Until the concession of Joleon Lescott’s header off a Manchester City corner this weekend set off a debate surrounding the merits of zonal marking, the primary talking point surrounding Arsenal’s defense just how stingy it’s been early in the new season.
Even with that goal, the Gunners have rarely pulled the ball out of their own net this season, and only as the result of goal-keeping errors, the first a wild bobble from Wojciech Szczesny and the second a missed punch from Vito Mannone. That brings their goals allowed to a league low of two, tied with table-toppers Chelsea.
So what’s new? Certainly not the players, as three out of the four regularly starting defenders this season are veterans of last year. Much of the credit has gone to new assistant manager Steve Bould, an Arsenal defender himself in his younger days.
Under Bould’s guidance, fans at the Emirates have been treated to a hard-working team that gets back, forwards and all, when they lose possession. Friend and foe alike have likely noticed two clear banks of four whenever Arsenal find themselves under pressure, a welcome sight to the back four, who no longer have to do everything on their own.
While it’s still early days, the new system has yielded tangible results that have already improved on last season, when the Gunners gave up a club record 49 goals.
For the purposes of the table below, I took the numbers for the first-choice back four last season (Gibbs, Koscielny, Vermaelen and Sagna) and compared them with the numbers for the first-choice back four for the five league games this season (Gibbs, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Jenkinson). All numbers are combined averages per game for the back four as a whole, with the exception of passing percentages.
As you can see, Arsenal have already proven to be much more physical in defense this campaign, averaging more tackles per game than last season. They also haven’t been shy about booting the ball out when necessary, attempting almost three more clearances per game than last year, with around 9 of them proving successful. As a result, turnovers in the back have dropped significantly.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Arsenal if the defense didn’t try to build the attack, and the back four this season has proved themselves able readers of the game. So far, they have averaged at least one more interception per game while increasing their average successful key passes from the back. Long balls have seen a marked increase as well, nearly double what was attempted last season.
One number that sticks out in particular is the drop in offsides won. This could be read as a negative, a failure in that aspect of the defense, but I think it’s more of a reflection on a different strategy altogether. Steve Bould has instilled the discipline in his defense to stop passes directly, rather than trying to step up and catch opposing strikers in the offside trap. One of the most frustrating sights for Arsenal fans last season was the back line helplessly waving their arms for an offside call as the opposition tucked the ball into the net. So far, there has been far less of this.
Another interesting development has been the rise of right back Carl Jenkinson, a bit part player last season thrust into the starting lineup this year as the result of an injury to Bacary Sagna. While most fans feel Jenkinson still has more to prove before he can keep Sagna out of the starting 11, he’s certainly gotten off to a good start.
Jenkinson has, thus far, put up numbers better than Sagna’s last season averages in tackles, dribbles, blocks and long balls. While his predecessor still has the far better passing percentage, interception and turnover rate, it’s enough to create some healthy competition for that spot when he makes his return.
Arsenal now faces an equally miserly defense in Chelsea this Saturday. If neither side blinks, the difference could be down to whose attack comes out all guns blazing.
Who do you think has the tightest defense in the league? What do you make of this weekend’s contest? Share your thoughts in the comments.