You would have struggled to find a pre-season preview that predicted the most watertight Premier League defence after four games would belong to Arsenal. Having been particularly porous last season, letting in 49 goals in their 38 games (although this includes the aberration at Old Trafford), they appear to have a new found defensive solidity. Only one goal has been conceded in their opening four games and that was a result of an unforced individual error by Wojciech Szczęsny, rather than from being carved apart by Southampton.
Without going too ‘Alan Hansen’ on you all, the majority of goals scored are a result of defensive mistakes either at an individual or team level. There are of course exceptions, being the rare instances when the conceding team has to just accept they’ve been on the unfortunate end of a special moment of play, but these are the minority. Listen to the better pundits available – Gary Neville or Lee Dixon – and they will invariably spot the error for most goals scored on a weekend. Last season, Arsenal were rife with mistakes, however there is a different feeling around the Emirates currently.
Many factors have been discussed already when analysing the reasons for this sudden and relatively extreme progression – the positive influence of Steve Bould, the increased work ethic amongst forward players and improved individual performances has all contributed. However, the most notable change in Arsenal’s play is the improved balance and shape in both offensive and defensive phases of play.
This has partially come about as a result of a change in personnel and individual roles, most notably in central midfield. Alex Song’s departure raised concerns amongst some, although generally not from Arsenal fans, but due to his lack of discipline and positional awareness he was in fact part of the problem rather than the cure. Mikel Arteta’s intelligence and ability to adapt should be a lesson to Song – he should have plenty of time on the Barcelona bench to study – as the Spaniard has been extremely impressive in protecting his defence.
However, it is the overall shape which has altered the most significantly. While the formation has remained very similar (a variation of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 depending on your perspective), there is a notable change in the attacking and consequently defensive structure of the system. Arsène Wenger has notoriously believed in allowing his players freedom of expression, believing that this was the most effective method for getting the best from his team. This ideal worked in the past but the lack of tactical planning has been detrimental in recent years and undoubtedly a partial factor in the club’s barren run.
As an attacking unit, we have become accustomed to see both Arsenal full-backs push on into advanced positions whilst in theory the defensive midfielder (Song) would sit deeper to protect the central defenders. In reality, as I alluded to earlier, Song’s lack of discipline meant that he rarely fulfilled this duty and the two centre-backs would be left exposed. It’s telling that in a team which conceded as many goals as Arsenal did last season, both Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny were amongst their better performers in their campaign. They were by no means flawless, however the number of goals conceded after a turnover in play highlighted the underlying problem.
There is however a distinct alteration this year in the Gunners’ attacking pattern, which has simultaneously provided further stability to the side. The team is clearly tilted with the left-hand side as the most aggressive and the right-hand side more defensive. The player influence chart below shows the first half shape against Southampton, when Arsenal was most rampant. Kieran Gibbs played almost as a left winger, ahead of the central midfield combination of Arteta and Coquelin, with Lukas Podolski tucking in to create space for the young Englishman to advance into. On the other side, Carl Jenkinson operated in a deeper position generally, although had licence to advance when the opportunity arose. To add to the tilt, Per Mertesacker operated in a deeper position to Vermaelen although this is partly to allow himself an extra yard to hide his lack of pace.
The player influence charts from the away performances at Anfield and the Britannia below show similar results, with the team again displaying this variation. The findings against Liverpool were particularly interesting, with Gibbs affecting the match in positions as far forward as Podolski.
Interestingly, Arsenal’s most productive side of the pitch last season was in fact the right, with Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott a more effective threat than whichever left hand combination was used. It would therefore be tempting to argue that the current tilt is temporary with both players missing from the starting line-up for differing reasons. However, I’m not so sure that will be the case.
For a start, it utilises the ability of the left sided players most effectively. Podolski appears to be the first choice for the more advanced role and, although his starting position is wide, he has a strong tendency to drift inside and directly influence the play from a central area. This creates spaces for Gibbs to operate in, with the full-back having the required pace and technique to be effective in attack. The first goal against Southampton was a perfect example of this working perfectly, as Podolski dropped inside before releasing an onrushing Gibbs.
Once fit, Sagna will certainly return to replace Jenkinson, who is proving to be a very competent albeit limited replacement for the Frenchman. Whilst Sagna can be dangerous going forward, he is one of the finest defensive full-backs in the league (if not the best) and will be perfectly suited to this slightly new role. The place in the team directly in front of him appears to be up for grabs, with Theo Walcott seemingly left out due to contract reasons paving the way for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to cement his starting berth. Wenger refers to Oxlade-Chamberlain as a ‘midfield-type’ and Walcott as a ‘striker-type’ therefore I would not automatically expect Walcott to return to the side once his contract dispute has been sorted. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s advanced technique and football intelligence make him the more viable candidate for the job.
The tilt has helped create the much desired balance that Arsenal has been lacking during the past few seasons, whilst giving them more of a cutting edge without relying on the now departed Robin Van Persie. Both goals against Liverpool were scored from the left-hand side, whilst it proved a threat against Southampton constantly. It will be interesting if the Gunners persist with this against teams who attack predominantly down this side, but otherwise I would expect to see this pattern throughout the season.