Lee Dixon: The flaw in Wenger's philosophy: it's what you do without the ball that really counts

The Weekend Dossier
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Last season Chelsea smashed Arsenal – there was no other word for it – and not once but twice.

They were overpowered, outmuscled and then outplayed and it came as a shock to Arsène Wenger. The Arsenal manager is a born winner, no different to Sir Alex Ferguson, and tomorrow when he takes his team to Stamford Bridge – a side he has invested a huge amount in – he wants payback from his players. He deserves to have his faith rewarded.

I could never say anything bad about Wenger, not with the legacy he has created at Arsenal. He has done it all at this club, from planning the training ground to nurturing talent, but ... and that's the thing about Arsenal at the moment, with this current team – there is always a but.

Going forward they are fantastic and can rip anyone to pieces – they have the potential to do that even to a side like Chelsea. But titles are won in defence. At Arsenal there always used to be the basic mentality that when you had the ball you made the pitch as big as possible – when you didn't you made it as small as possible, got tight and compact in an attempt to win possession back as quickly as possible.

The team do not seem to have that philosophy any more. Their passing and movement is sublime but when they don't have the ball there is not an obvious structure of players slotting in to defensive positions which means teams are going to get at you more quickly – you become more vulnerable, as West Bromwich Albion demonstrated last weekend.

I have some sympathy for the back four; defending does not start and finish with them, but the reason Arsenal have not won the title for six years is down to letting in goals. History shows that the champions are more often than not the ones who concede the least. Arsenal let in 41 goals last season and that is never going to win you a title. It comes down to the mentality of the entire team. When you lose possession you have to switch on and get into position quickly, especially in today's game where so much depends on the counter-attack. The best teams have to be great without the ball, not just with it.

You have to relish that side of the game, chasing back, winning the ball. And you have to learn how to do it. Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit loved it, they were so combative and Chelsea today have that mix – players prepared to knuckle down. It is hard work and the only way to do it properly is together as a team. I went through one really bad season when I was certain I was going to be dropped but George Graham stuck with me. For him the power of the unit was bigger than the individual We learnt from scratch, day after day of doing the same thing. It was drilled in and it paid off. Wenger was then able to build on those solid foundations, adding the flair of Bergkamp, Henry, Pires, Overmars. He built another back four for the "Invincibles", who only let in 26 goals. Campbell, Lauren, Cole had a steeliness about them. But it seems different now. Individually, they are good players – Thomas Vermaelen in particular, but there is no sense of a unit.

So much comes down to what is between your ears. Bacary Sagna one-on-one with a winger knows how to play, but defence is not just about the individual, or even just the back four. Sagna and Theo Walcott don't look like they have a relationship. You may not hear what is going on on the pitch but eyes don't tell lies – you can see the gaps on the field from players not staying with their runners. Can they change their ways? Players like Nasri, Rosicky and Arshavin do not seem to have a thought process in adjusting to not having the ball.

Wenger is a very different coach to many. He's not there in training saying "stand there", "move there" "you're in the wrong position". He believes in his team learning from the players around them, learning to understand the way to play. His philosophy is to encourage players to pick it up for themselves. It is extremely effective with the right players, but the problem comes when players are not intelligent enough to understand. Does he have the talkers on the pitch, the leaders? Where are the Petits or Vieiras in this team? Cesc Fabregas is clearly a world-class player, but he is not that sort.

Wenger has put a huge amount of faith in this side. This season may well be their last chance. If they don't do it I can see it being broken up, and the thing is I have not seen enough yet to suggest that they have really closed the gap on Chelsea.

Five Asides

1. Javier shows a glimpse of great things to come

It was good to see Javier Hernandez finally making a mark in midweek after tipping him for great things at the start of the season. I still think he is going to be a very special player but just needs to calm down a bit and not try to do everything.

2. Everton are only one win away from lift-off

Everton were another of my pre-season tips to do well and from what I have seen of them they haven't actually played that badly this season. David Moyes has probably spent the week banging his head against his office door. He needs a result – just one win makes such a difference around a club. Look at West Ham, suddenly everything seems positive.

3. Carroll looks a perfect fit for the famous No 9

As an adopted Geordie, I asked David Ginola – who shared the Match of the Day sofa last week – what he made of Andy Carroll and he has been very impressed. Carroll is something of an old fashioned centre-forward – and, above all for a Newcastle No 9, he scores goals.

4. The Ryder Cup sounds like my kind of event

I love the Ryder Cup. Golf at the top level is a hugely rewarded sport, like football, and so it is so good to see players giving their all without being paid for it – because they really appreciate the fixture and all it means. The passion that surrounds the event is fantastic, too – the supporters sound like a football a crowd.

5. I will be keeping my eyes on the ball

I'm on duty with Alan Hansen on Sunday and I would just like to reassure Stan Collymore that of course we will only be paying attention to the football and not the golf...probably.

Lee Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Wigan Athletic vs Wolverhampton Wanderers

Dixon's verdict: These two could cancel each other out this lunchtime. Wigan have not won any of their home League games this season and that won't change today, although they have tightened up.

Kick-off: Today, 12:45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw.

Birmingham City vs Everton

Dixon's verdict: Birmingham, tough and well organised, have not lost at home for over a year but I feel the tide will start to change for David Moyes' side today, and they desperately need it to pretty quickly.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Everton to win.

Stoke City vs Blackburn Rovers

Dixon's verdict: The ball will get a headache in this one, with two teams who relish playing it long. Kenwyne Jones has been in good form for Stoke of late but Sam Allardyce's side will not go home empty handed.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: All square.

Sunderland vs Manchester United

Dixon's verdict: Darren Bent has continued where he left off last season and should test United. Steve Bruce's side have beaten Man City and held Arsenal and Liverpool and I can see them doing the same with United.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: A high-scoring draw.

Tottenham Hotspur vs Aston Villa

Dixon's verdict: Tottenham have been as unpredictable as ever this campaign and I think they will suffer another European hangover here. They have twice lost to bottom sides in Wigan and West Ham.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm).

Prediction: A Villa win.

West Bromwich Albion vs Bolton Wanderers

Dixon's verdict: Roberto di Matteo's side pulled off the result of an unpredictable weekend last time out at Arsenal but I fancy Bolton to take a point. Peter Odemwingie will be the main danger man once again.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Another draw...

West Ham United vs Fulham

Dixon's verdict: It's amazing what a victory can do. Avram Grant's side are bubbling in their win over Spurs last week and seem capable of making it two on the spin at home against an injury-hit Fulham.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win.

Manchester City vs Newcastle United

Dixon's verdict: A home win all the way, with Carlos Tevez continuing to lead from the front. City lost after their last European home match, but Chris Hughton's side are too inconsistent to trouble them.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC2, 10.10pm)

Prediction: Home win.

Liverpool vs Blackpool

Dixon's verdict: Who would have thought the visit of Blackpool would be so crucial to Roy Hodgson's side. Liverpool have won just one of their last six and anything other than a win here would be catastrophic.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 3pm (Highlights BBC2, 10.10pm)

Prediction: Home win.

Chelsea vs Arsenal

Dixon's verdict: I'm sorry to say it but there will only be one outcome here. Jack Wilshere is a huge talent but he will struggle to dominate proceedings against the power and physique that Chelsea possess.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC2, 10.10pm)

Prediction: Home win.

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