Seaman. Adams. Keown. Dixon. Winterburn. That was the legendary Arsenal defense that was known for its absolute stinginess (popular culture mock Arsenal for 0-0 1-0 bore fests). When Arsene Wenger took over as manager in 1996, he inherited this backline, built a real offense, and went on to win the double during the 1997-98 season. By that time, however, this backline was quickly aging.
For a while, this was not an issue. The signing of Sol Campbell and the rise of Ashley Cole kept Arsenal’s defense strong as they won another double in 2001-02. One of the qualities of Arsenal defenses of the past was not experience, but experience playing with each other.
Another quality Arsenal had was being able to dominate the midfield with physical players in the middle. Players like Patrick Vierra and Mathieu Flamini helped Arsenal dominate the midfield against the physical play of the EPL. That culminated into the “Invincibles” and an undefeated EPL campaign in 2003-04.
Since then, however, the team has become significantly younger and Wenger created a highly creative offense with a lethal counter-attack which was highly effective against other European clubs. Unfortunately, the defense lacked experience and depth, which put them in a great disadvantage against the rest of the Big Four in both domestic and European matches.
This season, especially, showed how effectively Arsenal defense was exposed. While it was effective against mid-table and other European sides, Arsenal was dominated by the other big four. Arsenal lacked a Carragher, Ferdinand, or Terry to anchor a back four and had to do with various makeshift line ups as injuries mounted. Only the brilliant form of Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia kept scores lower than it should. But that was not enough to prevent being knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea and the Champions League by Man U. Arshavin’s four goals was not enough to keep Liverpool from tying up the game in April’s 4-4 thriller.
The lesson here is players like Song and Gibbs are not going to be enough to stop Fernando Torres or C. Ronaldo. And with EPL’s domination in the Champion’s league, Arsenal is not going to have European success if they keep hitting into roadblocks against other EPL teams in CL.
So what should Arsene do in the off-season? a holding midfield like a Flamini that could feed the ball to Nasri, Cesc, and Arshavin would be #1. Depth in defense would be #2. Despite numerous screw ups against superior opposition, I still have faith in Gibbs becoming a great defender. Hopefully, Wenger gives him more chances than Matthew Upson and Justin Hoyte. But for now, he is a backup to guys like Gallas, Clichy, and Sagna, and whatever anonymous Frenchmen Wenger sign.
With enough experience among the defenders and a bit more depth, I have confidence Arsenal can dominate once again.