New Manager, Same Old Arsenal?
Unai Emery inherited from Arsène Wenger an unbalanced squad. The side had great attacking talent but the defence was surprisingly empty for one of the Premier League ‘big’ sides, as it had been for the past few seasons. In the final three seasons of Wenger’s reign, £159.3 million was spent on attacking players while defenders were only brought in to the tune of £63.69 million – with the difference between both being huge. Although a crude measure, it does suggest how the defence had taken a backseat during the end of Wenger’s tenure at the Emirates. Now, the onus has fallen on Emery to sort out the mess at the back.
How has he done so far? Not so good. This season, Arsenal have conceded 37 goals – the highest amongst the top six sides.
The xG conceded also throws a worrying light on the issue.
Now that we’ve established that Arsenal are in the midst of a defensive crisis, we’ll try to identify the major areas of concerns for Emery to look into and solve. Most of Arsenal’s defensive problems can be segregated under two broad categories – the players they have and the structure of the team.
Emery’s first few signings after his arrival were defenders, defensive midfielders, and a goalkeeper. However, neither of the defenders brought in – Sokratis or Lichsteiner – have been major upgrades on the defenders who were already here. Let’s analyse them all; starting with the ones who’d already been here.
Laurent Koscielny: Koscielny had been out during the beginning of the season following an Achilles tendon rupture. He only returned in December and following a few false starts has performed decently. He is averaging 1.3 tackles P/90 with a tackle success rate of 80%. His passing accuracy is also 93.5% – the highest among all of our centre-backs. He brings much-needed calm at the back and his positional awareness is still and anticipation is still world-class. However, he is 33 years old – with age, he’s lost most of his pace and can’t keep up with the demands of the modern game – which continue to grow. He’s still Arsenal’s only elite centre-back (albeit, erstwhile) and he knows what he has to do on the pitch but the issue is that he can’t do it week-in-week-out.
Shkodran Mustafi: Mustafi has been a regular part of the team this season, although he’s also had his fair share of injuries. He’s also their most used defender and the one Emery depends upon the most, for better or for worse. This is evidenced by the fact that he makes the highest number of clearances, tackles, and interceptions of all Arsenal centre-backs. His performance this season, however, has only been average-to-poor – he makes around two tackles P/90, and wins only a bit more than half of his tackles(58.5% success rate) and 61% of his aerial duels. He only completes 84% of his passes – worrying numbers for a centre-back. He usually plays as the right-sided centre-back and it’s a common sight to see him bring out the ball from the back and then hoof an aimless, hopeful ball in the general direction of Arsenal’s centre-forwards as soon as he’s pressed.
However, the eye-test reveals what the numbers can’t quantify yet. The worst part of his game is his lack of focus or general cluelessness of what’s around him. He’s played opposition players onside often because he wasn’t on the same page with the rest of the defence (although, it would be harsh to solely blame him for the team’s lack of organisation). He doesn’t communicate well and often is guilty of leaving his teammates stranded 1v1 or even 2v1 in their own box. He makes the most defensive errors of any of Arsenal’s defenders – switching off at the wrong times, which is concerning considering he’s Arsenal’s fittest defender now. There’s no doubt he’s very talented and he’s had good matches this season in which he’s shone but his inconsistency makes him undependable at the moment.
Rob Holding: Holding’s injury has hurt Arsenal the most, having been the only bright spot in the defence this season. He had been instrumental in Arsenal’s 22-game unbeaten run during the beginning of the season. Comfortable in possession, quick, and possessing a solid defensive game, he’d hit a new level under the new management. In the short while he’d played – 1227 minutes – he had an 89.3% pass completion rate, making 1.1 tackles P/90, and winning 56% of his total duels. However, the ACL injury has ruled him out for the rest of this season.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos: Sokratis has been a good signing for Arsenal. He brings some of the old-school physicality to the backline all while posting solid passing numbers. His no-nonsense defending sees him make around 1.2 tackles per match and he is only dribbled past 20 per cent of the times he challenges a player. He boasts a passing accuracy of 91.2% though he isn’t a very adventurous passer or the one to carry the ball upfield. He’s good at what he does – winning aerial battles, and his ground duels. He’s committed 26 fouls in only 16 appearances and while most of them do well to break up the opposition attack, some rash ones in the box have seen Arsenal punished with a penalty.
Sokratis is also on the wrong side of 30. He has always been slow and hence, often has to commit fouls when Arsenal are caught out during a counter-attack. He has been a good addition to the side but he’s not the solution to the Gunner’s problems.
Note: we’ve talked about the full-backs in part one of this series.
Bernd Leno: Bernd Leno has been a fantastic summer signing. The young German who came from Bayer Leverkusen in the summer is good with his feet and hence is key to Emery’s keenness to build out from the back. He plays an average of 31.6 passes P/90 and his short passing is severely underrated. He’s made no mistakes in playing out from the back this season – having a short pass accuracy of 99.4%. He is also a capable shot-stopper having made a number of crucial saves for Arsenal this season. The only significant limitation he has is the lack of command of his own box – his decision-making while coming off the line to claim long balls has been questionable.
Petr Čech – Petr Čech started this season as the starting goalkeeper. Čech’s major handicap has been in playing out from the back and following his injury, he’s been relegated as the cup goalkeeper – mostly coming on in the tournaments. He’s due to retire at the end of this season and Arsenal might need another goalkeeper as well or have to do with Emiliano Martinez as the second choice keeper.
The defenders and goalkeepers are not the only ones at fault. While they’re far from perfect, a lot of the shambolic performances are also down to Emery’s management and team-selection.
The structure – Emery’s 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-1-2
Emery has struggled to settle upon a formation which works for Arsenal this season. Over the course of the season, he has used a total of eight formations. Arsenal’s defensive organisation has been blowing hot and cold – some days it’s working well enough and on other days, it is torn apart like butter paper at the will of the opposition. The injuries have definitely not helped – all of our centre-backs have been out for a considerable amount of time this season – especially Holding and Héctor Bellerín having suffered long term injuries.
The defensive organisation leaves a lot to be desired. At their worst days, there is no communication at the back. The offside trap doesn’t work well and it looks like it has not been rehearsed ever in training. The players in the back four or three often hold a very crooked line. The players move around without any chemistry – each one of them in their own minds. These are things hardly worthy of a team of Arsenal’s stature.
Ahead of the defensive line, is the midfield – usually consisting of defensive midfielders Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi, and Granit Xhaka. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. Torreira is an exceptional tackler (2.4 tackles P/90). He also intercepts at a rate of 1.8 balls P/90 and can protect the #6 area as good as anyone in Europe. However, he isn’t particularly great at progressing the ball to the final third, or at least not as good as Xhaka. Xhaka is good at defending and at controlling the game with his passing range (he averages 5.8 long balls P/90) but he lacks the concentration to play the full 90 minutes without making casual giveaways in the midfield or even more dangerous areas.
Guendouzi is a versatile midfielder, currently preferred in the double pivot in a box-to-box role. However, as we’ve mentioned in part one, he isn’t mature enough to take the entire transitioning burden of the team and his decision-making under pressure also is worse than you’d like.
Note: Mohammed Elneny is also a defensive midfielder but he hasn’t played enough minutes this season to form a valid conclusion.
Unai Emery has fielded the 4-2-3-1 the majority of the time and hence this is the formation worth talking about. It forms a fluid 4-4-2 medium block without the ball. The most common defensive issues which usually arise in this set-up is defending during transitions.
Emery likes to press high. His defensive line usually pushes up to support the midfield lines and to compact the playing space for the opposition to enable good counter-pressing. This leads to two kinds of problems. If the double pivot is caught out of position, there’s a chance for the opposition to break through and attack the back line. This happens when opposition teams break out of the press and one of the defensive midfielders is left isolated. The other problem is the high line itself. The centre-backs aren’t very quick and a simple well-weighted ball over the top can lead to goal-scoring opportunities for the opposition.
To solve this problem, Emery has changed his system in recent months – shifting to a more conservative 3-4-1-2. This enables better defence of the channels but directly leads to attacking issues – since, in essence, Emery is sacrificing the attack for the defence.
A team’s offensive set-up is directly related to its defensive organisation. Arsenal under Emery have attacked well but injuries and the defects in the system itself have led to them consistently facing defensive problems. To fix that, Arsenal have played a back three and fielded three defensive midfielders. It’s clear to see there’s no balance in the structure. The system is not entirely at fault either since it is only as good as the players it has. What this team needs is a leader at the back, someone to organise the back-line. Arsenal will definitely have to invest heavily and smartly in the summer window to come if they want to challenge for the top four.
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