Although some of the football he played might have been a little sophoric, George Graham turned Arsenal into an efficient winning machine. As everybody knows, he built from the back – starting by making his defence particularly mean – with the reasoning that if the opposition don’t score then you are halfway to victory.
A similar pragmatism was apparent in the way we’ve been set up away from home this season. Fulham are no longer a soft touch on their travels, as noted by a couple of radio pundits warning that Newcastle shouldn’t be expecting the straightforward win they’ll really need when we visit Tyneside in a few weeks. As Tony Pulis pointed out yesterday, we are even more solid at home and the Stoke game – one that we might have lost in previous seasons – perhaps shows just how durable we’ve become.
Much credit must go to Hodgson for the way he has drummed the discipline into his side. It has to be down to hours of hard graft on the training ground, but it really pays dividends. It might be a cliche but defending from the front really works. It seems fashionable to knock Bobby Zamora’s goal tally but you can’t put a price on the invaluable work he does for his side. Hassling and harrying the centre backs and full backs when they are in possession and making countless clearing headers from set pieces. The wide players have their instructions as well, which is why the likes of Dempsey and Davies look so shattered by the end of a game.
Mark Schwarzer, who must be up there for signing of the season, made the point after the Middlesbrough game that the lack of goals from the strikers might be caused by all the hard yards they put in anywhere else. There may well be something in that. What’s certainly true is that the back four gets a lot of help from those in front of them. The big Australian was not too unduly tested yesterday and that owed a lot to our defensive organisation, especially from set-pieces.
Hangeland has been a rock this season – and didn’t his show of emotion at the end, clenched fists to the Riverside and the Hammersmith End give the lie to the Sun rumour that he’s heading for the exit? He was another astute signing by Hodgson and it’s no surprise that Aaron Hughes looks a lot more assured now he’s got a big, commanding figure alongside him. They look more and more like an imposing partnership at the back. We could do with some strength in depth at the back – I’m not concerned about the reserves. Kallio looks more comfortable on the left side of the defence than in the middle and, if we are serious about a European tilt, we could do with an upgrade on Chris Baird.
We do look a lot stronger in midfield now that Dickson Etuhu has made the holding role his own. The Nigerian didn’t have the greatest of games yesterday afternoon – he gave the ball away in crucial areas a couple of times and missed a glorious chance – but he has said that there’s more to come from. Given the marked improvement in Etuhu’s form, there’s no reason to disbelieve him. He’s worked hard and adds a bit of steel that was missing when Bullard and Murphy were in the middle together. Etuhu’s arrival has also allowed Danny to play a little further forward.
For all these reasons and more, it’s no surprise that we’ve got a strong defensive record. I was surprised to learn – via Hodgson – that we’d kept 14 clean sheets this season. Off the top of my head, the last time we seemed so strong at the back would be in the Tigana promotion season, but back then we were all more concerned with the flowing football and the goals going in at the other end.
Our miserly defence is the main reason why we are in such a strong position at the moment. Long may it continue.