Paul Merson fears for Arsenal focus behind closed doors: 'Fans keep you concentrated'
"When you’re not a great defender, and Arsenal have a few of them, not top drawer defenders, the fans keep you honest"
Last Updated: 16/06/20 12:00pm
Paul Merson fears for Arsenal's focus behind closed doors, and insists that fans keep defenders concentrated and honest.
Arsenal were beaten 3-2 by Brentford in a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, and watching the goals back, former Gunners forward Merson was concerned with what he saw.
Speaking on The Football Show, Sky Sports pundit Merson said Arsenal's existing defensive weaknesses may be highlighted further as football returns, with Mikel Arteta's side ninth in the Premier League and eight points off the top four.
They restart the season at Manchester City on Wednesday, live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Premier League.
Merson said: "I worry for Arsenal. I watched the goals they let in against Brentford, and I worry about them playing behind closed doors. When you're not a great defender, and Arsenal have a few of them, not top drawer defenders, I think the fans keep you honest.
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"I mean that they keep your concentration levels. You need the fans there to keep you concentrated. One of the goals against Brentford, David Luiz tries to play out, flick it over the lad's head, and that's not honest. The fans try to keep you honest.
"I think with Arsenal that's going to be a little bit of a problem defensively. I think they will switch off behind closed doors with no crowd, and there could be mistake after mistake."
Merson says that from his experience, it is more difficult than it seems to play in front of no fans, and suggests the Premier League may "level out" with the absence of supporters, throwing up some unusual results.
"It is different. We grew up in an age of playing reserve team football at the stadium. If the first team were playing away, you'd be playing at home, at Highbury, and there would be one man and his dog there. Even though you'd psych yourself up, you still don't get that push.
"If you have Robbie Williams and Elton John at Wembley in front of 100,000 people, it will be the best thing you've seen. They are entertainers, they fly off the adrenaline. If I said to them a week later: 'You're going back to Wembley, play again, but nobody is going to be there,' how hard is that for them? To entertain in the same way without the fans there?
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"I think this levels things out. I've gone from thinking Norwich were a certainty to get relegated, whereas now I'd give them a chance. I really do.
"Whoever can adapt, could reel off a few games on the trot. If you don't get used to it, it's Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday, you'll soon be in trouble."
Arsenal have seen a gradual improvement since Arteta took over from Unai Emery in December, but Merson feels there is still some way to go before they are challenging for the top four again, and suggests defensive solidity should be the main aim.
"You've got Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a world-class centre forward who scores goals. He's a one out of two merchant, where you get two chances and score one, there aren't many of them in the world. There's a lot more to come from Alexandre Lacazette, he's a top drawer player.
"We talk about the defence at Arsenal, but it often comes from the front. If you're not closing down from the front, and then the midfield aren't' connecting, I don't care who is playing at the back for you. It could be [Paolo] Maldini, [Alessandro] Costacurta, [Franco] Baresi, if you've got players running at you left, right and centre, you're going to leak goals.
"I think it's important they play as a team, but at the moment I don't see it at Arsenal. I know Arteta is trying to change it, but it seems like the forwards have their game, the midfielders have their game, and then we then just see what the defenders do.
"I think they've got to get back to basics, get tight at the back. We all like watching Arsenal play because you know you're going to get action and goals at both ends.
"I think they need to say: 'Right, let's get tight, if we have to win games 1-0, we will.' I just think they are too entertaining, it's too open, they don't move up the pitch as a unit or move back as a unit.
"It could be a few years before Arsenal reach top four again. I do believe in Arteta, I like him and I think he'll get it right, but it's hard as an inexperienced manager. You've got to be careful not just to try entertain the fans. When you're inexperienced, you often try to entertain the fan behind the goal."
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