Arsenal’s lack of aerial intelligence is starting to annoy me

I realise this is a delayed comment on the Newcastle game — heck, I haven’t updated the blog since Thursday! — but my brother has been in town and it has been very difficult to get anything done.

Given that it is now Tuesday it is tempting to mark the loss to Newcastle off and look ahead to Wolves tomorrow night. But as a writer who attempts to look at the positive things to with Arsenal to do so would be irresponsible and cowardly.

You have no doubt read match reports from other blogs or seen the game yourself, so I will not bore you with the intricate details. In short: Newcastle won, we lost. Lukasz Fabianski made a mistake on the goal, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott hit the bar. They played a compact defence and intelligent two-man attack, we failed to find a way to break them down.

The conclusion I can make from the game was that we did not do enough to merit a win against Newcastle, something that is very disappointing. But it happens. Teams lose games: look at Chelsea (who have now lost twice this season) or even mighty Barcelona (who were outplayed and lost at the Nou Camp to newly-promoted Hercules earlier in the season). I reiterate: it happens.

But in saying that I have to get something off my chest: one thing in particular is starting to annoy me about this Arsenal team. It has been bubbling somewhere inside me, despite my calm exterior and intentionally rational writing, but the Newcastle game has well and truly set it off. It is our consistent inability to cope with aerial attacks.

Let me make it clear that this is not so much a problem with winning the ball in the air, but more a problem with how our team as a whole organises itself to deal with aerial threat.

On the weekend Newcastle received a number of free kicks inside our half and the gameplan was the same each and every time: lift a chipped pass towards the left side of our defence to create a mismatch between their big attackers and Gael Clichy, with the intention of heading back across goal. Their goal came from a variation on this play although had Fabianski stayed on his line — and I thought he made a good decision to come out and try and deal the with the problem — then Andy Carrol’s intention would have been to head back across goal.

Carrol lurks in behind Clichy just before the goal

They are not the first team to do this — Birmingham and Blackburn are two others that have targeted Clichy — and it is becoming a real concern. Unlike Bacary Sagna on the right side, who makes up for his relative lack of height by using body contact to unbalance opposition players, Clichy has absolutely no idea how to cope. He is often caught standing off, trying in vain to win the ball rather than simply spoiling the attacker.

Height plays a big part in aerial contests — you only need to look at Peter Crouch or indeed Carrol to know that — but it is not everything. Didier Drogba is the most dangerous player in the Premier League in the air not because he the tallest, but because he uses his body well. Tim Cahill is the same — heck — so are Thomas Vermaelen and even Laurent Koscielny. These aren’t big guys and they don’t win the ball every time but they make sure their presence is felt.

To be fair to Clichy this is not a criticism of him. It is a criticism of firstly the coaching staff for not instructing him of how to cope best in this situation on the training ground and also his teammates, for failing to adapt to the situation out on the pitch. Surely if I can see that Clichy is targeted then Wenger and the defence can see it as well? Yet nothing is done about it and we are punished time and time again.

Going further with that point it genuinely appears that our team as a whole has very little idea of how to cope with the loose ball after an aerial contest. Some of the time we win the ball in the air and some of the time we lose it, this is not the problem, that lies in our inability for the second-phase players to be in the right place at the right time to capitalise on whatever the first outcome is.

To go a bit left-field here for a moment I want to talk about Australian Rules Football. Without going too much into the details of the game, which are unnecessary, a huge element of the game is the relationship between tall forwards (similar to central striker like Drogba in football) and smaller forwards which are nicknamed ‘crumbers’ or ‘runners’. Essentially the job of the tall forward is to use his height to either mark (catch) the ball (and get a free kick) or if he can’t do that, bring the ball to the ground so the small forward can capitalise. The job of the small forward is to hover around near the taller forward and ensure he is in the right place to make the most of what is essentially a 50:50 situation.

Translating that to football and to Arsenal, our players who are around the ball but not attempting to win the header appear to have no idea of where to position themselves to win the second ball. So often on Saturday the ball was lumped up to Carrol or Ameobi and they were able to find space and bring the ball down when they never should have been allowed. There was often a gaping hole in front of our two central defenders — left by Alex Song, who in my opinion is moving forward far too often to our detriment despite a few goals — and Newcastle were able to hold the ball up far too easily.

Ameobi is given too much space to win a comfortable aerial duel.

When you are faced with a player like Carrol or Crouch or Drogba nobody is expecting you to beat them in the air. Likewise if you are defending against Theo Walcott nobody is expecting you to outpace them. This is their major strength in football and it is foolish to assume that it will magically disappear when they play against Arsenal. But what is unbelievably frustrating about this group of players is they simply do not understand how to create a second contest and give themselves a better chance of winning the ball.

The images above illustrate our "second phase" problem. The Newcastle forwards have so much space to work in and Song, the player who should be working off our two centre-backs, is nowhere to be seen.

It is simple: unbalance the forward by using intelligent body contact and ensure that the defenders around the ball who are not in the contest position themselves in an area — usually at the striker’s feet — that means they can win the second ball. Even in attack, when there is a corner or free-kick, this principle still holds true and often allows you a second chance to shoot or relaunch an attack.

There really isn’t much more to add to this article. I cannot communicate with the manager and I cannot communicate with the players: it is up to them to find a solution. I am frustrated and although I like to stay calm and rational on here I really needed to get that out.

We play Wolves tomorrow night and we obviously need to get three points. Without Laurent Koscielny (his ridiculous two-match ban for the softest of dismissal was upheld despite a protest) and with Cesc Fabregas struggling with hamstring problems it won’t be easy.

More tomorrow and apologies again for the mini-break.

Have your say on Arsenal’s aerial problems by leaving a comment.



  1. Wait a minute here. Even though the ball was hoofed into the left side, Clichy doesn’t come into it at all. Watch the organisation of the set piece. Watch Chamakh sprint into position behind Clichy and beside Caroll. So obviously, there was a plan in place to deal with the tactic. Maybe you’re not exclusively seeing what Wenger, Rice, Primorac, Banfield, Bould (all defenders in their time) don’t see.

    Drogba is the most dangerous player in the PL in the air? Um, how many goals does he score with his head? A small proportion is the answer.

  2. I totally agree with you. it was such a frustrating game to watch. our home form is lacking drive. they have to loose so they can wake up and realize what they have done. they didnt have the right player on the pitch that would have given that extra 110% to push for at least an equalizer. I watched Man U play wolves and Park showed emazing inteligence to take on players and go for the win, which he did and succeeded to give his team three points. that player for us is Samir Nasri. he did that a couple of times this season for us. but unfortunately was hurt and substituted. then Arshavin came in to try to take on players and go for a goal, but time ran out. I would like to see our strikers strike the ball when they have the slightest chance on goal. and that is lacking big time in our attack. I know VP is the man for that, and Walcot is trying to bring that to his game. but we need that now. Chamakh is a very inteligent player, especially in the air, but his lack of striking the ball is frsutrating me. he had a couple of clear chances to strike, but he opted to pass the ball, and waste the chance on goal. I wish Wenger will guide him to strike more, he holds the ball real well and wins most of the time. but needs that final killer strike. anyways Wolves are not going to be easy on there turf. Man U. had a tough time with them on there own ground. so we shall wait and see what the future holds. but if all these issues are not addressed. i can see another 3 points being lost, or at most 1point earned. we just have to except reality as it is. lets go gunners and prove that we can stay on top.

  3. Another well written article Webbs…. how is it going in Germany?
    It seems to be a psychological problem these days, i’m sure they would be working on it on the training pitch but when put under pressure in a match situation they seem to freeze (do we have any players like Carroll/Drogba on our books to pratice these aireal duels with on the training grounds?). To be fair Newcastle didn’t create to many chances and if Fabianski stayed on his line we may have got an undeserved point or snatched a late winner?!?!

    @Ollie- Your right about Drogba & scoring goals with his head, but it’s his pressence & bringing other players into the game with his aireal ability & creating goals for others because of it.

  4. I think if you look at the replay Chamakh was there but for some reason decided not to contest for the ball. Either this is a lapse in concentration or as he saw Fabianski coming for the ball decided to stay out of the contest. More importantly Fabianski when he went for the ball stopped his momenteum and then tried to jump above Carroll. This contrary to the way a ball should be attacked in the air you should be jumping when you have speed up as you will get higher and have a better chance of reaching the ball and also you will hit the contest more powerfully and therefore cause the attacker to have less control in their connection to the ball. Use AFL as the example again and watch how the tall forward always try to make contact with the ball at the highest point so that they are in the superior position to take the mark. Overall a good article but Clichy is wrongly slated as both Chamakh and Fabianski had more then ample opportunity to create a more fierce contest at the ball and the player without infriging on Carroll. The secondary argument is about an ability that comes natural to all the good smaller “crumbers” in AFL and if the player is not blessed with the ability to read the play they will miss out on the secondary contest.

  5. I do agree with your assessment that we can’t cope with “aerial bombardments” but your continued loyalty to Fabianski confuses me? We should have dealt with the free kick but it essentially comes down to a goalkeeping error costing us three points at the end of the day. When the other big teams slip up, we don’t take advantage we too slip up. Clichy has been at fault for 3 or 4 goals directly as a result of his mistakes in the last 6 games. The team as a whole plays some nice football but lets be honest theres no real cutting edge. The Newcastle game could have had an extra 30 mins added on and we still wouldn’t have scored. Overpassing is my major bugbear instead of having a shot at goal. We also don’t work hard enough when we don’t have the ball, I think Arshavin would take a nose bleed if he had to “commute” back into out half when we lose the ball? On the plus side Nasri and Theo are looking good, and I like Chamakh however we only play the type of balls that suit him when we’re chasing games and desperate to score. I question the desire and will to win of the players in this current Arsenal squad and I think its about time time some serious consideration was given to moving Arsene “upstairs” and try a new approach as quite frankly Arsene’s isn’t working anymore.

  6. Best article Andy, I’m glad somone sees what I see. So many people have been blaming Fabianski but ultimately, Clichy didnt track or even attempt to challenge Caroll. Kos tried to head it out but totally mistimed his header.

    The thing that bothers me the most is why was Caroll allowed to make a sprinting header towards goal from outside the penalty box.

    To all the commentators above me, why was Caroll allowed to sprint into the box which gave him the momentum, so its not Clichy’s fault? although he is the outermost left sided player before the freekick was taken and definitely nearest to Caroll.

    Intially I too blamed Fabianski but after watching the game again I realized it wasn’t entirely him to blame, he was outjumped, Caroll definitely outmuscled him and Kos.

    At least this was not a flappy mistake, just a striker and a newcastle team that made us pay for being complacent. Sadens me though because this team with Ameobi, the Bergkamp era used to steamrolled over them with ease and that Newcastle team had a deadlier striker (shearer).

  7. @ Ianinaja I take your point about Caroll but that does link up with what I’ve said about Clichy and our inability to pressurise the opposition when we lose the ball. For a player with Clichy’s experience he’s making too many mistakes and I don’t think the coaching staff can be held accountable. Fabianski has been better over the past few games but I’m afraid he’s always going to make “big mistakes” and lose us vital games. Almunia has cost us dearly over the past couple of seasons, whereas if we had a world class keeper we would have been closer at the end of the season. I’m so frustrated with this team at the moment its making them difficult to watch?

  8. You really can’t blame Fabianski for it. He had to keep his eye on the ball the whole time. How was he to know that no one would pick up Carroll and allow him to run freely onto the ball.

    Like Brendan Dann wrote above, Chamakh was “marking” Carroll on the play, but didn’t go with him. If he had marked him, shoulder nudged him, then he loses momentum and Fabianski deals with it.

    Chamakh looked exhausted in that match, probably worn out from the trip to the Ukraine, not getting back in London until 5 am.

    As to the aerial battles, I was saying something similar after the match. We don’t even attempt to play an aerial ball sometimes. We just let them take the ball down easily, uncontested.

  9. We still don’t have that big guy in defence do we? I’m not counting Djorou because although he’s 6 foot 3 or 4 (supposedly) he’s about as imposing as a dish of rice pudding. Vermaelen’s not tall but he can jump and he’s a great header of the ball but with him gone now we have all the more need for a tough guy. Like most I’ve been impressed with Kosh and he and Squilch are certainly better than what we had before but the problem’s not solved is it? Surely it’s a priority that we buy a big bastard to put in our defence in Jan – eg. either of the German pair or Gary Cahill etc. Let’s say to hell with the money for once and get someone whom we know can do the business. To my mind it’s a priority even greater than a goal keeper. Maybe the reason our keeper’s get caught out is because the defence isn’t backing them up, rather than the other way round? Oh to see Tony Adams back there, marshalling the defence with that aggressive scowl on his face. -sigh-

  10. Looks like Spuds have got the same problem we have – swiss cheese defence. Should be an interesting game on the 20th. I’d say there’d be one or two goals!

  11. As entertaining as Arsenal is to watch, they can also be infuriating to watch because of the simple mistakes the team seems to continue making. Not handling balls into the box has been a problem for several seasons now, and even with different personnel, it still hasn’t been solved.

  12. Nice article Andy! plus we are not also making use of aerial balls in front of the goal to compensate for errors at the back. If Chamakh is good in headers, why not take most corners to him and some free kicks? If anything, it appears Squillachi is a good header too and joint efforts could give as an edge. May be Djorou could help with aerial duels at the back but he would need a ‘Flamini” rather than a ‘Song’ in front of him.

  13. Hmmm whats all this going on abt coaching here i do not understand, we are no arsene wenger or we are no Alex Ferguson, i am sure wenger knows abt the defensive inabilities of the team but come on… More than our def wats worrying me more is our attack, no one had a clue how to break down Newcastle, Fabregas awful perhaps one of his worst performances i have seen for a long long time, chamakh looked exhausted or whatever dint seem himself, our corner awful, set pieces apart from the one which hit the bar have been awful, only Nasri seemed like a player who wanted to do something and unfortunately gets injured at the wrong time. Walcot’s best contribution in the game hitting the post, Kos and squalici were pretty good according to me..

  14. I repeat: Wenger is good at nurturing young talents but when it comes to adapting his game plans according to the type of opposition, HE IS TACTICALLY NAIVE. FACT!
    A decade back, he was considered to be the finest EPL manager by most. The thing is, the game has progressed considerably & we have a lot of intelligent teams with shrewd managers out there.
    If you watch some of the football from the end of the 90s or early 00s, it’s different from what we have today in so many ways.
    I wish he moves up to some king of role (director of football) to make sure we continue to identify emerging talents & somebody else takes up the coaching role.

  15. @ Ollie – You’re quite right about the Clichy/Chamakh v Carroll thing. How I didn’t notice this I will never know. However, I stand by my argument that we are slow to react these situations: there were a couple of occasions in the first half where Clichy was targeted and we didn’t react so quickly. It was the same situation against Birmingham earlier in the season.

    I have to add that I always like to receive comments from you. You deal in facts, never let your emotions get in the way of things and are about as unbiased a commenter as there is in the Arsenal blogosphere. Keep it up.

  16. @ sunnycoastgooner – Things are going very well in Germany. Just working on my projects and also started a job working for a design website. Things are good.

  17. @ Ian Bottanic Gooner – I don’t think this article is so much about Fabianski or slating Clichy as it as about making a comment about our team as a whole. In truth the player who has most brought on this frustration, who in recent games just isn’t getting to the right position to win the “second phase” ball.

  18. Arsenal lost 1-0 to Newcastle. Of course, a shocking loss. I can foresee a carbon-copy of last season happening. A combination of foolish goalkeeping and stupid defending costing us the trophies. With a defense as shaky as this, we can’t think of winning. I am sorry Mr.Wenger, but you are hurting the fans !! I am deeply hurt and depressed. Football is a game and you have to play it to win it ! If teams like Newcastle can come to the so-called EMIRATES stadium and walk away with victories like this, there is no use playing the beautiful game. It is AS SIMPLE AS THAT. I am getting the feeling that Arsenal fans should praise the team when we win, and support the team in defeat and not to worry too much about it. If we think about winning trophies, WE ARE DREAMING. I became a fan of Arsenal after your invincible season,[2003-04 if I am right] I don’t know everything about the club. But what I know is most certainly, we will be finishing in 3rd or 4th again, bowing out of the champions league by virtue of these so-called defenders and blaming it on injuries and the ‘SO-CALLED YOUNG PLAYERS’.

    In spite of all this, I will continue to be a fan of our club and continue to dream about something happening 🙁

    Dream on…

  19. In my opinion Wenger should change his startegy on defensive set-pieces: no more “zone cover” and more man-to-man marking. I agree we do not have towarding CBs (except Djourou) but it really doesn’t make sense to me to ask to someone like Bentdner or Chamakh to have the skills of a real centre back, who knows how to use his body and how to mark a forward. A defender is expected to know how to cope with forwards like Carrol&Co., a fact that an attacker obviously lacks. With a “Schwazer-a-like” goalkeeper, excellent in going out and catch the aerial ball inside the box, you can let him to the dirty job against powerful strikers but with Fab or Almunia it looks like a suicide.

  20. Quite right about Clichy being targeted but for a set piece I dont think its the same thing at all as general play, Koscielny or Squillachi should have passed Clichy on and took the threat, like I said earlier there was probably only one other threat and that was the hardly prolific Ameobi. The simple solution was to have Clichy stand goalside of Carroll and stand his ground, blocking if not delaying the run of the strong attacker either resulting in Carroll getting nowhere near the ball or givng Koscielny the head start in his jump to clear, the same can be said for the hapless Fabianski, Iv said to you before Andy any man who can jump and use his arms vs a player heading it to be beatin to the ball is criminal, yet this has happened a dozen times in the last few seasons with our keepers. In general very few teams come to the Emirates and play 2 up top so even when they do it should be a 2:1 scenario and your point about the second ball is bang on, either its hesistance or poor anticipation, you rightly point out that this happens to the best teams, but not as often as it does us mate…….and on Chelsea being beaten twice this year, that means nothing to us as we failed to capitalise having lost 3 points in a head to head with them already this season.
    If you look at the goal again its plain to see Chamakh just gave up on tracking Carroll, even if their was a call from Fab his job wasnt over he should be tracking Carroll and blocking his path incase the keeper spills or fumbles the catch, but Arsenal cannot defend properly, how many times has Koscielny been beaten in a straight footrace this season, im not talking about him being nutmegged or skinned im talking bout the ball just been knocked alongside him and him not being up to it, like Diouf at Blackburn….and Koscielny is a way better player than Squillachi, who is an accident waiting to happen, mark my words.
    Am just gutted and dissapointed with the performances and the nature of the soft goals weve given away the last few seasons, like I said Iv never minded getting beat but this team and management has been beating itself for seasons with poor concentration, tactics, preparation and definately questionable application……… I said you only need look at the performance of Liverpool as a team on Sunday, they dont have next nor near the manager or indivdual players we do on the whole, yet they can raise their game and send the fans home happy in a crunch game, I mean we dont even lose in a way thats makes you think ‘at least we gave it a right go’, we finished the last 10 mins of that game sunday with a whimper.
    Its not good enough.

  21. @ Andy – you have pin-pointed a team wide failure. Whether its down to tactics or individual players decisions is open to debate. However there are players who are failing to produce the goods not just in the areas where the team is weak generally, such as dealing with aerial threats, but they are also failing to deliver in their own specialist positions. Combatting the aerial threat can accomplished by closing down the opposition when they have the ball and preventing them getting telling balls into the box. Defending at set pieces also has to be effective and not giving opponents space in the box. In relation to our own aerial threat, Chamakh has proved he can head the ball and that he can provide a telling flick-on in the box for other players, our problem is we don’t play that way and try to walk the ball into the net time and again. Yes I’m afraid I don’t rate Fabianski but if the team continues to play the way they do at the moment we could have Superman in goals and the opposition are going to keeping scoring against us.

  22. @ shambogunner you are singing from my hymn sheet and a lot of other frustrated gooners agree with us

  23. Ah how quickly we forget! The inability to deal with crosses was much worse when we had Gallas and Toure as ort two centre halfs, compared to those two Squilacci and Kosielny are super stars! Also, Carrol’s goal was the result of Fabiansky taking up a bad initial position which didn’t allow him to take a full run to get the necessary height when he jumped, a skill the best ARF guys have made an art of. And Andrew surely you should be supporting the might Sydneyy Swans, same colours and about the same non-pennant winning history as out mights Reds.

  24. 6 points were lost this season as a direct result of goal keeping errors. Against Albion & NUFC. Both promoted teams. On top of this, there will definitely be games in which we will try our best but in the end fail to bag the 3 points as already happened to us against Sunderland.
    Winning trophies is all about grinding out results when the going gets tough & also minimizing your goalkeeping+defensive mistakes. With the way things are run at the club at the moment, personally I don’t see us improving in these areas anytime soon.
    ………………..Let’s hope the boys fight for 3 points at Wolves tonight. Here’s is to a 2-0 win!

  25. Hey Guys, Not sure why I see a lot of people mention dropping 3 points due to Fabianski. He caused us to drop 1 point…nothing more nothing less. Believe it or not, you need to score in order to win a game…. I too wasn’t too upset about Fabianski’s initial decision to come out, it was his hesitation that created the issue. Just need him to be stronger once he decides to come out… still showing a lack of confidence….I think,,,

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