Defensive Improvements- A platform to build on for next season?
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)
Very rarely have we seen the words ‘solid defence’ and Arsenal performances go together over the last 10-15 seasons but if there’s one positive to take away from a poor season, it is a much-improved defensive record in terms of goals and chances conceded. This issue has been Arsenal’s bugbear for far too many years now and it was the first thing that needed to be addressed by both Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta when they were brought in, but the former only made things worse and while the latter has brought in some stability, it’s taken some time. The downside to this improvement is that our attacking play has suffered, but the underlying statistics from 2021 suggest that things are looking up in this regard. Let’s delve into the underlying issues addressed to possess the 3rd best defensive record in the league.
Irrespective of the quality of the defenders at the manager’s disposal, creating a solid structure was crucial so that the focus can be at the other end of the field. A very cliched and trivial statement to make but evidence from last season e.g., 20+ shots conceded against Watford (twice), Southampton and Norwich to name just a few games, highlighted glaring deficiencies that had to be sorted out.
Bernd Leno being ranked high in the number of saves made for the 2019/20 season might sound like a positive statistic but it was also indicative of the volume of the shots he was facing regularly. Shot volumes and conceding numerous high-quality chances were indicative of a team lacking any structure and thus unable to control games.
But from the first game of this season, there has been a conscious effort in playing a high line, controlling the spaces and keeping our opponents pinned back for sustained periods, especially against opponents in the lower half of the table. The end product is still lacking from such sustained periods of pressure but the base is being built to control the tempo of games and therein comes the next challenge.
Starving opponents of the ball creates the pressure and this means that when they do win back possession, it becomes even more important to either snuff the danger out early or deal with the danger smartly and it’s this lack of consistency that has hurt the team this season.
The majority of our losses and draws have been in games of very fine margins with one mistake proving the difference-maker. Cedric's mistake against Villa, Leno against Everton, Gabriel penalty against Fulham, Luiz red card vs Wolves, Xhaka vs Burnley among others are all concentration lapses from innocuous moments and have cost us games. For Leno, this was the first year of his Arsenal career where he was hardly involved during games, so the situational demands are different as compared to being called upon regularly to bail the team out. Work has been done on limiting our obvious weaknesses and having the 3rd best defence in the league despite such high-profile errors shows there’s still a margin for improvement and that bodes well for the future.
The other improvement this season has been from defending set-pieces. Andreas Georgson was brought in from Brentford to address long-standing issues regarding our defending from set-pieces and also improve our threat from set-pieces at the other end. Improvements in the latter haven’t been seen this season but hopefully, a proper pre-season should be helpful to practice set-piece routines.
Defensively though, there has been a marked improvement, not just in terms of goals conceded but also in terms of chances conceded (set-piece xGA from Understat). Last season, we conceded 14 goals (xG of 13.31) from corners and indirect free-kicks, while the numbers from this season are just 5 goals (xG of 6.08). Conceding 9 goals fewer is not a small difference and added to that, we have conceded the fewest goals from set-plays in the league! Clearly, this is an issue that Arteta felt needed addressing and bringing in a specialist has brought in immediate results.
Accounting for a congested schedule and thus numerous centre-back pairings, having the 3rd best record in the league is all the more impressive and points to the structure that has been put in place by Arteta and his staff. Long-standing issues are being rectified at one end and it’s our attack that needs to improve if we want to return to Europe soon.