Over the last few weeks, we have had in-depth discussions about whether we need to strengthen our midfield this summer, as well as how we should fit in our freshly signed strikers, Giroud and Podolski. Clearly, these are areas we can all get very excited about, but the area we have not been talking about for a while is our 49 PL-goals leaking defence.
Incredibly, seven teams conceded fewer goals in the PL than Arsenal last season: Man City, United, Spuds, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Sunderland, and that is simply not good enough if we want to make the next step up towards winning silverware again. Even if we take into account our bad start – conceding 12 goals in two away games against now relegated Blackburn and last season trophy-less Man United – we still managed to ship 37 goals in 36 games.
Next season, Chelsea will undoubtedly fall back on a Mourinho-style Catanaccio football under Di Matteo and I won’t be surprised if they manage to concede less than 20 goals over the entire season. Man City conceded only 29 goals last season, and their neighbours were not far behind with conceding only 33.
In order to compete for the title, I reckon Arsenal should aim to concede 30 goals or (ideally) less next season. Easier said than done, but how are we going to achieve it?
And will Steve Bould help us to finally get the balance right between beautiful football and defensive tight-fistedness?
Many have said we have failed to defend as a team at times, and that our midfield did not give our defence the necessary protection, especially towards the end of the season. We have also discussed in previous posts how the lack of available FB’s for a long period of time, has hurt us a lot (especially in the first few months of 2012).
Arsenal have also suffered significantly from having a lot of enforced changes to its back four during the season, and the long term injury to Per Mertesacker, just as he started to settle in properly, also meant a serious setback at a crucial time of the season. It effectively meant elimination from two cup competitions – the CL and FA cup – in a less than a week.
Arsenal really struggled to continue its rhythm every time we suffered a major injury to the likes of Arteta, Mertesacker, and Sagna. As long as Arsenal was able to keep the same eleven players fit, we were able to reach a level of consistency on a par with our major competitors, resulting in a run of good results. However, as soon as we suffered one or more injuries we started to lose or draw games we really should have won. It just seemed we were not able to adjust quickly enough to these setbacks, and serious doubts were raised about our strength in depth.
During last season, we only had one period of defensive consistency worthy of reaching a target of 30 goals or less conceded in one PL season. Between 21-03-12 and 21-04-12 Arsenal played seven matches in which we kept five clean sheets and only conceded 3 goals, or 0.4 goals per game:
21-3: Eve – Arsenal: 0-1 Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/LK/KG
24-3: Arsenal – Villa: 3-0 Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/JD/KG-AS
31-3: QPR – Arsenal: 2-1 No Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/LK/KG
8-4: Arsenal – Man C: 1-0 Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/LK/KG
11-4: Wolves – Ars: 0-3 Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/JD/AS
16-4: Arsenal – Wig: 1-2 No Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/JD/AS
21-4: Arsenal – Chel: 0-0 Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/LK/KG
Luckily this period came towards the all important end o the PL season, and although we only managed to score 10 goals in those seven games – 1.43 goals per game, which is well below our season average of 1.95 goals per game – we still managed to get 13 points out of 21.
It is fair to say that our defence saved us at this crucial stage.
However, the next three games – against Stoke, Norwich and West Brom – we almost threw it all away again with shocking defensive performances, conceding 2 goals per game on average, which is five times the conceded goals-per-game tally of the previous seven games:
28-4: Stoke – Arsenal: 1-1 No Clean Sheet, Back four: BS/TV/LK/KG
5-5: Arsenal – Norw: 3-3 No Clean Sheet, Back four: BS-FC/TV/LK/KG (Coquelin replaces Sagna early in the game – the latter is out for the season)
13-5: West B – Ars: 2-3 No Clean Sheet, Back four: CJ/TV/LK/AS
We all know that the season-ending injury to Arteta, early on in the game against Wigan, had a detrimental impact on our defensive shape. However, we still managed to do reasonably well in terms of conceding goals in the games against Wigan, Chelsea and Stoke: conceding three goals in three games – one per game – is not totally unacceptable. The subsequent loss of Sagna in the penultimate game, against Norwich, did appear to be too much for us though, as our defence was all over the place in the last two games. I am sure that fatigue had started to play a part and we also lacked the experience to see games out calmly and professionally when it really mattered, and especially the latter is a concern for us.
We got there in the end by the skin of our teeth.
It is hard to pull definitive conclusions from our defensive performances in the last 10 games, but it looks like Arsenal’s back four of Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Gibbs were getting their act together towards the end of the season, and we can all draw courage from this.
The back-up defenders Djourou (CB) and Santos (LB) – the latter might argue he actually is our first choice LB – also seemed to have performed well.
Jenkinson was injured for large parts of the season, so it is hard to say whether he is an adequate replacement for Sagna. This could be an area of concern, as I believe Coquelin’s strengths lay in midfield (central or right side), and Djourou struggled in the LB position at times. This puts us at risk, with Sagna still recovering from injury at the moment.
It is absolutely crucial to keep our first choice defenders together for at least a few seasons, and let them fully gel further as a unit. Other than Sagna, none of the back four have been playing a significant number of games for Arsenal. A good back four needs consistency and experience, in order to form a wall that frightens any opposition, and on which a winning team can be build with confidence and longevity.
And of course there is the case of Mertesacker’s return from long term injury. How will he fit into our defence: should he be first choice CB or back-up? Until recently I have been saying he should be our first choice CB, as he has great organisational skills and reads the game very well, which easily compensates for his occasional lack of mobility. But, having looked at the last ten games in a bit more detail, I am now not so sure anymore, as slowly but steadily Koz and Vermaelen have formed a strong, albeit occasionally erratic, partnership.
And what will happen with the promising talents of Miquel and Bartley: are they ready for more first team action?
It also became very clear that Arteta’s defensive support was duly missed as we did not have a suitable, ready-to-rock, like-for-like replacement for him in the system that we played (with Song being asked to help out as much as possible in the creative/attacking areas of midfield play).
Furthermore, I am happy to keep backing Szczesny as our nr1 goal keeper, but will his inexperience cost us next season, and do we have a good back-up in case of injury or suspension? This remains to be an area of doubt/risk.
Let’s hope Steve Bould will be able to help Arsene to add a bit more steal, confidence and consistency to the our defence/ TEAM defensive play/ formation next season, so that we can reduce our goals conceded to below 30, and increase the number of clean sheets significantly. Let’s hope we finally get the balance right between the Bould and the Beautiful next season!
The big, all-encapsulating question remains, though: do we have enough quality – players, tactics, coaching, etc – in our team now to establish the required defensive performances that will lead us to silverware next season?
I think we do, but I cannot say I am 100% certain about it.
Thanks for reading.
Please note: I am by no means an expert in defensive tactics etc, and would like to invite you to share your views and expertise with us today. In the end, that’s what good blogging is all about.