The Arsenal Monday verdict: Can Gunners stay top? Not with this defence

Arsenal top the Premier League table, but most Gunners fans are wondering how

EVERYONE was in agreement on Saturday. The supporters, the press, Arsene Wenger, the players and even the Match of the Day pundits concurred: Arsenal must improve defensively to have a chance of winning the title.

This was despite a victory that propelled them to the top of the table, partly due to Manchester United’s inactivity, partly due to Chelsea’s decline that has now seen them take just five points from their last six games.

The Gunners will stay at the summit if they win at Old Trafford next Monday, but that would look to be close to impossible if they defend like they did against Fulham.

The Cottagers have one of the worst away records in the country, but afbeing gifted an equaliser with a moment of comedy between Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny that ended in a broken nose and concussion for the latter, Mark Hughes and his side sensed they had a chance.

Arsenal’s invincible aura at home has dissipated, blown apart by defeats to West Brom, Newcastle, and then the shocker against Spurs.

The Arsenal supporters didn’t know what to expect – while a winning goal duly arrived from the excellent Samir Nasri, in these strange times a first ever win at Arsenal for the visitors would not have been unexpected, or even undeserved.

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For some reason, the Gunners totally lost conviction after Diomansy Kamara’s equaliser, and proceeded to play like strangers, a fact not lost on a relieved but still concerned Wenger afterwards.

“When we were 1-0 up it should have been two or three,” said the Frenchman. “But then you could sense suddenly we had not the drive to go forward any more and we invited them [on to us].

“We had some hesitations at the back and were not completely dominant, and we were punished because Fulham are a good side.

“But we have 32 points and I believe we have become stronger as a unit defensively because we feel that recently we have been punished a lot.

“Against Tottenham for example, you cannot say we conceded goals because they created the chances, it was goals we gave away. But, of course, we want to improve our defensive record. That is needed.

“Last season, overall, our defensive record was not good enough to win the title. But last season Chelsea didn’t drop points.

“They do this year, so it will be down to consistency. Of course, defensive solidity is linked to consistency and that is what we want to achieve.”

Some of that may be stating the obvious: yes, you have to defend well to win matches, and yes, you have to win matches to win the title.

But Wenger knows that his defence needs to improve, and that serious questions are now being asked of the two French defenders he signed in the summer, Squillaci and Koscielny.

The continued absence of Thomas Vermaelen has necessitated the pair perhaps playing more than Wenger envisaged, but on Saturday Squillaci, in particular, did not inspire.

With Gael Clichy still jittery at left-back and Lukasz Fabianski far from established in goal, there is a feeling about this Arsenal side that they can concede goals at any time.

And when they do concede, the side seems to go into some sort of collective paralysis, which cost them the game against Spurs, and could have seen two more points tossed away on Saturday but for a fine moment of opportunism from Nasri.

Bacary Sagna is having a solid season at right-back, and the case for Johan Djourou, who rpelaced the stricken Koscielny on Saturday, to now be a regular starter is gathering momentum.

He excelled in the final 10 minutes on Saturday when Arsenal looked set to wilt against a Fulham side that had sensed a weakness and pumped long balls into the box in search of a point.

“Djourou has done very well, but he has been out injured for a year so I have had to be careful with him,” admitted Wenger on Saturday. “We play every three days, I can’t play him in every game after coming back from such a long time out.”

As ever, however, defending cannot be left to defenders alone. It is a collective effort, and on Saturday the midfield did not do their required job. Alex Song was strangely out of sorts, and Jack Wilshere did not reach the level he had managed in recent games. Inconsistency is a hallmark of youth, and Wilshere, it must be remembered, is still only 18 years old.

Arsenal’s attacking quartet in the 4-2-3-1 formation are not always the best at hassling and harrying, at tracking back late in games, with Andrey Arshavin, a prime example. However, if the six players behind them are doing their job, then they do not always need to be.

But everyone will need to be helping out at Old Trafford on Monday where a Manchester United side boasting the attacking trio of Nani, Dimitar Berbatov and a fit-again Wayne Rooney are sure to put any visiting defence under intense pressure.

The Gunners have the best away record in the top flight, and have won at tough places such as Blackburn, Manchester City, Everton and Aston Villa.

But Monday’s game will be the acid test of whether Arsenal are any stronger at the back than they were last season, and can hold on to top spot heading into Christmas.