One of the biggest talking points of the new season for club supporters and pundits alike is the apparent weakness of Arsenal’s back four. Some criticize the Mertesacker/Koscielny partnership, other question Debuchy and his pace at right back. Some feel Cech has not been enough to improve our defensive results, and still others worry about the communication that exists (or fails to exist) between all players involved. It’s still early in the season to make any definitive conclusions about this, but there have been two performances thus far that we can look to when trying to make sense of the direction in which our defending may go.
If you are accustomed to following blogs or opinion pieces about this topic, then you know this concern with the solidity of our defence is nothing new. Since Djourou and Squillaci (ah ha, you hoped to forget about him, didn’t you?) were our regular starters at centre back, fans have thrown insult after insult at Wenger about his transfer decisions as they relate to this part of the squad. With the acquisition of Laurent Koscielny (2010) and Per Mertesacker (2011), most critics were silenced as this partnership grew and flourished, leading to an excellent defensive record in the last couple of seasons. The addition of Nacho Monreal (2013) and Mathieu Debuchy (2014), in particular the former, further contributed to the strengthening of the team. I think it’s safe to say that fans are more impressed with the current crop of defenders over what had been cultivated in seasons previous.
But whenever there is a conceded goal, there are criticisms that accompany it. We did not look that convincing in the West Ham game of a couple of weeks ago, conceding two goals, both of which were rather weak. Koscielny came under fire for having been caught ball watching on one occasion and generally not being as involved in the game as we are used to seeing. He didn’t reprise his role as sweeper as effectively as he had last season and overall didn’t seem up to the task. There were worries of the same following the first half of the Palace game on Sunday, where he essentially repeated his performance of the previous week. In terms of the back four, the Frenchman took most of the responsibility for our weak start to the season, but as a whole our man marking, positioning, and reading of the game was below par.
It was the second half of the Palace game that helped the team find its defence at Selhurst Park. I don’t know if it was Wenger or Bould that gave a talk in the dressing room at halftime, but something lit a fire under the defenders. Koscielny suddenly began to look like his old self, getting involved and making clearances that helped take the pressure off our defending. It’s incredible how different we can look as a side when Laurent is on his game. Mertesacker, in addition to his adept decision making in terms of interceptions and man marking, made his presence known, cutting off many of the attacking avenues Palace attempted through Puncheon on the left. Hector Bellerin, while young and relatively inexperienced, has proven himself a crucial part of the team, becoming first choice over veteran Debuchy at right back. It seems when the youngster plays, not only do we look sharper defensively on his side of the pitch, but there are more attacking options when he gets forward. We know he’s a pacey player, and you’d be hard pressed to not pick him as first choice.
Another positive for the back line is Monreal. The Spaniard was an issue of debate when he first arrived at the club, as many fans were supportive (and used to) Kieran Gibbs on the left side of defence. Some worried Nacho was too slow, or that he wouldn’t get forward enough to make contributions as a wing back, but since the halfway point of last season he has really turned things around, usurping the starting position from his closest competition. However, against West Ham he, like the rest of the defence, looked weak and unprepared. On the free kick goal, that forced Cech to come for the ball and subsequently miss it and concede, Monreal was way off in terms of his marking and keeping up with his man, allowing Kayoute to beat the keeper. Like Koscielny, his performance improved dramatically at Selhurst Park, battling more for the ball and even pressing higher up the pitch, as a part of our dominant play in the second half.
So, how do we compare defensively to the other big clubs after two games into the 2015/2016 season? In terms of how many shots we’ve allowed on goal, per game we are looking at an average of 9.5, which ranks us above Chelsea (17.5) and Spurs (12), on par with Manchester City (9.5), but below Manchester United (7). Since we conceded 2 goals from 8 shots against West Ham and only 1 goal from 11 shots at Palace, we can say that in this aspect of our game there has been improvement from week 1 to week 2. We made 19.5 tackles per game, which puts us below United (23) and Spurs (21), but above Chelsea (18) and City (13.5). This is not, of course a perfect illustration of defensive ability, since teams that dominate possession for extended periods of play are less likely to have to attempt tackles, but regardless, it’s one aspect of our defensive game that is encouraging. If we really want to challenge for the title, however, these numbers need to tighten up a little more. League champions almost always have great defensive records, and this is a part of our season we need to get right.
Things will doubtlessly change as the season progresses and, at present, we don’t have a lot to go on in terms of statistics or record. All we can hope for is that we’ll tighten up and start collecting some clean sheets, while improving our overall performance.