The facts are in: Arsenal have allowed the fewest goals (19), have the most clean sheets (10), force their opponents to take 54% of their shots from outside the 18 yard box, where those opponents have scored just 2 goals, for a league leading defensive conversion rate of just 1.45%.
Arsenal are also 5th in the League in total shots allowed (lower numbers here are better), have only allowed the opposition to take 11 shots in the 6 yard box (second behind WBA), and when the opposition do get a shot off inside the penalty box, the opposition are only scoring at a 14% clip. The answer is emphatically, YES. Arsenal have the best defense in the League.
Arsenal’s goals allowed from distance indicates an improvement on the part of Wojciech Szczesny. His shot stopping ability on long range shots is being tested constantly and he has performed admirably this season. In fact, Squawka ranks Szczesny as the best goalkeeper in the League this season.
The other stat there that’s really incredible is that Wenger’s men are only allowing the opposition to get 4% of their total shots off inside the 6 yard box. I can’t say for certain but it seems like Arsenal’s zonal defense is doing a number on keeping the opposition quiet on set plays. It’s not exactly a scientific observation but tell me that you don’t feel better about Arsenal’s set play defense.
Arsenal’s goals conceded is a truly incredible record when you consider the fact that 9 of Arsenal’s 19 goals conceded came from just 2 games. That means in the other 20 matches Arsenal have played in the Premier League this season, Arsenal have conceded just 10 total goals. That’s 0.5 a goal a match.
And why does Arsenal have the best defense in the League? Because the dual pairings of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny in defense and Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta in midfield.
Arsenal’s tactic is simple: use the midfielders to press and tackle high up the pitch when they lose the ball and keep the opposition from having time to play long balls over the top. And once Arsenal have a lead, they are comfortable seeing games out with the calm presence of Mertesacker and Koscielny in the middle clearing all attacks.
Last season, Arsenal’s leading tacklers were Arteta, Jenkinson, and Sagna and this season, Arsenal’s leading tacklers are Ramsey, Arteta, Gibbs and then Koscielny, Flamini, and Mertesacker. Rather than Arsenal’s fullbacks shouldering the burden of last-minute or desperation tackling, Arsenal’s core are putting in the most work defensively. It’s a proactive approach to defense rather than a reactive approach and it’s clearly working.
With almost all the other defensive stats having stayed the same, Arsenal’s tackling in midfield has gone up significantly over last season:
24.8 clearances per game
2.5 blocks per game
16.7 interceptions per game
19.7 tackles per game (attempted 749)
15.6 tackles per game (won 593)
628/1163 aerial duels (54%)
16.5 aerials won per game
32 clearance per game
2.6 blocks per game
14 interceptions per game
31.5 tackles per game (attempted 694)
14.8 tackles per game (won 326)
360/686 aerial duels (52%)
16.4 aerials won per game
Interestingly, Arsenal are attempting almost twice as many tackles as last season but aren’t winning as many tackles as before. I’d have to look at the specifics of where Arsenal are losing those tackles but my gut tells me that the majority of them are happening in the opposition half. For example, Cazorla’s tackling numbers are very low, he’s 16/51 this season, and we know that Cazorla plays high up the pitch.* One caveat here, I wonder if Opta changed the taxonomy for what constitutes a successful tackle. They have done so with other stats in the past and there are some suspicious numbers between last season and this (e.g. Cazorla was an 80% tackler last season and is a 30% tackler this season, that same pattern repeats a lot with Arsenal players).
These last few games without Ramsey and Arteta show what the Gunners are missing in the core of the Arsenal midfield. Both men together average almost 7 tackles a game. And as important as Aaron Ramsey’s offense has been this season, with 8 goals and 6 assists, his defensive work in the midfield is equally (if not more) crucial to the Gunners’ success.
You’ll also note that Arsenal have added about 7 clearances per game. This is down to the fact that Arsenal essentially concede possession when they have the lead this season whereas in the last few years Arsenal attempted to see out games by playing keep away.
In fact, the central pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny shows improved stats in almost every defensive category for those two over last season:
|Mertesacker||Merte 12/13||Koscielny||Koz 12/13||Vermaelen 12/13|
Mertesacker’s aerial ability has improved steadily over the three seasons he’s been with Arsenal. The Big German was just 63% in his first year, winning just 1.4 aerials per game. Last year he improved to 69% and won 2.6 aerial duels per game and this year. And this year he’s 71%, winning 2.9 AD per game.
Koscielny’s interceptions numbers have gone through the roof. This is indicative of his role at Arsenal as the stopper. He comes out of defense and tries to win the first ball in to the center forward. If he fails, then Mertesacker is there to clean up. Koz also has improved his nose for blocks and already has 14 this season. But don’t expect too many spectacular numbers there because Arsenal force the opposition into taking shots from distance and Koz isn’t going to be getting too many blocks on midfielders.
And there you have it. There are no bones about it, by pressuring high up the pitch with their center mids Arsenal are limiting the opposition’s big chances over the top and forcing their opponents to shoot shots from distance, where the League’s best keeper is gobbling up their low percentage shots. And that’s why, despite conceding 6 goals** to Man City, Arsenal have the best defense in the League.
*This is not a criticism, Cazorla puts in superlative effort on both ends of the pitch. In fact, Cazorla is what I think Wenger wanted Arshavin to be: a hard working creative midfielder who presses the opposition both with and without the ball.
**The squad had just played a crucial qualifier against Napoli and returned to England both tired and with half the squad stricken down with the flu. And they still scored 3, because Man City has the leakiest defense among the top teams.
If you only read one book about the history of Arsenal FC, Rebels for the Cause should be that book. From Wilf Copping to Arsene Wenger, Arsenal have always been a club that did things their own way. Iconoclastic from the start, iconoclastic to this day. Read about the rebels who changed football forever and made Arsenal FC into one of the most loved football clubs in the world.