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Arsenal Season Review Part I – Defensive Analysis

Finally after celebrating what felt like a title victory, it suddenly hit home that we had only finished fourth. However at the start of the season, I don’t think many people could have foreseen anything more. Our fantastic run towards the end of the season, really did save face and covered up many cracks in what has been an ultimately disappointing season as an Arsenal fan. However the end run has left us reeling in excitement for next season, finally feeling optimistic about the clubs future.

Second best defence in the league, and haven’t conceded a goal in open play for 9 games since Hal Robson Kanu scored against us at the end of March, certainly sounds very rosy. However early season defensive naivety certainly cost us dear in pursuing anything higher than fourth place. This article will analyse our season in the Premier League defensively, commenting on everything from the goalkeepers, to set pieces, giving statistics as well as my own opinion on our shortcomings, achievements and things to improve on for next season.

Renewed competition or a new number one still needed?

In a season where Szczesny, Mannone and Fabianski have all had at least one run in the team, the jury is still out as to whether we actually have a keeper at the club who is ready to be part of a title winning team. Szczesny undoubtedly has the potential, but at the tender age of 23, who in goalkeeping years is still a baby; mistakes still manage to creep in at vital times. Fabianski came in to replace Szczesny before getting injured and the layoff seems to have worked wonders for Szczesny who has reclaimed his number one spot again. The big question is whether Wenger should bring in an older more experienced keeper to help groom Szczesny’s future. Goalkeepers generally peak at about 27/28, so when you see a young keeper like Szczesny who is only 23, claim the number one spot without any real competition, complacency is bound to creep into a young man’s game, which we saw earlier on in the season.

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/game
Szczesny 25 10 56 0.96
Fabianski 4 1 100 0.75
Mannone 9 3 33.3 1.22

As our defensive displays improved towards the end of the season, as did the keepers statistics. Fabianski’s run in the team produced 4 wins out of 4 and after getting injured, Szczesny kept the run going with 4 wins from the last 6, making it 10 games unbeaten, keeping 4 clean sheets along the way, making his tally go to 10 clean sheets for the season. The start of the season saw Mannone in goal, who to be fair made some fantastic saves however a few mistakes cost us a few points. Fabianski and Mannone hardly fill you with confidence when you see their names on the team sheet and I think we may have seen these two play their last games in an Arsenal shirt, as Wenger will look to bring in a new keeper to challenge and tutor Szczesny.

The Sagna situation

There can be no doubts about how great a player Bacary Sagna has been for us ever since he joined the club in 2007, establishing himself as one of the best right backs in the world. However in the last two seasons, especially this one, Sagna has found himself scrutinised for poor performances as well as concerns over his commitment to the club. On his day Sagna is still a fantastic right back and among the best, but too many times this season we have seen a Sagna who’s mind maybe elsewhere, and with his contract due to end at the end of next season and no deal being put in place, it could well be that Arsenal will have a new first choice right back next season.

The obvious person to replace Sagna would be Carl Jenkinson who many will say was unlucky to lose his place to Sagna after an impressive start to the season. Jenkinson has clearly come on leaps and bounds this season and silenced critics with great improvements defensively.

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/game Games v Top 7
Sagna 24 8 62.5 1.08 8
Jenkinson 14 6 42.8 0.78 4

Both Sagna and Jenkinson had sustained runs in the team. Jenkinson’s run came at the start of the season whilst Sagna was injured and was part of an Arsenal defence who found it easy to keep clean sheets in the beginning, but the team weren’t winning enough games.  Jenkinson then lost his place to Sagna, where  we started to win more games but conceded more along the way. It came at a time where Arsenal was going through an inconsistent phase through the season. Arsenal this season have only lost 3 games in which Sagna has started, Sagna having the highest win % ratio of any player in the Arsenal team bar Monreal and Rosicky. The statistics show that even though individually Sagna may not have had the best of seasons, he is a vital element of a winning Arsenal team. Wenger will have to work hard to keep Sagna at the club, or look for a suitable replacement, as it still could be too soon for a Carl Jenkinson full season.

Gibbs v Monreal

When both players are fit, Wenger seems to prefer Gibbs over Monreal, but I suppose that has a lot to do with Monreal’s adjustment period to the Premier League, going with Gibbs who has far more Premier League experience than Monreal. However next season the Gibbs v Monreal debate could prove to be quite intriguing. Here we have two very different left backs, one being very quick, athletic and willing to bust a gut to get forward, and another who is more tactile, methodical and technical. Different opponents could suit different players, but at the moment I don’t think a single Arsenal fan would disagree with Gibbs as being the most improved player at the club this season and very worthy of being the first choice left back at the club.

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/game Games v Top 7 Goals Assists
Gibbs 23 8 52.1 1.04 9 0 3
Monreal 9 5 88.9 0.55 1 1 1

The statistics show Monreal’s impressive start to his Arsenal career, with 8 wins in his 9 appearances this season. However against Spurs he showed the he hasn’t yet acclimatised to the speed of English football yet, which is why in more recent games against top 7 teams, Wenger has decided to go with Gibbs. From the left hand side we look far better offensively than we do with our right full backs, with both Gibbs and Monreal chipping in with goals and assists. All in all a very nice problem for Wenger to have next season down the left hand side.

World class Kosc

I’ve been saying since last season that Koscielny needs to be the first name on the team sheet. The man is immense and is naturally one of the best defenders I have ever seen. Quick, strong, agile, a striker rarely gets the better of Koscielny, as RVP found out this season. It is no coincidence that our improved defensive record towards the end of the season came about as Koscielny was a regular starter.

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/game Games v Top 7
Koscielny 20 7 55 0.85 6

All in all the statistics don’t paint a mind blowing picture of Koscielny’s role in the side this season. But upon closer reflection when you consider that Arsenal have only lost twice whilst Koscielny has started this season, you have to wonder how Wenger managed to keep Koscielny out of the team for half the season. Koscielny could be the one world class player we could lose this summer, hopefully Wenger will do enough to keep him to ward off interest from top clubs who will inevitably enquiring about Laurent.

Dependable Mert

A lot of Non-Arsenal fans as well as Arsenal fans still have their reservations about the BFG, still too slow, still not mobile enough, still a liability. I was one of those people up until about mid-way through last season. Mertesacker’s positional prowess and sense of awareness is remarkable and when partnered suitably, has proved he really is up there with the Premier League’s best.

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/game Games v Top 7
Mertesacker 33 14 60.6 0.9 12

Unlike Koscielny, these set of statistics do paint a great picture for Mertesacker, and show how much of an important factor Mertesacker has been to Arsenal having the second best defensive record in the Premier League.

Vulnerable Vermaelen

The normally dependable Vermaelen has had his poorest season to date since signing for Arsenal. With many individual errors creeping into his game, the captain has since lost his place in team. Vermaelen made the most individual errors leading to goals for any outfielder in the Premier League this season (3).

Starts at CB C/S Win % Conceded p/game Games v Top 7
Vermaelen 23 6 56.5 1.26 8

On his day I’m a great fan of Vermaelen, the passion he shows from match to match is unrivalled. I just feel however that sometimes that same passion, that desire to do so well, hinders his game and this is where mistakes start to happen. Vermaelen’s leadership skills are unquestionable, however his displays of late mean he longer gets away with playing just because he is the club captain. Not a bad back up centre half to have though, however will that spur Vermaelen on to get his place back or will he look to go elsewhere for regular football.

The Unbeatable partnership

After starting 15 games together in the Premier League this season, Koscielny and Mertesacker remain unbeaten as a pair this season. An incredible feat which features 9 wins and 6 draws with only 9 goals conceded. 5 of those 15 games came against sides in the top 7. Surely this partnership is key to Arsenal’s title chances next season, if Koscielny and Mertesacker can keep fit and maintain their impressive form, Arsenal defensively could be a force to be reckoned with next season.

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/game Games v top 7
Verm/Kosc 5 0 80 1.8 2
Verm/Mert 17 6 58.8 1.12 5
Mert/Kosc 15 7 60 0.6 5

The partnership of Vermaelen and Mertesacker doesn’t fill me with confidence, despite having a good win % ratio. Vermaelen certainly doesn’t bring out the best in Mertesacker like Koscielny does. Whilst Koscielny and Vermaelen on paper would be a dream partnership, it just doesn’t seem to click. Maybe because they are too similar to each other and both want to play as the ball winner, whereas Mertesacker plays as a covering centre back allowing either Koscielny or Vermaelen to be the ball winner. If Wenger can keep hold of both Koscielny and Vermaelen and add a decent 4th choice centre back to the ranks, then Arsenal will have a good crop of defenders to choose from.

Arteta’s influence

Mikel Arteta has been an integral part of Arsenal defence ever since he joined the club in 2011. Arteta’s presence is sorely missed every time he is injured and is probably the only man in the squad, except possibly Cazorla, who is guaranteed to be on the team sheet. When Arteta came off midway through the first half against Newcastle, we all felt the loss in midfield, and shows how important he is to the team that Wenger would start him knowing that he was nowhere near fit.

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/games Games v top 7
With Arteta 34 14 58.8 0.88 9
Without Arteta 4 0 25 1.75 3

Although Arteta was only missing for 4 games this season, the absence was key; winning only 1 of those 4 games he was missing, conceding 7 goals. Next season will probably see the introduction of a new DM, relieving an ageing Arteta from playing almost every single game, giving Arteta the role of playing in games where we have to be formidable defensively. Having Arteta as a defensive option coming on from the bench would be fantastic, as well as having the option to playing 2 defensive midfielders in games we need to.

Midfielder’s defensive contribution

Starts C/S Win % Conceded p/games Games v top 7
Ramsey (as CM) 18 7 66.6 0.72 4
Wilshere 20 6 55 1.2 8
Rosicky 7 3 85.7 0.57 1
Coquelin 3 0 33.3 2 1
Diaby 10 5 40 0.6 4

Above are the statistics of all the players who have played as the two more defensive central midfielders this season, Cazorla not included as he normally plays as a CAM or out wide. The one player who really does stand out is Aaron Ramsey. Whether you think he is good enough or not, you can’t deny Ramsey’s outstanding record whilst in the team this season when playing through the middle. Out of his 18 games started through the middle, Arsenal have only suffered 2 defeats and conceded only 13 goals.

The trio of Rosicky, Ramsey and Arteta have certainly been a major part of Arsenal’s strong finish defensively. Rosicky has been absolutely outstanding towards the end of the season, instrumental in 6 wins and with some fantastic eye catching individual performances, notably the games against Manchester United at home and Bayern Munich away. If only we could keep him fit for the whole season.

Speaking of another injury prone central midfielder, Abou Diaby started off brightly before injury once again wrecked his season, sadly for the last time in my opinion, as I can’t see Diaby returning in an Arsenal shirt after this latest injury. Diaby’s contribution earlier on in the season defensively was there for everybody to see, when fit Diaby has to play. When Diaby came off against Chelsea after 17 minutes at the Emirates earlier on in this season, you could see the hole that had been left from his absence. A new defensive midfielder in a Diaby mould (just less injury prone) would do Arsenal wonders next season and would aid Arteta greatly.

This season saw the return of Jack Wilshere and whilst his defensive stats may not look that impressive, Arsenal fans know that Wilshere’s greatest talents lie going forward. However with the trio of Rosicky, Ramsey and Arteta doing so well, the latest absence of Wilshere hasn’t been felt at all. This leaves Wenger with a nice problem next season in terms of finding the right balance in midfield with so many options available to him. Personally I feel Wilshere’s best position is playing as the attacking midfielder of the 3 in the centre, the role in which Rosicky has been occupying in recent weeks.

Improved Set Pieces

We have earned ourselves a stereotype of being poor at defending set plays. Over the past few years Arsenal haven’t covered themselves in glory, even the laziest journalists and armchair supporters know that Arsenal in recent history have been weak at defending set plays. However the introduction of Oliver Giroud in defending corners and free kicks have seen radical improvements. With Giroud on the pitch I feel so comfortable with defending corners and free kicks, so much so that when he doesn’t play I get nervous every time the opposition gets a set play The statistics certainly support that, whilst Giroud has been on the pitch Arsenal have only conceded 2 goals from corners and 1 goal from an indirect free kick. Arsenal in total have only conceded 3 goals from corners and 3 goals from indirect free kicks this season, 2 of them coming in the same match against Chelsea at home (incidentally Giroud was not on the pitch at the time). 6 goals conceded from set plays in total, a further 2 were conceded from direct free kicks, surely must be down to the influence of Steve Bould and the presence of Oliver Giroud, who seems to be a ball magnet when the ball is in the air.

Areas for concern

It’s easy to look at the last day of the season and get carried away with the proceedings, at the end of the day we still finished 4th in the League and the last 10 games of the League season really did paper over the cracks of the 28 games previous to that. Hopefully we are beginning to learn from the mistakes that almost deprived us of Champions League football next season.

Individual errors cost us dearly this season, only Liverpool conceded more goals from individual errors this season than us according to @orbinho. 10 goals conceded from individual errors, as well as 5 goals conceded from penalties, in the early part of the season we certainly had ourselves to blame for dropped points. If we are to challenge for the title next season we really do need to cut down the individual errors and give away less penalties, 7 in total were conceded this season.

Our defensive records against the top 7 must also improve. In games against Chelsea (A), Liverpool (H), City (H), Spurs (A) and United (A) we went 2 goals down, which is completely unacceptable if you want to challenge for titles. Winning games against the top 7 is hard enough without giving them early 2-0 leads.  Only in 3 out of the 12 League games against top 7 sides did we take the lead, against Everton (A), Liverpool (A) and United (H). 59% of the goals we concede occur in the first half.

Another area of concern would be our knack of conceding goals just before the half time whistle. We’ve conceded 10 goals in the 30-45 minute time zone this season, either allowing the opponent to take a half time lead or to go in level after scoring first. These lapses in concentration have been costly this season in terms of giving the opponent momentum.

A persistent problem in the early part of the season was the defensive structure when we were being counter attacked. Statistically we only conceded 3 goals from counter attacks this season, however it could have been far more if the opposition in some games had been more clinical. In recent games it has been less of a problem since defensive structure has improved from front to back, however the game against United showed we can still be vulnerable on the counter attack. Something for Wenger to work on.

All in all I think Steve Bould has a lot to be proud of in his first season as Arsenal assistant manager. As we know Arsene Wenger isn’t exactly the most defensive orientated coach and you can certainly see the influence of Bould in this latest Arsenal defensive structure. Some of the goals we were conceding in the early and middle part of the season would’ve made Bould pull his hair out, if he had any to pull out of course. We seem to be defending more as a team now, the midfield are  doing their job, no doubt the influence of Rosicky in there who has been a colossus towards the end of the season has aided that. When the midfield is doing their job, it gives the defence confidence and relief, thus alleviating the possibilities of individual errors, that we saw so many of in the first 2/3’s of the season.

Below is a table of our top defensive performers in different categories this season. (Stats taken from whoscored.com)

1st 2nd 3rd
Interceptions p/game Arteta (2.9) Monreal (2.5) Gibbs (2.4)
Tackles p/game Arteta (3.2) Gibbs (2.8) Jenkinson (2.3)
Clearances p/game Koscielny (4.9) Mertesacker (4.8) Vermaelen (4.5)
Blocked shots p/game Vermaelen (0.7) Mertesacker (0.6) Koscielny (0.4)
Offsides won p/game Koscielny (1.3) Mertesacker (1.1) Vermaelen (0.7)

Thank you for reading, please stay tuned for the next part of the article, which will focus on our attacking performances this season.

Follow @lewbob91 on Twitter

Stats in this blog have either been of my own or via whoscored.com

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One response to “Arsenal Season Review Part I – Defensive Analysis

  1. Daniel Cowan May 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Excellent post

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