The great Arsenal defensive myth

Arsenal have missed the steadying presence of their best centre-back this season... or have they?

“I’m against superficial judgment, that’s what I fight against. People ask ‘why don’t you buy central defenders?'”

“We have a better defence than United if you look at the numbers but nobody mentions that. And we should kick Vermaelen, Djourou and Szczesny out? What for?”

– Arsène Wenger

It has been six long years now since Arsenal’s last trophy, and seven since their last Premier League title. Since then, they’ve been perennial title contenders, but each year have fallen agonisingly short. Many people have attempted to decipher why they have suffered such a long trophy drought, after such a successful 2003-2004 season in which they steamrollered the league, playing some of the most breathtaking attacking football the Premiership had ever seen en route to an unbeaten Premier League campaign and the title. Depending on who you ask, the problems inherent in Arsenal are obvious: it’s their goalkeeper/defence/defensive midfield/injury prone players/lack of experience/surplus of young players/lack of leaders/playing style/small squad. Simple, then.

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is that Arsenal’s defence needs shoring up and new blood. In fact, it has become something of a cliché: Arsenal, the flair-based attacking side packed with European forward talent but lacking good English grit at the back. It is the fallback for lazy journalists, with the result that all kinds of people get drawn in to speak authoritatively on matters which don’t concern them, compounding this lack of knowledge with a stunning unwillingness to look facts in the face. It seems there are only a select few left, the ones who aren’t spoon-fed by the media and retain enough sound judgement to make up their minds for themselves.

Let’s look at the facts. This season, an Arsenal defence without their star centre-back (Thomas Vermaelen) and working on a new central defensive partnership between two newcomers (Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci) and a returning long-term injury victim (Johan Djourou) has conceded the fourth-least goals in the Premiership. Considering that Arsenal are currently behind the well-drilled defences of Manchester United and Chelsea, and the defensively-minded Manchester City, this is no mean feat. On top of that, Arsenal have conceded on average the least shots per game (11, level with Chelsea), perform on average the second-most interceptions per game (19, behind a Wigan team that is nearly constantly on the back foot) and have fielded four different keepers in the league so far this season, something hardly conductive to good defence and goalkeeper communication (a point made painfully clear in the Carling Cup final).

There is, of course, one major statistic missed out, that of Arsenal’s Achilles heel. For a long time now Arsenal have been vulnerable to conceding from set-pieces, and this season has been no different. 56% of goals that the Gunners have conceded this year have been from set-pieces, and even the most staunch defenders of Arsenal’s back line have to concede (no puns intended. I don’t sink that low) that Arsenal’s record from set-pieces is fairly dire.

Pundits and fans like to suggest signings for Wenger to remedy this problem, with Christopher Samba and Gary Cahill both names that come up often in such debates. However, are the likes of Samba and Cahill really better than what Arsenal currently have? Cahill is young, which is a plus, and he can play the ball out from the back well, another major plus. On the other hand, he is English (therefore pushing up his price considerably) and his defending is suspect. Samba is the other extreme: powerful and an excellent defender, but also lacking agility and technique. The likes of Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen on the other hand blend their defensive skill with the attacking nous and the passing ability that makes Arsenal so renowned. What needs to be remembered in this situation is that every defence has its faults, and Arsenal’s lacklustre defending from set-pieces isn’t necessarily to do with bad individual defenders; rather, the whole team should be at fault when the team concede from a set-piece.  How many times have you seen an individual Arsenal defender lose concentration or make a mistake that allows the opposition to score from a set-piece? Not so often that it explains the amount conceded from set-pieces. The players aren’t at fault, the system is, and the system can be fixed.

When you look at it reasonably, it is fairly obvious to see that there is nothing majorly wrong with Arsenal’s defence. The fullbacks, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna, are both solid performers, with the latter one of the best and most consistent right-backs in the world and the former on the way to regaining his form and verve once more. With the flanks both secure, a solid centre-back base of talented individuals has been disrupted by injury this season, and has had to gel with new arrivals and a series of goalkeepers. This has lead to a couple of high-profile errors which inevitably linger much longer in the memory than otherwise. Arsenal still have troubles at set-pieces, of course, but that can be fixed in time. Taking all things into account – injuries, new arrivals, keeper changes – having the fourth best defensive record in the league is an impressive feat for Arsenal, and should in theory go some way to silencing their critics.


4 thoughts on “The great Arsenal defensive myth

  1. good stuff
    simple but makes sense.

    What do you think is the reason for Arsenal’s failure to win a trophy in recent years then?

    • I think the issue is too big to cut down to one reason. There’s a whole range of reasons behind why Arsenal haven’t won. Firstly and foremost, the continuity of the team was disrupted by the sales of Henry, Vieira, Pires and so on all in a short space of time. The youngsters coming through to replace them were too young to go into the first team straight away, and so results suffered, and to an extent continue to suffer to this day due to the lack of seasoned veterans.

      Secondly, I think there has been a vacuum left by the departure of Jens Lehmann, who although erratic was the kind of keeper who could win you games and inspired confidence in his defence. Now with Szczesny coming through Arsenal may have another top-class goalkeeper.

      Thirdly, there has been increased competition in the Prem in recent years. Back in 2002, there were only really United and Arsenal challenging for the title. Now, you have those two plus Chelsea and Man City, and a whole host of second-tier teams capable of beating any team on their day.

      Fourthly, Arsenal simply don’t have as good a team as they did when they last won the Prem. The Invincibles were a once-in-a-lifetime team, blending flair, speed, power and defensive solidity. You’ll be hard pressed to get another team as good as that playing for Arsenal any time soon.

      There’s a whole bunch of auxiliary reasons, but those four are my big ones.

      • It’s funny how people keep talking about X years without a trophy the way they do. They consistently ignore all the different situations and stages that the club have gone through during those seasons to try and come out with a simple answer. Usually this answer is “kids”, “no experience” or some variant on “defence” or “defensive midfielder”.

        But people fail to consider that we were in massive, massive debt from 2004-2008 and definitely couldn’t afford to spend big or have the wage bill bloat. We had the old experienced super stars of Vieira, Cole, Pires, Henry and Ljungberg all force their way out of the club and that’s the truth of it (Henry not quite so much). Vieira had been flirting with foreign teams for years, Cole wanted a massive wage, Pires didn’t feel Wenger trusted him anymore and decided not to sign a new contract, Henry said he couldn’t afford to wait for the youth project to work if he wanted European success and Ljungberg felt lonely after Henry was sold.

        But it wasn’t just the old generation who forced their way out, significant members of the next generation, the players who would be 27-30 now and playing in the first team, forced their way out of the club or made their positions completely untenable.

        Firstly we have Reyes who in his post-Arsenal career ha been an absolute flop (only recently has he begun to regain form) but during his Arsenal career he was an assist and machine. His off the ball runs into space behind the defence were absolutely lethal and constantly stretched play.

        Then we have Hleb who has also been an absolute flop in his post-Arsenal career but was excellent during his time here (despite what the rabble want to think). Phenomenal ball retention in possession, accurate forward defence splitting passes, dribbles that actually caused defensive chaos (unlike Diaby) and excellent defensive wing play.

        Flamini was largely a flop during most of his Arsenal career but in 2007/2008 he was genuinely excellent and was the perfect counterweight to Fabregas, something that Vieira, Gilberto, Diarra, post-injury Diaby, Song and Denilson were utterly incapable of doing.

        If you look at 2008/2009-2010/2011 what you’ll notice is on the days when we only draw or at worst lose instead of having energy, off the ball movement and accurate forward passing the team looks lethargic, static and plays safe sideways and backward passes.

        Then we’ve got Adebayor who has proven time and again he’s a good striker when his attitude is right.

        Had these players not been drawn away by the money the post-2007/2008 (The last season we actually looked brilliant week-in week-out even when we drew or lost):
        Sagna – Djourou – Vermaelen – Cole
        Hleb – Fabregas – Flamini – Reyes
        van Persie

        or in our modern formation:
        Sagna – Djourou – Vermaelen – Cole
        Flamini – Fabregas
        Walcott/Nasri – Hleb – Reyes
        van Persie

        We’d have a bench of super star experience or exciting youth with game changing attributes. Henry, Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Rosicky, Eboue, Clichy, Song, Diaby, Denilson, Nasri, Walcott, Bendtner, etc. etc.

        The point is that was Wenger’s plan but it got completely derailed and we weren’t in a financial position to respond effectively to it.

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