A case for the Arsenal defence

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald

Written by Joe Simon:

I decided to write this after the announcement of the Ozil transfer. Arsenal spent over £40 million on one of the top attacking midfielders in the world, and whilst most fans were shouting out with joy, or putting little dots over their o’s in their twitter name, it seems many people think the money should have been better spent elsewhere. Namely the ‘shaky defence’. From all quarters it seems that people think Arsenal’s defence is weak and needs considerable strengthening. This has bugged me for a while, simply because I can’t understand it.

Now don’t get me wrong – its obvious that for the first half of last season the defence was shipping far too many goals. Costly individual errors had us down in 6th place, and like Kyle Walker being caught up field and out of position again, we were chasing hard to get back where we should be. This was due to a mix of not knowing our best combination, coupled with a few niggles being carried secretly (Vermaelen!). However, this was just the first half of the season.

Once the pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny were forced together after a horrendous run, culminating at the defeat to Spurs (where the offside trap failed like a Benitez mind game), the results skyrocketed. In case you haven’t seen the stats for the pairing, here they are:
-Arsenal had the second best defensive record in the Premier League for the entire season.
-Arsenal conceded only 14 goals away from home, the best in the league (and Arsenal’s best in a decade).
-The pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny had a record of 9 wins, 5 draws, and 0 losses. This includes the clean sheet against the eventual Champions League winners in Munich.
-They conceded only 5 goals in the last 10 games, the only goal conceded away from home since the middle of march being a penalty away at West Brom.

Now that’s a defensive crisis I can live by!

Individually the pair also seem to have flourished. Mertesacker enjoyed his second season, ending the 2012-13 campaign with only 1 error leading to a shot. He also racked up 160 clearances, more than any other arsenal defender. He had an aerial duel win percentage of 67% (other leading defenders – Williams 56%, Vidic 66%, Jagielka 64%, Vertonghen 62%, Kompany 59%). Lets also remember that he bagged a goal in each of the games against Spurs. Good lad.

Meanwhile Koscielny had a very high tackle success rate of 83% (Williams 73%, Vidic 65%, Jagielka 67%, Vertonghen 80%, Kompany 81%). He individually racked up an interception every 33 minutes due to his pace and anticipation. He also scored the goal to put Arsenal into the Champions League again for the second year in a row. Very good lad.

So where has this ‘defensively weak Arsenal’ line come from?
Maybe its just lazy stereotypes, its all too easy to say it. When Arsenal were grinding out 1-0 wins away at Sunderland, QPR, Fulham and Newcastle, people still claimed Arsenal played free-flowing attacking football and were suspect in defence. In fact the opposite was true, Arsenal were actually grinding out these results, scoring from few chances they had whilst remaining strong at the back.

Whilst the run at the end of the season muted the ‘defensively weak Arsenal’ calls somewhat, the first result of the season against Aston villa raised them up again. From all departments people were claiming arsenal needed defensive signings. Ex-players on TV all too ready to give their little input, grateful for the camera to be on them once more, for just enough time for them to say something stupid and remind everyone why they aren’t on TV regularly (“Arsenal should sign Samba/Dann/Upson” – hah). It was ignored quite quickly that the ‘crisis’ against Villa included 2 penalties and Arsenal had 10 men for a large portion of the game (2 of them awful decisions from the ref that quickly got him demoted the next weekend).

Last campaign the only dropped points in the run post Spurs were a 0-0 and a 1-1. A lack of scoring rather than an obvious defensive problem. There were also 3 nervy 1-0 wins. How can you improve on 0-0’s, 1-1’s and 1-0 wins? Only one way – bringing me neatly back around to the signing of Ozil and whether it really was the position arsenal needed (almost like I planned it!)

Against Aston Villa, going for the second goal, the final pass was always slightly over hit, or ever so slightly wayward. A top class attacking midfielder sliding balls into Giroud and Walcott would have resulted in a completely different ending.

The home match against Spurs was another classic example of everything in this article, luckily for me! The defence was strong, resolute, and gave away barely any chances. Meanwhile, at the other end, Arsenal grabbed a chance when they could and spent the rest of the game almost scoring the second. On a number of occasions the opportunity for the final ball was there, yet the pass was lacking – including the slide through to Walcott which Lloris did excellently for. A more accomplished, talented, number 10 (such as Ozil, as a random example) would have picked out his man on one of these occasions and put the match beyond doubt.

You can also look last seasons domestic cup exists – two awful displays against Bradford and Blackburn (sorry for bringing them up again). Arsenal failed to score at home against Blackburn and only scored against lower league Bradford from a set piece. A greater attacking threat and Arsenal would easily bypass this opposition.

So how do you improve a team with a great defensive record that struggled to kill off games and score enough goals? With a top class number 10. Easy. Not with throwing another centre-back into the mix, no matter what the ‘experts’ say. Now, where’s Samba..?