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Analysis of The Best Defence in the League

Normally as Arsenal fans we’re not used to being labelled the best defence in the Premier League, so I can probably conclude the lack of reads of this post is not down to my poorly constructed article, my bland use of vocabulary or the fact that hardly anybody knows me in the cyber world of Arsenal fans, (feel free to follow me on Twitter by the way @Lewbob91) it is probably because we Arsenal fans can be forgiven for not reading an article titled such because it’s almost certainly about United, City or Chelsea.

Well, if you are one of those Arsenal fans who do enjoy reading about other teams successes, you’re about to be pleasantly surprised, or not if you’re a total weirdo. This article is about the best defence in the Premier League, but not Chelsea, United or City, but yes, The Gunners, who I think it’s pretty safe to say have been pretty dire defensively over the past 8 years. Well 2013 was a different year for us, as we topped the Premier League table for the calendar year and start 2014 top of the pile, with dare I say it again, the best defence in the league. During this article I will be analysing as to how this Arsenal team has made such a miraculous recovery and showing you the impressive numbers as to why this Arsenal defence is the best in the league this season so far.

Defensive Record so far

Played – 31  Conceded – 26 
Won – 21 Clean Sheets - 15
Drawn – 4 Win % - 77.4 
Lost – 6 Avg minutes p/1 conceded – 108.5

The Rock at the back

It hasn’t just been this season we have seen Koscielny and Mertesacker form an impregnable partnership at the back, recent media praise for the pairing may be new but Arsenal fans have been calling for this praise for a while now.

Koscielny & Mertesacker record together this season

 Starts   Mins   Wins   Draws   Losses   Conceded   C/S   Win%   C/game   C/min 
 22 1853 16  4 14 12 72.7 0.67 132.4

Mertesacker

I’m not entirely sure how this record would match up to other stellar centre back pairings across the Premier League or across Europe but I think it’s pretty safe to say this one is pretty impressive. Koscielny and Mertesacker have yet to lose a Premier League game they complete together again this season, with Premier League losses to City and Villa coming when Koscielny had been substituted (City) or sent off (Villa). 12 of Arsenal’s 15 clean sheets have come this season where Koscielny and Mertesacker have started together, 13 if you include Mertesacker’s substitute appearance at half time in the FA cup tie against Spurs.

According to whoscored.com Koscielny has made 48 interceptions in the Premier League so far this season. To put that into perspective the only Centre Back who has intercepted more is Southampton’s Dejan Lovren with 50. To put it into even greater perspective, Fernandinho has played 1 more game than Koscielny in the League and only has 44 interceptions, and he is Manchester City’s chief play breaker. Together Koscielny and Mertesacker have contributed to 219 clearances between them, which should not be taken lightly because it’s one thing to intercept the ball and to clear it but it’s another thing to then keep the ball and find the right pass, something Koscielny and Mertesacker do extremely well both averaging 92% pass success ratios.

Together they seem to have found this understanding that Arsenal have been yearning for a number of years, if we can have them both available for the rest of the season, there is no reason why Arsenal can’t continue their good work defensively, even if you’re struggling to score goals, if you’re solid at the back and not conceding, you still have a chance to pick up 3 points.

CB cover

Much has been made of Arsenal’s ‘lack of cover at the back’; some may argue we still need another Centre Back because pickings are slim if an injury occurs to one of Koscielny or Mertesacker. Thomas Vermaelen has had his critics over the past 18 months, none more so than me. I think Vermaelen is an excellent defender but far too erratic for my liking, especially as we’ve become accustomed to Koscielny and Mertesacker’s calming influence at the back. That being said whenever Vermaelen has filled in at the back he has barely put a foot wrong, despite losing 3 of the 7 games where Vermaelen has played at Centre Back, I don’t think we can fundamentally put those defeats down to the presence of Vermaelen in the team. Unfortunately for us we’ve had to call upon Vermaelen and expect him to find top form against the top sides, with his starts coming against United, Chelsea (twice) and the second half against City, not easy for anyone who’s been constantly out of the team.

Another option we’ve seen at Centre Back this season has been Bacary Sagna, who filled in at the start of the campaign when Koscielny was banned or injured, as was Vermaelen. Sagna is more than capable of slotting in at Centre Back and proved that when called upon, the only downside to Sagna playing at Centre Back is his replacement at Right Back is Carl Jenkinson, who rarely fills me with confidence.  With options such as Vermaelen and Sagna available I see no pressing need for an extra Centre Back unless of course one of them was allowed to leave, more reason to buy a Right Back in my opinion.

Jenkinson

Other CB pairings this season

 

 Starts 
 (subs)

 Mins   W   D   L   Conceded   C/S   Win%   C/game   C/min 
Sagna
Mertesacker
2 (1) 247 3 0 0 1 2 100 0.33 247
Koscielny
Sagna
1 90 1 0 0 1 0 100 1 90
Koscielny
Vermaelen 
225  0 2 3 1 33.3 1 75
Vermaelen
Mertesacker 
3 (1)  348  2 1 6 1 25 1.5 58
Total  9 (2)  910  2 3 11 4 54.5 1 82.7

Win % with Mertesacker and Koscielny – 72.7%
Win % without Mertesacker and Koscielny – 54.5%

He’s back

Go on admit it, admit that you thought Bacary Sagna was finished, don’t be ashamed, most people out there had reservations about Sagna’s diminishing form, because let’s face it he was a shadow of himself after injuries. However last season I saw glimpses of the old Sagna returning back to his old self, and this season he has regained those levels of consistency he once had.

   Starts/Subs   Mins   W   D   L   Conceded   C/S   Win %   C/game   C/min 
Sagna starting RB  22 1980  17 1 4 17 13 77.3 0.77 116.5
Jenkinson starting RB  840  3 2 9 2 44.4 1 93.3

The difference between Sagna and Jenkinson starting is evident in the stats above, winning 77.3% of games with Sagna starting and just 44.4% of games where Jenkinson starts. The presence of Sagna this season has been instrumental into our fantastic defensive record, conceding only 17 goals in the 22 starts the Frenchman has had this season at right back, a stat which would look even more impressive if you take the 6 goals we conceded at City out of the equation. Many who follow me on Twitter or know me personally will have come to grips with my ‘lack of faith’ in Jenkinson. I have mentioned before in previous articles of how many pairs of boxers Jenkinson makes me go through whenever he plays, I would love him to do well for Arsenal but the stats show how much solid we are when Sagna plays and how unimpressive we become defensively when Jenkinson plays.

Left Side Combo

   Starts   Mins   W   D   L   Conceded   C/S   Win %   C/game   C/min 
Gibbs  23 1976 16 3 4 15 10 69.6 0.65 131.7
Monreal  8 750 5 1 2 9 5 62.5 1.13 83.3

Keiran Gibbs has become one of the best left backs in the league, and in my opinion deserves to be in that England squad ahead of both Cole and Baines. Unlike our right hand side we’re pretty well covered, with Monreal a more than adequate replacement for Gibbs. Monreal has played far more football than just the 8 starts this season obviously, but arguably some of his biggest contributions so far have been coming off the bench when we’ve been leading.

Gibbs

So far this season Monreal has made 13 substitution appearances, most of the time coming on down the left wing to provide Gibbs with more defensive cover to see the game out. In 12 of those 13 games, Arsenal have been winning, Napoli away being the exception, and Arsenal have gone on to win all 12 of those games we were leading in when Monreal has come on, conceding just 3 goals with him on the pitch. It’s a substitution that we haven’t seen much from Wenger in his time here, but maybe because he has never really had the options to do so in previous years.

Centre of the park

   Starts (subs) 
 45mins+ 
 Mins   W   D   L   GC   C/S   Win%   C/game   C/min 
Ramsey
Wilshere 
5 396 3 0 2 5 3 60 1 79.2
Arteta 
Flamini 
6 433 3 1 2 3 2 50 0.5 72.2
Ramsey 
Arteta 
9 (1) 775 7 2 1 4 6 70 0.4 193.8
Ramsey 
Flamini 
7 (1) 647 7 0 1 8 3 87.5 1 80.9
Wilshere 
Flamini 
1 90 1 0 0 0 1 100 0 N/A
Ramsey 
Rosicky 
1 69 1 0 0 0 0 100 0 N/A
Arteta 
Hayden 
1 83 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 83
Arteta 
Wilshere 
1 71 1 0 0 0 1 100 0 N/A

Ramsey & Wilshere – 5 starts, 60% Win Success, Conceded a goal every 79.2mins, 3 clean sheets

Villa (H) 1-3
Fenerbahce (A) 3-0
Fenerbahce (H) 2-0
Spurs (H) 1-0 (Wilshere injured 44 mins)
Chelsea (H) 0-2 (Ramsey off 81 mins)

Wilshere

I think many are unconvinced by the partnership of Rambo and Jack in midfield, obvious flaws would be the lack of steel and discipline that the two together would offer, making us susceptible to be over run or hit on the counter attack like we saw in the defeat against Aston Villa. The pairings best game was probably against Spurs, but many will forget their first half display as Flamini came on and stole the show as we won 1-0. Ramsey has made himself the perfect candidate for a role in the double pivot, by excelling in both the offensive and defensive departments, as of yet Jack has yet to excel in either, with major work needed on his defensive contribution.

Arteta & Flamini – 6 starts, 50% Win Success, Conceded a goal every 72.2 mins, 2 clean sheets

Napoli (H) 2-0
West Brom (A) 1-1
Norwich (H) 4-1 (Flamini injured 37 mins)
United (A) 0-1 (Flamini off 61 mins)
Napoli (A) 0-2 (Arteta sent off 76 mins)
Cardiff (H) 2-0 (Flamini off 65 mins)

Since Arteta and Flamini’s partnership debut against Napoli where it worked absolute wonders, we have seen a decline in the effectiveness of the combo. Wenger has decided to use it in tough away games, but after defeats to United and Napoli, as well as a poor performance in West Brom, it really hasn’t worked as well as we all thought it could. From the attacking point of view it limits us drastically, as well as struggling to keep hold of the ball. The only game where it could be argued that they should’ve started together was against City, but for some reason, maybe because he was fatigued, Wenger decided to leave Arteta on the bench, and we all know what happened there. A Flamini and Arteta partnership could work when we’re defending a lead and need to be disciplined but from the start it’s hard to see it working effectively.

Ramsey & Arteta – 9 starts (1sub), 70% Win Success, Conceded a goal every 193.8 mins, 6 C/S

Norwich (H) 4-1 (Ramsey on 37 mins)
Dortmund (H) 1-2 (Arteta off 65 mins)
Palace (A) 2-0
Liverpool (H) 2-0
Dortmund (A) 1-0
Southampton (H) 2-0 (Arteta off 74 mins)
Cardiff (A) 3-0
Everton (H) 1-1 (Flamini off 68 mins)
Chelsea (H) 0-0
West Ham (A) 3-1 (Ramsey off 65 mins)

Ramsey Arteta Double Pivot

Ramsey and Arteta have probably seen some of our more dynamic attacking displays, but it’s defensively where it has really impressed in some huge games. Ramsey and Arteta is statistically our best defensive midfield combination, and I would imagine it would be the majority of people’s most favoured combination also. Clean sheets against Liverpool, Dortmund and Chelsea are not to be sniffed at, especially as all 3 of those teams are capable of scoring at any given moment. With 6 clean sheets and just the 4 goals conceded in 9 and a half games, defensively Ramsey and Arteta seem to have found the key ingredient. The balance Arteta and Ramsey give us between attack and defence has been something no other partnership has been able to master as of yet.

Ramsey & Flamini – 7 starts (1sub), 87.5% Win Success, Conceded a goal every 80.9 mins, 3 C/S

Spurs (H) 1-0 (Flamini on 44 mins)
Sunderland (A) 3-1
Marseille (A) 2-1
Stoke (H) 3-1
Swansea (A) 2-1
Marseille (H) 2-0
Hull (H) 2-0
City (A) 6-3

If you were to take the City game out of the equation there is an argument to be made that Flamini and Ramsey is just as effective defensively as Arteta and Ramsey. I’ve already mentioned that it was probably a mistake to go with Flamini and Ramsey against City as Ramsey and Arteta had worked very well in the big games up to that point. Flamini and Ramsey however gives you more energy in the middle and in the smaller games, playing with a higher intensity and tempo, as we’ve seen in the games Flamini and Ramsey have played together in Arsenal are too much to deal with going forward.

The Others

Wilshere and Flamini is another high energy midfield pairing who’s only start came against Newcastle together. They did well for the first half, but in the second half really struggled to deal with the Newcastle bombardment especially in the last 15 minutes. It is a partnership that could work in home games against the smaller teams, but not one that I would fancy against any of the better attacking teams, the lack of discipline could really hurt us in those games.

Flamini

Ramsey and Rosicky is a midfield partnership you will probably never see again and only occurred due to severe lack of options available. Nevertheless they managed to secure a 3-1 win against Fulham, Fulham only scoring after Rosicky had actually left the pitch on 69 mins, as Arsenal tried to see the game out bringing on Wilshere.

Arteta and Hayden started together against West Brom in the League cup, and has been Hayden’s only appearance of the season. Two defensively minded players gave us a lot of discipline but similarly to Flamini and Arteta away from home, we really struggled to keep the ball and therefore were constantly under pressure from West Brom.

Arteta and Wilshere is a partnership I’m sure we’ll see far more of in the future, starting for the first time in the FA Cup against Spurs, Mikel and Jack were far too much for Spurs’ midfield and completely controlled the game. On paper it is a partnership that should work quite well, similar to that of Ramsey and Arteta, with a great balance of energy and discipline.

The Impact of Rosicky

Rosicky has been absolutely phenomenal for us this season and has played a major part in our success this season. Wenger has been very careful when using Rosicky and has used him in pretty much every single big game except for City away, another mistake I believe Wenger made in team selection for that game.

 Starts   Mins   W   D   L   Conceded   C/S   Win%   C/game   C/min 

15

1217 10 1 4 8 9 66.7 0.53 152.1

Rosicky has only completed 6 of the 15 games Rosicky has started to far this season, which shows just how carefully Wenger is handling him. At 33 years old, Rosicky has to be managed and Wenger seems to be doing a fairly good job it so far. Attacking by nature, most people will only focus on Rosicky’s attacking contribution to the team but as Arsenal fans we know how effective Rosicky is on and off the ball.

Rosicky is probably the best presser we have of the ball in our team, and his hard work paid off as he made Danny Rose shit himself whilst charging at him against Spurs in the FA cup, going on the run the length of the field to slot it past Lloris. Rosicky has become a focal point of our newly founded defensive shape over the last 12 months, giving the 2 ‘holding midfielders’ better support than any of Cazorla, Ozil and Wilshere. Rosicky’s record would look even more impressive if you were to turn a blind eye to the defeat to Villa where we conceded 3 goals in 1 game, since that calamitous day we have conceded just 5 goals in 14 games where Rosicky has started as part of the midfield 3.

With Rosicky starting
Win % - 66.7
Conc/per game – 0.53

Without Rosicky starting
Win % - 68.75
Conc/per game – 1.125

The difference with Rosicky in the side may not matter too much in terms of results; we’ve won more games with him out of the team, albeit most of those wins have come against smaller sides, as Rosicky has played every big game except against City. However we go from conceding a goal every other game when Rosicky starts to over a goal every game when Rosicky fails to start. It is in absolutely mind blowing statistic and really does pay testament to Rosicky’s underrated influence and contribution to the best defence in the League.

Team Strengths and Weaknesses

Strengths

As a team this season, our whole defensive shape has been one big positive and has been a positive since our victory away in Munich in March 2013. A huge strength of ours this season, and from last season also has been the way we defend set pieces. For as long as I can remember Arsenal have had this irremovable stereotypical tag that we can’t defend set pieces, or if you want to beat us then set pieces are the way to do it. I am not proud to confirm that this is no longer the case, no longer does Arsenal fall asleep consistently from corners and free kicks, and our Zonal marking and organisation really has played dividends.

This season we’ve only conceded from 3 set pieces. The obvious one being away to United where Van Cunt shouldered it in, the other obvious one would be Aguero’s against City as Koscielny fell asleep, and the other you may not remember was against West Brom in the League Cup where we failed to deal with the original corner and the cross then came in for Beharino to nod in. Other than that we have been pretty strong defending set plays, a positive I put a lot down to Mertesacker’s organisation and willingness to clear everything, as well as Giroud’s presence, who rarely gets beaten in the air from a set piece. Who knows if Mertesacker had been on the pitch against United, would Van C*nt fluked it?

rosicky

Closing games out has been another strength of ours this season, so far only dropping points against Everton from winning positions in the League. It has become a progressive trait of this Arsenal team that when we get a lead we hold onto it and we generally go on to win the game. That could be down to a number of factors. How great a defensive shape we have now, we look like a team who knows how to shut up shop, putting men behind the ball and being hard to break down. Wenger is being more tactile with substitutions; the use of Monreal has been a revelation when defending leads, something Wenger may not have done 3 or 4 years ago. Also the famous ‘mental strength’ quality that you hear Wenger banging on about all the time. We seem to have a lot of cool heads in times of adversity, a lot of experience to get us over the mark, something that will hopefully continue into the second part of the season.

Weaknesses

It’s hard to pick out weaknesses from The Best Defence in the League, but in my research I have come across a few. As I mentioned in the strengths section, one of our main assets this season has been the ability to get ahead and then go onto win the game. However in the big games against City, United and Chelsea we failed to get that first goal, instead we conceded early and were chasing the game there on in.

It has been a common trait of Wenger teams over the past 8 years and is something this bunch of players can’t seem to shake. The ability to beat the big teams. Our record against Liverpool and Spurs is decent, but against the United, Chelsea and City we have been abysmal in recent years. The occasion seems to get to us, we start slow and more than likely always concede the first goal, most of the time through individual mistakes, which leads me to my next point.

9 of the 26 goals we have conceded this season have come from individual errors leading to goals, either via penalties or direct chances at goal. That contributes to nearly 35% of our total goals conceded this season. Below I have compiled a list of the individual errors that have led to goals so far this season.

Szczesny v Villa – Giving away a penalty fouling attacker in the box, saved penalty, scored rebound.
Koscielny v Villa – Giving away a penalty fouling attacker in the box
Koscielny v Sunderland - Giving away a penalty fouling attacker in the box
Ramsey v Marseille – Giving away the ball, then fouling attacker in the box
Ramsey v Dortmund – Ramsey giving the ball away on edge of the box to attacker who scores
Jenkinson v Chelsea – Poor back pass giving attacker opportunity to score
Koscielny v City - Poor marking, loss of concentration leading to attack scoring back post
Flamini v City – Mis controlling of the ball in own half leading to City counter attack

Those are the mistakes I felt directly led to goals, and doesn’t include smaller, debatable mistakes. As you can see a fair amount of these mistakes came in games we lost, 3 of them coming in big games we lost. Despite our new found discipline, too many individual errors still lead to goals from this team, of course mistakes will always happen, but particularly in the bigger games, we need to find a way to eradicate them as much as possible.

Another weakness is our vulnerability to being counter attacked. A team with an attacking mentality of ours will always be susceptible to counter attacks, especially at home. We have conceded 5 goals from counter attacks already this season, 3 of them coming at home. The 5 goals conceded from counter attacks were against Villa, Dortmund, Chelsea and 2 against City. Obvious flaws exist in regaining our defensive shape, especially from corners. It hasn’t been a factor over the last few weeks, but certainly earlier on in the season, we seemed to be so vulnerable from our own attacking corner, something we’ve hopefully ironed out.

Szczesny

Another weakness is a surprising one. A weakness that I had to double check just to make sure I wasn’t having a mare. 15 of the 26 goals we’ve conceded have come in the second half, ok, nothing much to see here I suppose. Right, now how about this. 9 of the 26 goals we’ve conceded this season have come in the last 15 minutes. 35% of goals we concede come between 76-90+ minutes. We’ve dropped points from late goals against Everton and Dortmund, the latter in chasing a win, the former more disappointingly in a winning position.  2 late goals against City is probably to be expected, chasing the comeback and being countered for fun. The late goal against Napoli was with 10 men, and the other 3 came when we were winning by 2/3 goals. So it’s not all danger signs, most of the late goals are probably expected, let’s just hope the late goals like we conceded against Everton and Dortmund don’t happen too regularly, and the 3 goals we conceded whilst being a few up don’t continue either and come back to bite us in the arse in a Newcastle esque comeback.

The weaknesses are not something I expect to drastically improve over the course of the season, Wenger has never strived to be a perfectionist on the defensive side of things, so little flaws here and there that may bug a manager like Pep, or Mourinho, may not bug Wenger as much, as long as his side is attacking and defending well. Overall however I think Wenger can be very proud of how fantastic we have been defensively this season and very much deserve The Best Defence in the League record.

Thanks for reading, feel free to leave any comments on things you agree/disagree with.

 Tell us what you think! If you agree, or have a different view, please leave a comment in the comments section or why not write a response or your own article on YouWrite?

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