The great Arsenal defensive myth
“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.