This article was wriiten by Jude Ellery, the editor of Football Farrago
Arsenal’s current defensive problems lie not with their centre backs but with their left back, Gael Clichy. This is an opinion held by many Arsenal fans, including Arsenal Insider’s Josh Benson in his piece, ‘A Look at Gael Clichy’. Johan Djourou has been impeccable of late now he is finally injury free, while Laurent Koscielny is getting better by the game and has been unfortunate to be dismissed twice this season. The duo illustrated against Barcelona in particular how centre backs don’t all have to be of the John Terry/Nemanja Vidic mould; good reading of the game along with a bit of pace and tackling ability also makes a good defender. The Gunners’ young French fullback, however, has been at fault, or at least partially to blame, for key goals in key games for the past two or three years, yet has escaped mainstream criticism due mainly to the myth that a team’s defensive performance can be traced solely to its central defenders.
Calling the Frenchman ‘young’ is actually a misnomer, for he is in fact 25. While defenders are generally considered to reach their peak in their late twenties to early thirties, they should not be making mistakes like Clichy did in Arsenal’s latest game at home to Barcelona. And they shouldn’t be making these same mistakes repeatedly. For some reason Clichy still gives off the air of a youth team graduate feeling his way into the first team. He does not exude confidence, and for me is one of the Arsenal players who can accurately be labelled as not having the necessary ‘character’ to dig in and win games when faced with adversity.
Martin Keown, a man who most definitely could defend (albeit in a brutish, old fashioned English manner), said of his former team-mate in December:
“Clichy is going backwards. We all have a bad time at some point maybe he needs to have some time out to look from the outside. It sometimes helps.”
He’s not just a pretty face, our Martin. In fact on his appearances on the Match of the Day sofa he’s often been surprisingly erudite on the finer points of the game for a man who looks like a cartoon caveman.
Keown’s quotation (yes quotation, it’s a noun. Like Clichy’s defending, just because we’ve been making the same mistake since the 1880s, it doesn’t make it right) comes from Just Arsenal, in a piece entitled ‘Why would Read Madrid want Gael Clichy?’ – to which the simple answer is: they wouldn’t. Jose Mourinho prides himself on the solidity and defensive unity of his teams. And he already has one dodgy left back in the form of Brazilian bomber Marcelo.
Arsenal blogger Wrighty7 and the 14 commentators on his article, ‘When Will Clichy Ever Learn’, share the same sentiments. Here’s an excerpt:
“For some reason in the last couple of years he has appeared to go backwards and not pushed on with that potential he has shown in the past. He seems to have a major error in him at least once a game. Sometimes we are punished when he cocks up, tonight being an example, and at other times we get away with it.”
So, enough of this character assassination without basis – let’s look at some of the technical points of Clichy’s play to see where he’s going wrong. Overall Clichy is a good player, with the potential to be a great one. But it’s his worrying lapses in concentration which are holding him and his team back.
David Villa played onside by Clichy
Here’s David Villa’s opener in the recent Champions League game at The Emirates. As Messi advances, Clichy back-pedals and finds himself, crucially, a yard behind the rest of the defensive line. This plays Villa onside, and there aren’t many people who’d back a 20-year-old goalkeeper making his European bow against Spain’s most clinical centre forward. One-nil, and what could prove to be a tie-winning away goal.
Clichy probably drops back because he is wary of the pace of the Barcelona forwards, and of Messi in particular. Who can blame him? Unfortunately in doing this he ruins Djourou’s offside trap and inadvertently plays straight into Messi’s hands.
In the effort of balancing things slightly, Clichy did make amends in the offensive third by setting up Robin van Persie’s goal with a delightful clipped pass on his wrong foot. But this article’s intention is not to analyse the fullback’s attacking game, which is, on the whole, good (possibly even better than his predecessor’s, Ashley Cole).
Park Ji Sung’s easy run on goal
This Park Ji Sung run against Arsenal may seem a harsh illustration of poor defending, as a goal is very difficult to prevent in this situation. Clichy was left in the lurch by his fellow defenders and Park had three options: go alone, pass to Rooney to his right or pass to Nani further right. The South Korean has made a habit of notching against the North London side (four in seven), and by not closing down Clichy made up his mind for him.
When defending a desperate two or three on one situation like this the defender must engage the attacker, thus forcing him to make a decision: pass the ball or take me on. If, as is usual, they elect to pass, they may pick the wrong option, the ball may be badly timed or over hit, or it may simply delay the attack an extra second and allow a covering defender to get in position.
Clichy’s intentions are good; he’s cutting out both passes by positioning himself centrally. But vitally, he’s not cutting out the most imminent danger: Park’s very direct route to goal, and it’s only when Park is inside the penalty area that he realises a pass is not forthcoming and attempts to tackle (0:09). By this time it’s too late. It’s basic stuff, and this goal killed off the game. While not singling out Clichy, The BBC described the goal as “almost an open invitation to slip the simplest of finishes past the exposed Almunia”. In the defender’s defence, his team had naively been pressing too franticly for a goal, as they were only 2-0 down with another 40 minutes to play.
Didier Drogba’s many goals against Arsenal
Another player who loves playing against Arsenal is Didier Drogba, whose 13 goals in as many matches against the Gunners are handily compiled in the above video. As it demonstrates, the Ivorian’s threat is usually, and fairly, attributed to his physical bullying of ‘soft’ Arsenal, but for the goal at 21:10 again it’s Clichy’s defending of a swift counter attack that lets Arsenal down.
Here it may be a case of poor communication. Unlike the Park Ji Sung goal, Arsenal have plenty of red shirts back: five to Chelsea’s four attackers. It’s hard to tell which of Thomas Vermaelen or Gael Clichy is more at fault; it’s a combination of the two, as the former clearly signals for the latter to pick up Drogba, who has pulled out wide into the left back area. Clichy makes an initial move towards Drogba but is then distracted by Nicolas Anelka’s run. In the end both defenders are in the middle of the pitch and neither gets close to Drogba, Chelsea’s best forward and scorer of well over 100 goals in England. He receives a simple pass from Frank Lampard, cuts in past both Clichy and Vermaelen (where else was he going to go?) and finishes easily.
Ciaran Clark’s unchallenged shot
Ciaran Clark’s goal for Aston Villa should not have been allowed, as John Carew was clearly in an offside position whilst in with the goalkeeper’s line of vision as the ball was struck. Regardless, if the youngster had been closed down by the nearest man to him, Clichy, his shot could have easily been blocked. Like in the Park example, Clichy does not address the immediate danger and for some reason backs off as Clark chests the ball, allowing a clear shot on goal from 18 yards that results in a goal.
Darren Bent’s late equaliser
I couldn’t find a video for my final example, but here’s the Guardian’s minute by minute report on Sunderland’s late equaliser against Arsenal this season:
“94 mins 24 seconds: AS DRAMATIC AS YOU LIKE!!! Sunderland 1-1 Arsenal. A melee in the area. Gyan gets the ball stuck under his feet. Clichy slices a terrible clearance about two feet in front of him. Bent pounces, lashing a shot home from six yards.”
Now even the best defenders fluff to occasional clearance, but Clichy’s tendency to panic is not a one off, and it leads to a decisive goal here. Also, in his analysis of Clichy, Benson pointed out the defender’s culpability in the build-up:
“As the rest of the defence pushed up after what should have been the final clearance of the match, Clichy dropped back in, allowing 3 Sunderland players to remain onside and eventually to score.”
As these instances show, Clichy’s errors are often fatal ones, but alarmingly for Arsene Wenger they’re also very basic. Putting a player under pressure by closing down is a fundamental of defending, but the left back’s hesitant nature sees him worry about other attackers or simply make the wrong call when faced with a dangerous situation. Being a fast player one would assume he would be good at dealing with counter attacks, but whether it is a lack of understanding of his role or whether he simply has a mental block, it’s clear that it’s costing Arsenal goals, points, and possibly trophies.
Kieran Gibbs is Wenger’s alternative, but due to injuries has often been unavailable this term. I believe but for this he could well have usurped Clichy in Arsenal’s back line by now, for although he is highly inexperienced he has shown a maturity and calmness that belies his age. Since slipping to allow Park to score the opening goal of the 2009 Champions League semi-final he has not made a major mistake to speak of and will probably be installed as the first team left back by this time next year.