Arsenal 2011-12 Season Review – Defense
For a third season running, Arsenal shipped more than 40 goals in the Premier League, this time falling just one short of an unwanted half century.
The last time we conceded 49 goals was back in the tumultuous season of 1994/95 when George Graham left the club. Just as Arsenal’s ‘famous four’ came back from that disappointment and put things right in the coming seasons, so this team will also have to lay a more solid foundation in order for the club to challenge for honours.
Let’s take a quick look at how the players have fared individually, before we move on to Arsenal’s collective defensive performance.
Amidst all the mayhem, Laurent Koscielny has arguably been the best centre-half in the league, leading his peers with most interceptions (104) and least minutes per tackle (34). He also contributed with the vital winner against West Brom on the final day. There’s one area where he can improve though, and that is attempting clearances with his left foot – both of his own goals (at Blackburn and Liverpool) suggest a bit of work on that technique is required.
His partner-in-crime has been anything but sublime this season. Thomas Vermaelen had a poor season by his high standards and while there was a good patch of form during that seven-game winning run, the Belgian has looked increasingly vulnerable towards the end of the season. His low aerial win percentage of 56% is the least of all Arsenal defenders, surprising for a player known to be good in the air. Still, he did contribute with a useful tally of 6 goals.
I am a little disappointed with Per Mertesacker’s first season with us. He struggled with the pace of the league initially and got caught napping by alert strikers a few times. While his anticipation and tackling has been good, like Vermaelen, the German too struggled to compete for aerial balls – his 63% win rate is the second lowest for an Arsenal defender. By all accounts though, the towering defender is a positive influence in the dressing room and on the pitch and we’ve missed his and Arteta’s cool heads during the run in.
Johan Djourou filled in when required, sometimes as a centre-half but mostly at right back. While he began the season shakily, the Swiss international has put in more assured performances since the turn of the year. Surprisingly, Djourou has the best tackle success rate of all Arsenal defenders at 88% .
In between two unfortunate fractures to his leg, Bacary Sagna was once again Arsenal’s most consistent defender and the only one not to make a single defensive error all season. He also contributed in attack with 4 assists and that memorable headed goal in February against the enemy that sparked Arsenal’s revival. Carl Jenkinson hasn’t played regularly enough to form an opinion, but does seem to have a good cross in his armoury and appears an able enough deputy.
At left-back, Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos were also injured for long periods. Gibbs has looked increasingly better since returning in mid-Feb. His last ditch-tackle against West Brom saved Arsenal from having to wait for the Champions League final result. Still, he needs to work on covering his teammates better and his tracking hasn’t been too good either.
Andre Santos brought Brazilian flair to a creaky defense – a risky combination at best. While the new recruit’s attacking instincts have served Arsenal well and he brings added versatility to the bench, the smiling assassin doesn’t inspire much confidence as a defender with his positioning and anticipation. The stats complement him highly though – if you’re interested, read this numbers-based analysis I did a few weeks ago for EPLIndex.com on Santos’ defensive game.
Right, so if the individual performances haven’t been so bad, why have we conceded as many as 49 goals?
Early in the season, it was a combination of injuries and the late arrival of key players that saw the Gunners disorganised at the back. While Arteta needed some time to strike an understanding with Alex Song, Per Mertesacker required a few games to get used to the pace and power of the Premier League. As the ship was steadying, we lost all our recognised full backs for about two months between early December and late January.
There have been individual mistakes too. Arsenal lead the league in own goals conceded this season, gifting five to various opponents. Inadvertent slips, errors of judgement, weak defending and giving the ball away cheaply are some of the errors that have led to concession of goals. While a few can be attributed to pressure from opponents, many were just bloopers committed by players.
Arteta’s arrival did add solidity to our defensive game in midfield, but we were still susceptible to counter attacks all season. Far too many times, the midfield got bypassed leaving the back line exposed. When we consider the relatively high position of our full backs up the pitch, Arsenal have allowed gilt-edged chances to opponents to score – and most did.
In yesterday’s analysis, we looked at the figures of Wojciech Szczesny. As one reader pointed out, it’s the frailties in front of him which are casting a shadow on what’s been a good season for the Pole. While I feel Szczesny can get better in one or two areas, I do agree that many of the goals conceded were down to Arsenal allowing opponents to get into good positions in and around our box.
There are no easy solutions to the Gunners’ defensive problems. A good defensive shape and organisation will not just appear by rubbing the proverbial magic lamp. Work has to be done on the training ground and the players themselves have to work hard on cutting out the mistakes.
Importantly, Arsenal may need a change in mentality during different phases of games. An ideal example of this is the comparison of our defensive tactics against Norwich and West Brom.
Against the Canaries, we attempted to continue dominating possession and playing in the opposition half even after taking the lead and having just 5 minutes to play. Against the Baggies, we dropped deep quickly after going 3-2 ahead, and sat behind the ball for large parts of the second half, making it difficult for the home team to break us down. While the Norwich game was definitely the more exciting for the neutrals, the ugly nature of victory at West Brom was what secured third place.
I am not at all suggesting that Arsenal should adopt a more defensive approach. Sunderland have conceded fewer goals yet are ten places below us, so defensive solidity by itself means nothing. We should continue to enforce our attacking style on opponents and force them to adapt – but a better collectively focus on defending during certain phases of games would ensure we kept more clean sheets.