Spurs well placed to pile on the misery for Arsenal
Former Villa stalwart Mellberg pinpoints defensive frailties as Redknapp prepares to unleash derby firepower
Sunday 02 October 2011
The inscription at the players' entrance to the Emirates Stadium reads: "The deeper the foundations, the stronger the fortress". It is the sort of maxim that George Graham might have had tattooed on the oak thighs of his back four. Alas, as applied to Arsenal's current defence, it has a hollow ring. The fortress has been too easily breached for some time now, which means Tottenham Hotspur are confident of some enjoyable pillaging at White Hart Lane this afternoon in the 167th north London derby.
For many years, whatever the result, Arsenal's style seemed to be the one that dictated the pattern of these meetings. Under Graham, they were low-scoring affairs, occasionally goalless draws, which had never existed for the first 76 years of the fixture. Then, as Arsène Wenger and his philosophy bloomed and Tottenham responded with their natural sense of adventure, entertainment flourished, resulting in some of the most enjoyable games since the 4-4 scorelines of the late 1950s and '60s.
The past decade has produced encounters such as Arsenal's 5-4 win at the Lane in 2004, the 4-4 draw four years later and last season's portentous trio: Arsenal's understudies romping to a 4-1 away win in the Carling Cup, before the first team had their championship credentials undermined by twice losingtwo-goal leads in a 3-2 defeat and3-3 draw.
Encouragingly for neutrals, though hardly for their supporters, Wenger's defence has yet to settle this season in terms of personnel orresults. For last Wednesday's game at home to Olympiakos, the central defensive partnership of newcomer Per Mertesacker and midfielder Alex Song was the fourth different one in as many Champions' League matches.
The Greek side could easily have scored more than the one goal handed to them with a free header following a short corner, and their own centre-back Olof Mellberg, who as an Aston Villa player scored the first competitive goal at the Emirates, was scathing in comparisons to the Arsenal of old.
"I felt overall they were not as good as they've been when I played them here," he said. "Especially a few years ago back when we played at Highbury they were unplayable at times. They were the Barcelona of England, you never had the ball, basically. In that aspect it was different as well. They didn't threaten as much as they used to and they were probably a little bit nervous defending, and they looked a little bit shaky on set-pieces.
"Having conceded a few goals on set-pieces you lose a little bit of that confidence. We knew that having conceded quite a lot of goals at the beginning of the season, to score two goals and then to concede one affected them a little bit as well."
Even after studying videos, he admitted, Olympiakos were uncertain whether Arsenal would be marking them man-for-man or zonally at those crucial set-pieces. It turned out to be the former, their goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny revealing that after a close-season and then half-a-dozen matches employing zonal marking, the system had been abandoned following the concessionof 12 goals in two away games, at Manchester United and Blackburn.
"Personally I prefer zonal marking," he said, "but it's the manager's decision which we're going to do and I really don't mind as long as it works. We worked on it in pre-season and didn't concede at set-plays in pre-season so it was working. We conceded a stupid goal at Blackburn and we decided to change it since then. But it really doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it correctly and it works for you."
Chopping and changing defenders as well as suffering from a lack of height among midfield players has not helped, and Spurs will believe that it is an area they can exploit, notably with the accuracy of set-pieces by Gareth Bale, Rafael van der Vaart or Luka Modric aimed either at team-mates or the goal. Those three players were among those left out for Thursday's Europa League game against Shamrock Rovers, as was Emmanuel Adebayor, who will be a central figure against his old club today.
Jermain Defoe played 72 minutes, which gave him some valuable game-time but suggested that using Van der Vaart behind Adebayor will be Harry Redknapp's plan of attack, just as it was in the 2-1 victory at Wigan last weekend. Attack they will, and Wenger says Arsenal will respond.
Part of the reason for the goals and excitement, he suggests, is that in Redknapp he recognises a kindred spirit:"We are different characters, but we share the same passion and commitment for the game. Harry loves the game and he loves his teams to play football. This is what we have in common, we both want our teams to play good football, so this is why everybody looks forward to when Arsenal and Tottenham play each other."
His opposite number, it is not often realised, was brought up as an Arsenal supporter, going to games at Highbury with his father, yet training with Tottenham from the age of 11 before switching to West Ham. Having spent most of his career in London, apart from a period experiencing the passion of South Coast rivalry between Portsmouth and Southampton, he knows as much as anyone about derby days, but says he would trade three points today for a better finishing position in May.
"Do we have the edge over them? Last season perhaps but it's finishing above them in the League that's more important to me," Redknapp said yesterday. "I would lose the game at home if it guaranteed me that. I think we are closing the gap now as well and this is probably the best chance we have of finishing above them."
The acquisition of Adebayor and Scott Parker has encouraged him in that belief. Parker, finally receiving the recognition he deserves, should prove even more valuable during the absence of Tom Huddlestone, who has had another operation, providing a perfect foil in central midfield for Modric.
Parker's work ethic and approach particularly appeal to Redknapp, who says: "He's a good old-fashioned player with good old-fashioned values. The other day we were out training and I've got players wearing red, purple, yellow, white and green boots. And out comes Parker in a good old-fashioned pair of black boots. Old school. He carries that on to the pitch."
As for Adebayor, the manager was delighted with his two goals in the team's outstanding 4-0 win over Liverpool, and will not be too concerned if his striker again becomes a little carried away should he score against his old club: "He was full of remorse after what happened against Arsenal when he was playing for Manchester City. But I'm not going to stop him from celebrating, why should I?"
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