That they should subsequently recover to finish third was a cause of some celebration but a finally tally of 49 goals against still told its own story. It was the worst defensive record in Arsène Wenger’s 16 years as manager.
Andrei Arshavin, not known for his diplomacy, had previously summed it all up. “We struggle all the time in defence,” he said. “We are trying to improve but we can’t.”
Something had to change and, with the obvious caveat about the season being
only one month old, it would appear that it already has.
To put that into perspective, they will have already accounted for 70 per cent of the defensive difference last season with Manchester City. Explanations for this improvement are numerous but the most convincing is also the most obvious: Steve Bould, Arsenal’s new assistant manager. The 6ft 4in yin to Wenger’s yang. The bad cop, perhaps, to Wenger’s good cop.
Those who believe that Arsenal have forgotten the basic principles of defending would certainly feel reassured by Tony Adams’s description of his old centre-back partner. “Steve doesn’t take chances,” said Adams. “Calm, strong, determined, never loses a header. Rock solid. Get the ball and give it. End of story.”
When Adams and Bould were at the peak in the early 1990s, Arsenal won the old League One title in 1990-1 and conceded a miserly 18 goals. Their success was a product of hard work on the training field. “You can take four good defenders but they don’t just become a good unit by accident – it can be repetitive and tedious,” said Adams.
George Graham, then the manager, would stand with his arms outstretched and tell the centre-backs to imagine themselves as his shoulder-blades and the fullbacks as the palms of his hands.
His message was that the back four should always see themselves as an interlinked unit. It was a method that underpinned their success and, with Arsenal so obviously struggling defensively in recent years, there has been frustration that Bould was not fast-tracked more quickly from his work with the youth team. Pat Rice was previously assistant manager and it is suggested by Frank McLintock, his former team-mate, that his input was limited by Wenger.
“I think Pat Rice was possibly held back, that might be a strong statement, but I don’t think they emphasised defensive play at all over the last few years with Arsène Wenger,” said McLintock.
“Evidently Steve Bould wanted to make sure that if he took the job he would be allowed to do the job.”
In these pages, Alan Smith has already noted how he has recognised certain set-piece organisation from Arsenal this season that was used during his time as a team-mate of Bould.
What is most interesting, then, is the extent to which Wenger seems to have evolved. There is little doubt that Wenger has favoured relatively little defensive training in recent years and generally taken all of the sessions himself.
Yet, according to several sources, and to the surprise of some, he has given Bould the freedom to work with the defence as he sees fit. The promotion of Neil Banfield to the first-team coaching set-up is another significant move while the replacement of Alex Song with Mikel Arteta as the main holding midfielder has also added to the general solidity.
The players, so far, seem to be welcoming the new faces and, rather like a class of schoolchildren in need of direction, also perhaps the added discipline.
“Steve likes to shout at players and keep them on their toes which some of us need,” said Wojciech Szczesny, the goalkeeper. “Pat was like our father and he didn’t want to scream at us. We’ve done a lot of shape work in training, work on when we lose the ball and a lot of defending on crosses.”
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain describes Bould as “old-school funny” but highlights how Arsenal have become less vulnerable this season when their own attacks break down. “We have a lot of the ball and we get carried away when teams sit in, and we are easily countered, but we’ve nailed that down this season. He’s stamped his mark on the team.”
Wenger is rather more circumspect but still fulsome in his praise of Bould. He is also setting a target that, this time last season, would have been utterly unthinkable. “We have played two teams who didn’t really attack but Steve Bould is doing very well,” said Wenger.
“Will we finish with the best defence in the league? I hope so.”