This was arguably the worst defensive season for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. 49 goals conceded in 38 league games and 67 conceded in 54 games across all competitions is a damning indictment of the defending (It’s better to use the term defending as the term defence often implies the back five but the blame has to be shared by the whole team).
Granted, there were mitigating circumstances with the transfer problems and the debacle at Old Trafford, which occurred before the transfers were made on the last day, did skew the numbers to an extent. But even if we take that game out, the numbers are still indefensible!
It’s not all bad though. As we’d seen in the first article of this season review series, the Gunners conceded on 25 goals in 25 games in a strong run from the 3rd of October till the 10th of April. It’s still a one goal per game average, which isn’t ideal, but is much closer to the goals conceded by the top two who let in 21 and 22 in the same period respectively.
Similarly, if we take a moment to visit last season’s numbers, we can see Arsenal matched the top teams defensively from the start of the season till the 30th of March.
It shows us that the Gunners can match the top teams for at least two-thirds of the season. It’s clearly not enough but does present something to build on.
Again, if we borrow a table from the first article of the series, the matches between the top six this season throw up some interesting numbers.
As we can see Arsenal and United both conceded 19 goals in these 10 games. Spurs conceded 23. This includes many of the ‘big’ results like the 8 goals conceded by the Gunners or the 6 by United, both at Old Trafford, and all the big defeats for Tottenham.
But this also tells us that Manchester United only conceded 14 goals in their remaining 28 games! That’s 0.5 goals/game. Even Spurs conceded just 18 in the remaining fixtures. Arsenal, on the other hand, let in a whopping 30 goals in fixtures against the other 14 sides in the League. Evidently, the 8 goals conceded against United is not the only or main reason for poor defensive numbers this season.
Arsenal dropped ten points against the bottom 4 sides while City lost nothing, Chelsea and United three, Newcastle four, and Tottenham five. The Gunners would have been much closer to the top two and comfortably away from the sides below them if they’d done better in these games.
The thing with the Gunners is that they can be as good as the other big sides for large portions of the season but also defend like a relegation candidate in some games, which tends to put a large enough gap between them and the teams at the top.
Interestingly though, such swings in performance are not entirely related to the personnel on the pitch. For instance, a significant portion of that strong early run last season came with Djourou and Squillaci in the centre of defence. How often did you hear, “We can’t win the league with a player like Clichy at left-back”, or “Almunia was utter sh*te, Szczesny is world class”, or “Arsenal will be alright once Vermaelen is back”, and so on. But look what City did with Clichy at left-back. And what did Arsenal achieve with Szczesny in goal?
Of course, individual talent does make a big difference. According to WhoScored, Arsenal conceded 0.89 goals per game in the 28 games that Vermaelen started whereas they conceded 2.4 goals per game in the 10 that he did not. This is undoubtedly skewed by the fact that the Belgian missed Arsenal’s troubled start to the season but it still highlights his importance to the side. Nevertheless, it does not mean the Verminator is faultless.
Indeed, that’s a point this blog has consistently made over the last two seasons. Everybody makes mistakes. Manager’s like Wenger and Mancini can see that when a player like Clichy appears to make a mistakes it’s not always solely his fault or that he also offers a lot on the pitch that goes unnoticed. Fans tend to get carried away and end up making unjustified conclusions from limited observations. Bloggers and clueless pundits pretending to be shrewd analysts doesn’t help while those who simply capture the popular sentiment in delightful language also make matters worse. One of the main problems here is that the lack of confidence in the fans can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the nerviness in the atmosphere transfers to the players on the ground and they end up making more mistakes.
More importantly though, it’s imperative to realize that the difference between individual players is not as big as it’s often made out to be. The unjustified hype around one player and mindless criticism of another simply makes debates pointless. The defenders at Arsenal are not terrible if those at other big teams are world class.
From that point of view I’m glad there is a growing number of voices that recognize most of the problems in defence are systemic in nature and the individual errors are largely the symptoms. Nowadays we see more talk on “defending as a team” and “structural issues”.
In this article I don’t want to dwell on those issues as they have already been covered here in detail. That post has over 6500 words and plenty of snapshots to illustrate various points. It also touches upon the basic principles of defending like balance, depth, delay, pressure, etc. and is highly recommended for those who might have missed it.
Broadly speaking, there is very little to choose between the top teams when it comes to macro-level defensive stats.
As a matter of fact, Arsenal have contested more duels and tackles than the Manchester sides. The Success percentages are comparable as are the interception numbers.
So over the course of the season, when you compare the squads, it’s difficult to say that one group is a better tackler, dueller, or interceptor than the others. And that kind of backs up the argument that this isn’t so much about players as it is about systems. Speaking of which it’s interesting to look at some other stats which tells us a bit more about the systems used by these teams.
Arsenal have won over a 100 off-sides more than City or United. That’s a massive difference if you consider that Arsenal are winning around 4 off-sides per game while the Manchester sides average around 1.
It’s worth noting that City and United are not defensive teams per se. They’re the top two in terms of goals scored. Even then they win fewer off-sides. It tells us that both the Manchester sides tend to drop back if they lose possession and don’t win it back quickly. They don’t try to hold a high line very often.
In contrast, Arsenal seem to play the off-side trap quite regularly. There is nothing wrong with using the off-side trap. Arsenal do get it right on an average of four times per game and that is a good way to break attacks and win possession back. However the off-side trap can only work well in conjunction with a cohesive pressing unit. If that fails the opponents have a significantly better chance of running in behind as the man on the ball has time to pick out effective passes. In that regard it’s disappointing to see that Arsenal don’t win the ball more often in the attacking or middle third because any side holding a high-line and pressing up the pitch should be winning possession in forward areas more than those teams that drop back.
These numbers are not enough to completely explain the styles but they do suggest that the top two have a much better tactical balance. They sit back to defend and don’t allow players to get in behind them as often. This can also be seen from the fact that they allow more shots from outside the box than they do from inside the box. They also get more blocks in. All of this implies they consistently get bodies between the opponents and their goal and thus the quality of chances conceded is much lower. On the other hand, winning the ball more often in central and attacking areas helps them in sustaining pressure when needed. This hints towards their ability to pin opponents back when they have to and contributes to their ability to score more goals.
Arsenal, in comparison, win more off-sides but also allow more shots from inside the box. They also make more mistakes, fewer blocks, and end up having to win more tackles and duels in the defensive third.
Put all of this together and you’ll begin to see why the league leaders are more assured in defence whereas it can get desperate for the Gunners at times.
Since these problems are largely systemic in nature and arise from the tactical approach of the manager which manifests itself in the form of decision making and execution by the players on the pitch, the changes will mainly come from work on the training ground. We saw one very good example of this in the way the Gunners improved their set-piece defending over last season’s miserable efforts. It didn’t happen overnight. Early in the season they tried zonal marking on set-pieces. It didn’t work quite as well. The team then switched back to a combination of man and zonal marking. For a while it was desperation stuff with bodies being put on the line and the goal being protected by a crowd in the middle. But as the season progressed the players got a better grip on their roles and took greater responsibility. It’s still not perfect but a definite improvement can be seen. Such work can also be done in other defence related areas.
Of course, addition of players with better defensive judgment also helps, and Arteta is a good case in point, but you can’t change all eleven players and defending remains a collective effort. While Pat Rice was not the problem a change in the backroom staff could be helpful. Steve Bould and Neil Banfield should bring some new ideas to the table. I’m not sure if that will be enough as the youth sides managed by this duo have shown the tendency to make errors reminiscent of the first team. Even then it would be unfair to write them off before they’ve had the chance to show what they can do. But one thing is clear – In order to seriously challenge for the big trophies Arsenal have to show a significant improvement in the way every player thinks about defending, develop a cohesive tactical approach where everyone is on the same page, find consistency, and learn to absorb the impact of injury related setbacks in a way that does not compromise the defending.
2011-12 was a forgettable year as far as defending was concerned. Will 12-13 be any better?Follow @goonerdesi