Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Arsenal and Chelsea’s fight for fourth will be settled in defence

Jordon Florit explains why Chelsea and Arsenal's race for the top four will be determined by who can stay the most solid in defence.

If it wasn’t for Andre Villas-Boas’ failure to make an immediate impact at Chelsea, something that he undoubtedly intended to do given his insistence that “there is no calling this a year of transition,” earlier in the season, despite evidently being in a year of transition - something that has become painstakingly obvious to the rest of the world who hadn’t already realised it was underway, thanks to Villas-Boas all but admitting the transition by stating, “we have a three-year project to change, not only the team but, the culture and structure of the club” - Arsenal’s season would be dead right now. Luckily for Arsene Wenger, they still have the much-coveted “trophy” of fourth place to cling on to.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s season has taken a rather different path to Chelsea’s, yet both teams are still going into the last thirteen games on level points (43) with the same goal difference (13). The only thing that currently keeps Arsenal in the top four over Chelsea, a position Arsene Wenger has never finished below during his Arsenal career, is the goal machine Robin van Persie, rather than a 3 Premier League goals Fernando Torres.

Chelsea’s defence has been marginally tighter than Arsenal’s (I emphasize marginally) and whilst both teams have suffered defensively this season, with Chelsea’s Mourinho-instilled focus on strong foundations at the back finally all but fading out as Villas-Boas adopts a risk-taking and attacking defence, and Arsenal’s back four providing all but stability or consistency, with a total of eleven plays being used across the back, if The Blues were going to pip The Gunners to fourth place, it will be won at the back.

However, news that John Terry - who was set to be risked by the Portuguese boss against Napoli, (a clear indication of just how important Terry is to Chelsea, despite not being quite the player he was a few years ago) - is out for two months. This could scupper Villas-Boas’ chances of Chelsea finishing in a Champions League spot and mount further pressure on the 34-year old.

John Terry suffered a blow to his knee in a collision with the goalpost in Chelsea’s F.A. Cup victory over Championship Portsmouth on January 7th: an injury he played through for two more games. Since then, The Blues have failed to keep a clean sheet and have slipped from 4th place and just four points off of 3rd and six clear of seventh, to 5th place, where 3rd seems unreachable at 10 points away and 7thplaced Liverpool have closed the gap by two.

The reading doesn’t get much better for Chelsea fans as not only are Chelsea without a clean sheet in a Terry-less side so far this season, but in addition, last season Chelsea kept just one of their 15 clean sheets without Terry, in a season in which the centre-back missed 5 games. Last campaign, Chelsea kept a clean sheet with Terry 42% of the time and without him, just 20% of the time. This season, Chelsea have kept a clean sheet 27% of the time in which John Terry has played and without him, it currently stands at 0%.

Chelsea’s defensive woes are further encapsulated by the fact that they’ve only won two of their last ten games, one of them against relegation zone dwellers Wolves. And whilst they may’ve only lost two, both were bottom half at the time and their six draws have been score draws five times, with their only goalless draw coming against Norwich, a game fans would’ve hoped Chelsea would’ve won. Their 3-0 lead against Manchester United could’ve galvanised Chelsea’s season, but even that was carelessly thrown away, to add to their other two score draws that saw Chelsea lead.

Chelsea fans may take some hope from January signing Gary Cahill: however, the centre-back is stepping into the shoes of a Chelsea hero in an extremely frail Chelsea team that, simply put, is lacking leadership, belief and confidence. He’s stepped out of the fire, in the form of Bolton, who have only kept one clean sheet since the opening fixture, and into the fire at Chelsea.

So, can Chelsea turn to last season’s Player of the Year Petr Cech for help? Seemingly not. This season, you could make a claim for Petr Cech being the worst shot stopper in the league, although much blame should be put down to a defence lacking in organisation, something further hindered with the absence of Terry: this season, Cech’s saves-to-shots ratio in the Premier League is 65% and therefore the worst in the league.

Now turn to Arsenal and in a season in which the Premier League’s top four has been more hotly-contested than Miss Universe and saw The Gunners seventeenth after an embarrassing 8-2 defeat at the hands of a ruthless Manchester United, their current position of fourth place is rather admirable. Yet, the past ten days has seen The Gunners lose everything they were fighting for but fourth place, crashing out of the F.A. Cup in a 2-0 defeat to Sunderland and their Champions League adventure all but over after a 4-0 first leg loss at the San Siro.

Yet, news that Laurent Koscielny should be back for Arsenal’s next Premier League game – the North London derby with Tottenham – has given a cloudy Arsenal week a much-welcomed silver lining. With Bacary Sagna firing on all cylinders again and Thomas Vermaelen at the heart of defence with the Frenchman, Arsenal fans have the right to celebrate.

The ever-changing back line, eluded to in the opening of this article, has finally mustered up some strength and stability: a blend of leadership, provided by Vermaelen, experience, courtesy of Sagna and ability, supplied in heaps from the much-improved Koscileny, may well prove to secure fourth place in a season where defence has been far from Arsenal’s strong point.

It would be careless to rule out Newcastle or Liverpool sneaking in and snatching the last Champions League spot, especially with the momentum Liverpool are gathering and the focus Alan Pardew has on the league campaign: but, ultimately, if Arsenal or Chelsea do indeed finish fourth, the fight will be settled in defence.

This article was written by Jordan Florit. For more of Jordan’s work, take a look at his website: Jordan is also on Twitter: @JordanFlorit

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