the most notable problems with our defending seem to be arising in the very personnel who most of us probably assumed would be least likely to lose the plot. Before the season started, I, like many others looked at the full back positions with a degree of nervousness, if not out and out anxiety. How would we cope with Sagna, the best right back in the league and one of the most underrated players in English football? Would Gibbs stay fit? And if not, would we be able to instil any form of defensive discipline in the rampaging Santos, a player so swashbuckling in attack he makes Errol Flynn look like a bus conductor (I realise younger readers may not know what a bus conductor is, but so be it).
As it has turned out (so far, at least), the full back positions have not even been the least of our problems. They have not presented any problems at all. Jenks seems to improve in performance level and confidence with every game, and although I’m sure the manager will look to restore Sagna to the starting line up once he’s match fit, Bac’s going to have to put in a good shift on a regular basis if he wants to keep his spot. Gibbs, too, has shown the physical resilience that we were all hoping to see, and the defensive side of his game has improved greatly since the days of his callow youth, which wasn’ t that long ago.
It’s the centre halves that are causing us problems at the back. Koscielny, who (excluding that treacherous Dutch tosser) was our best player last season, has been suffering from some form of brain-melting disease which seems to cause him spasms and partial blindness when the ball enters his penalty area. He’s not turned into a bad player. It’s just that he’s not making good decisions, unlike Merts who has had a terrific and very consistent start to the season. Of course Merts missed the last game due to illness, but he was dropped for the Chelsea game for tactical reasons. Bad ones, as it turned out.
The most worrying problems lie with the skipper, however. Vermaelen should be the first name on the team sheet, but there are aspects of his performances at the moment that are causing a few of us to raise an eyebrow. I’m not suggesting he should be dropped. But a good captain leads by example, not only with spirit and workrate, but with discipline and intelligence. And to be perfectly frank, seeing the skipper charging 70 yards up the pitch late in a Champions League game when the team has only a one goal lead and has already demonstrated a degree of fragility – well, I think you’d be forgiven if you didn’t think that was terribly smart. In fact, you would probably have to conclude that TV has been attending some bizarre ‘defensive’ workshops hosted by Crazy Andre himself, rather than listening to Messrs. Bould and Banfield. We should not be surprised if Vermaelen gets lifted for doing 150 on his way to training next week.
There’s also the issue of mistimed and unnecessary tackles and challenges. This was a major factor in our demise against the Chavs. I’m not going to rehash over these incidents again, and clearly if we had defended the free kicks effectively they wouldn’t have resulted in conceding goals. But why make challenges that don’t have to be made? What’s the point in clattering an opposing centre forward when it’s pretty obvious he’s going to hurl himself to the deck at the slightest contact?
I should point out at this juncture that I’m not pinning sole blame on Kozza and TV for defeat at the hands of the Chavs, or for the nervy performance against the Greeks during the week. Their goal, for example, resulted in a collective failure to press the ball carrier and support the defence. Coquelin stopped working, Jenks couldn’t cover two opponents, and Gervinho decided not to drop back to support him. The result was a good cross from the left and a headed goal from a bloke who looked like he was about to audition for the part of a weirdo novice monk in The Name of the Rose. (And is it just me, or was Machado trying to do Ronaldo impressions whenever he lined up free kicks?) However, the fact that Olympiacos never threatened much in the second half doesn’t provide the Captain with licence to charge into attack like a drunken Hussar on a Belgian battlefield.
I’d like to think the coaching staff will have addressed this matter since Wednesday night, and re-focussed the lads on some fundamentals. It could be a hectic occasion at Upton Park tomorrow afternoon, as Fat Sam likes to send his players out to break up our rhythm i.e. kick us. They’ll be very physical when they don’t have the ball, and when they do have it they’ll all go down quicker than a busload of cheap whores at the merest suggestion of a tackle. So if we’re not smart, and we don’t keep our shape, we could be in trouble. But if we’re four goals up with thirty seconds to play, I won’t begrudge the Captain a little foray into the area.
Cheers, and Up the Arse.