Arsenal’s back three has made no difference to Arsenal’s defense

Pep Guardiola once said that formations were “just numbers: phone numbers” by which he meant that it’s much more important to execute a plan on the pitch which moves the ball forward, creates big chances for your team, and which prevents your opponent from getting the ball while covering spaces when the opponent does have the ball. Those things are more important than how your team lines up on paper. And look no further than Arsenal’s record with both a back three and a back four.

As last season wrapped up, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were in the worst slump of his career. Between January 31st and April 10th of 2017, Arsenal played 10 games in the Premier League and Champions League and lost 7, won 2, and drew just 1. They did beat both Sutton United and Lincoln City in the FA Cup but outside of those two results, Wenger’s team struggled – scoring 13 and conceding 26. Wenger needed a change.

Arsene’s change was to install a third center back. It was a formation that he knew from his first two seasons at Arsenal when Tony Adams and Steve Bould led Arsenal to Wenger’s first League title. It was also the formation du jour of the Premier League: champions Chelsea played a 343 and 15 other teams used a back three at least once in the season. The back 3 formation was fashionable.

Arsenal won their next three matches, including a stonking win over Man City in the FA Cup. The Gunners next lost to Tottenham but that would be the only blot on their copy book. Arsenal won 9 of their last 10 games of the season and beat Chelsea handily in the FA Cup final to win Arsenal’s 3rd FA Cup in 4 years.

But the results of the matches seemed odd to a number of fans watching the games. Arsenal seemed to be vulnerable to the same mistakes as before. The only difference seemed to be that Arsenal’s veteran goalkeeper was making more saves.

And now Arsenal have started the season winning 3 but losing 2 and Wenger has consistently changed formation to a back 4 after half-time in almost every match. Wenger seems to have lost faith in the back three and for good reason.

Using expected goals, the underlying stats show that Wenger’s team are conceding shots of nearly the exact same quality that they were before. Playing a back 4 Arsenal had an expected goals allowed per game of 1.6 – that’s atrocious. That’s a mid-table club’s defense. Now playing a back 3 Arsenal have an expected goals allowed of 1.6.  The back 3 is not helping Arsenal’s defense.

What the back three does seem to do is create a richer shot environment for Arsenal. Arsenal’s shots per game is up from 14.3 to 15.3 and big chances (shots which have about a 50% chance to score) are up from 1.9 to 2.6. And I can’t even give credit to the “end of season” malaise which sometimes sees Premier League clubs give up at the end of the season – though that was certainly a boost. Over the first five matches this season Arsenal are averaging a pretty decent 2.2 big chances per game – which is mostly down to the 8 they created against Bournemouth and Leicester.

And conversely Arsenal have allowed 7 big chances in the first five games of this season, but that’s entirely down to Leicester and Liverpool who created 2 and 5 respectively. This leads me to my next point…

In terms of “big chance clean sheets”, which means limiting the opposition to zero big chances, the back three has kept 5/15 (33%) BC Clean Sheets while the back four only managed 7/37 (19%). This accounts for why some fans watching Arsenal play with a back three feel like the defense has gotten better: they are allowing the same number of expected goals (which is just a fancy way of saying “good shots”) but there are more games where the team doesn’t concede a big chance (one v. one with the keeper, shot from close distance, open goal, unmarked header, etc.) so it seems more sturdy.

In terms of actual clean sheets the back four kept 12/37 and the back three 5/15 – which is statistically identical.

Wenger’s back three differs significantly from almost every other team in the Premier League because he only plays with one holding midfielder. He has done this since the end of the Vieira/Gilberto partnership – first Flamini, then Denilson, then Song, Arteta, Coquelin, and now Xhaka.

I’m convinced that what made Coquelin/Cazorla so successful defensively was that Cazorla rarely made forward runs into the opposition box. This was the same, conservative, quality that Vieira had and which we saw again just the other day when Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Elneny played together in the middle of the park.

In 2015/16 – the season I tipped Arsenal to win the League, they had the best defense in the Premier League and allowed just .92 big chances per game and an expected goals allowed of just 1.14 – half a goal fewer (per game) than they have allowed over the last 18 months.

There was a lot of complaining that “Coquelin ruined Arsenal’s attack” during that 2015/16 title failure. This is patently untrue. Arsenal’s expected goals per game was 2.2, they created a League high 97 Big Chances (2.6 per game), and a League high 207 shots in prime (5.4 per game). What killed Arsenal that season was a below average finishing rate which saw the Gunners score just 62 goals.

This isn’t a problem of “phone numbers” as Pep Guardiola would say. This also isn’t a problem which buying a center back would address. In fact, this isn’t a problem you can buy your way out of – every Arsenal midfielder is talented enough to be a more conservative player. And this isn’t a Coquelin problem, as much as people like to malign him. This is simply a coaching problem. Wenger has taken a defensive formation and tried to turn it into an attacking formation.



  1. Regardless of the formation, Arsenal’s biggest defensive problem has been the tendency to push midfielders ahead of the ball, almost to the forward line, early in the buildup phase. It happened with the 4-2-3-1, and it happens with the current 3-4-3. The careless, nay reckless disregard for controlling the space immediately in front of the defenders leaves Arsene’s formations too wide open and vulnerable to counter attacks straight up the middle of the pitch. We’re simply not compact enough between our midfield and defensive lines. Agree that there’s nothing inherently wrong with either formation but it’s Wenger’s interpretation, execution, and blind spot to defending that’s the problem.

    The concomitant problem has been a lack of technical quality and a frustrating tendency to give up possession without pressure or with minimal opposition pressure in or near our own half. The high risk approach of pushing midfielders forward early in the buildup wouldn’t be nearly as problematic if we didn’t make so many turnovers near our own halfway line.

  2. Wenger has failed to address the defensive issues since Adams and company
    retired.He is too obsessed with the attacking part of the team.
    The cd has remained unsolved over the year s and its no wonder the gunners
    have suffered heavy defeats at the hands of the top teams.
    There is a report about the young gunners taking the fw by storm.
    Sounds familiar. What ever happened to the yg of 2008? It has been
    too many false summers.

  3. Your statistical argument is faultless. What can be surmised from it is that our defensive frailty is due to the personnel available and not to the formation used. We don’t have full backs. We have wing backs instead. Also we have CM who are good in possession and not so good out of possession. Nothing else. The fault does not lie with our CD.

    The simplest immediate fix we have is to instruct Ramsey to stop vacating his station (actually this could be the impossible fix). If this fix proves impossible then Rambo in CM should be replaced by one of Elneny, Niles or fit Coq. We might score less but concede far less.

  4. Team spirit, as much as formation or tactics, was Arsenal’s problem during Wenger’s dire run. That team, squad, was not playing for him, and was playing very, very badly. The same personnel beat our opponents of today, who are the current champions of England, (and Manchester City) in the FA Cup final and the run to it. Maitland- Niles is not going to replace Ramsey; nor will Elneny, who played Xhaka’s role against Koln, replace Xhaka. Ramsey and Xhaka are good players in isolation, but I don’t think they are that compatible (and that is the deeper, fundamental problem with the pairing rather than Ramsey doing what’s on his JD).

    The rest is down to team shape without the ball. It was noticeable against Koln that Elneny was having to track the left-sided attacker (Bellerin’s man) with lung-bursting tracking back. He’s not the world’s greatest defender and bit too tackle-shy for my liking, but his attentions would slow the opposition attack or counter, usher the man wide and allow the rest of the defence to organise… a bit like what Flamini used to bring to the side. Flamini, a terrific player for us before he left for Milan, gave Cesc creative license to pass, run and score. Cesc was not the quickest, but his goal productivity (even excluding penalties) was high for a central midfielder. The team had Sagna as a full-backs, a guy who properly understood his role defensively. Bellerin is a very good modern full back, and that clip of him putting on the turbo to catch Jesus Navas showed that he has good recovery speed, but he is still learning the defensive part of his game. But if decent defenders like Mustafi is the right-sided player in a back 3, and Monreal is the left-sided one behind Kolasinac, we should be able to cope, defensively, with more transition runs down the flanks.

    But it’s the middle. Xhaka is a tick slow in reacting and is often behind the play when the ball turns over, and without someone sitting next to him he gets exposed. He is often left with the option of fouling the breaking player or leaving him. Yes, you can ask Ramsey to be his minder, sit more, and play (almost) purely D, but you’ve only solved half a problem . Arteta and Ramsey dovetailed really well, even though Arteta was slow, not really a traditional/tackling DM, and shared a lot of the same attributes with Xhaka (passing/conducting/dictating). The difference wasn’t that Arteta had a minder, but that he read the play really well, and had a fantastic relationship with his back 4, especially Per. By his final year though, his ageing legs did become a problem.

    Quick note about Vieira, who’s for me the best all-round player of the Wenger era, and perhaps ever for Arsenal. Pat was not a sitter type midfielder, but a very dynamic B2B with a tremendous engine (fired by Vicks VapoRub smeared into his shirt). Thing was that he was so good, the defensive part of his game was as much of a standout as his attacking play. One day soon hopefully the club will buy the elegant beast we clearly need, but I don’t think we’ll see the likes of Vieira (or Thierry) again in our lifetimes. His partners were Petit, and latterly Gilberto (who Elneny reminds me of a little, except that Gilberto scored a good many goals).

    Compatibility is the key. But when we play well with everybody contributing defensively (including our most defensively inert player Ozil, as he did in the FA Cup final) , we look a much better football team.

  5. in a weird way, i fancy arsenal’s chances with cesc starting for chelsea. last year, he wasn’t a starter but a guy you brought in when you needed a goal; a role he performed very well. cesc as a starter in this formation is not as bad as ramsey but not good. this is interesting, indeed. we’ll see.

    1. …also, when you consider how balanced ramsey was against bournemouth. if he can provide that type of performance, arsenal may get it done.

  6. good first half. a disciplined performance from aaron ramsey is all the difference. now, it’s time to bring on giroud. luiz absolutely hates dealing with our big frenchman. iwobi’s struggling to get into the game so on the hour mark, would be the ideal time to pull him and bring on giroud.

    like i thought, cesc isn’t the answer in that central midfield role for chelsea. arsenal seem to be simply targeting him and avoiding kante. when chelsea won the league last season, it wasn’t because they were so dominant but the contribution that cesc provided from the bench later in games. he shouldn’t be starting in this formation. chelsea really miss matic and should have gone with the kid from monaco. this will likely be the last time we see cesc start but it will hopefully be after arsenal have collected 3 points.

    1. also, look at how isolated morata is. i expect chelsea to change formation and play with two strikers and put an extra man in midfield. unless you have the talent, i believe a 3-4-3 is one of the worst formations there is. i absolutely hate the formation. we’ll see.

  7. 50th minute. Cut the crap and play Alexis. For Iwobi, who’s providing no creativity, and certainly no goal threat.

    Great adjustment and creativity from Ramsey to get something on that shot . He’s also (gasp!) been superb defensively. Bad miss from Laca, usual miss from Danny.

  8. Outstanding display from Arsenal today. There was all the grit, discipline and character (cliche alert!) needed to get something at their ground. Luiz’s red card could be a difference maker in the season. He was superb today and he is their best defender. That lunge on Kolasinac was the same tackle that broke Ramsey’s leg and there should be no controversy about it. Fortunately Seo’s foot was in the air as the contact came.

    As for the offense, we did enough to get a goal but it wasn’t to be. Add Alexis to that starting XI and that’s the firepower we were missing with Iwobi and Welbeck starting. Spare a thought for poor Danny and his groin; he was superb today, really really worked very hard and caused problems for them too with his direct running.

    1. Agree with nearly all that, except Welbeck. Danny’s JD is striker/forward. Did not enjoy that miss with the header. Or his decision-making in and around the box. I like him, but I think that a club of our means and pedigree should be aiming higher

      1. I think he’s a valuable piece regardless of the fact that he’s not a top drawer player. His misses are frustrating but his work rate and movement are massive in a game like this. Tactically and defensively he is our best forward. We’ve got a charitable run of fixtures coming up in which he will not be a big miss but next time we go away from home in a big game I want him in the lineup. I want Ozil in the lineup when we go to Doncaster, West Brom and Brighton.

  9. Single biggest difference today: Aaron Ramsey switched on in possession and disciplined (and hard working) in defense.

  10. Bring in Ozil for Iwobi and Alexis for Danny (or occasionally for Lacazette) and we’ve got ourselves a proper team. But all of that’s predicated on Ramsey being willing to play as a proper midfielder, like today (still thought he was too far ahead of the play in the buildup at times in the second half, but I accept that’s probably never going to change, and probably has as much to do with Wenger’s instructions as any thing). Personally I’ll always prefer a Cazorla type who’s cleverer with the ball in tight spaces, but if Rambo can put performances in like that on a regular basis (alongside Xhaka’s passing), then I can become a big fan of his again, and we might not have to switch to a 3 man midfield (still think it’s a good idea).

    1. I would play Ozil in games where I expect packed defense and need creativity and Welbeck in games where I expect high physical intensity and forward pressing.

      1. This implies Ozil is a big reason we struggle against high intensity pressing teams. He’s not. Our main problems are always further back, working the ball out of defense (this is not to say he’s been great in those sorts of games, just that the way we typically set up has given him little opportunity to be (e.g. being overrun by Liverpool last time, or in recent outings against Spurs). At Madrid I remember a couple of classicos against Pep era Barca when Ozil was one of Madrid’s best players, because they always played with a solid base behind him, and he could be deadly on the counter.

        1. Ozil can be a good conduit out of the press when in possession and being pressed. He uses space very well and has the technique and speed to break a press. I like him in that role quite a bit. I should’ve been more clear in pointing out that I was more referencing our own pressing, when you need to close down up high and when you need the wide forwards to stay with runners to prevent combinations opening up in midfield. That’s where Mesut still struggles. He’s gotten better. I’d say he tries about 75% of the time. The big thing I see with him still is that he gives up as soon as the initial effort is not rewarded. I’ve also seen him give 100% effort without the ball, notably in the CL versus Bayern a couple years ago and in the cup final. But even when he is 100% switched on defensively he’s still easily overpowered by players who are more used to the physical side of the game. I like him a lot, mind, just would use him primarily for certain types of opposition and not primarily for others. He’s a bit of a specialist, like Giroud and Walcott; nice to have around but can’t depend on him for every game.

    1. Aaron …… You have not factored in the fact that some of the games we won ascribed to 3:4:3 were won from loosing positions when we switched to the 4 at the back.(semi final FA v City, Leic last season from 0-0, Leic this season and Cologne).

      Am only putting the records straight as I do prefer the back 3 with the players we have for our 1st XI. For our 2nd string I’d opt for the back 4.

  11. Know who else was really good today? Bellerin. Welcome back, lad.

    Morata gave Mustafi a good battle, but the German was equal to it. Our best right-sided defender in a back three, and there’s absolutely no need to keep chopping and changing. Took his “goal” well, but correctly ruled offside, although it was marginal.

    Xhaka brings composure on the ball, but I felt that he was the weak link in an otherwise solid defensive performance. He hasn’t found his passing game so far this season (misplaced a few early on and looked hurried), and without that, he doesn’t have much more to offer besides long-range goal threat.

    Iwobi had looked superb in pre-season, but didn’t contribute much today. And he looks as if he’s been raiding the chocolate bar dispensing machine.

    Ramsey for me has generally played well in the big games, and did again today. Good link play, tidy passing, solid D. Manufactured a shot that hit the upright, out of a very unpromising, defensively congested situation. He keeps scoring vital goals and still gets pilloried for going forward… which is like wanting a baby without the necessary conjugals. Hopefully, he silenced a chorus or two today.

    Welbeck’s out, so Alexis (who should have started and who made things happen immediately when he came on) should start. I can’t believe I typed that. Alexis over Danny every day of the week. Welbeck is in the team to score precisely the headed chance he missed.

    Finally, Kolasinac. Love the guy more every time I look at him play.

    All in all, we created better chances than Chelsea. Not too unhappy given the history of this fixture, but I think those are 2 points dropped.

    1. I was with you on most of those points but I have to disagree with the last line. Especially given our rancid record away from home against top 6 opposition (as @Orbinho never fails to remind) a draw at the home of the champions is pretty good. Exhibit A: would you have taken a clean sheet and a draw before kickoff? Exhibit B: Did you believe you would hear yourself say those were two points dropped after the dust had settled?

      Along the same lines, I panicked after the Liverpool game, not afraid to admit it, but through 4 fixtures we’ve faced Leicester, Chelsea, Liverpool and Stoke and three of those were away from home. We’re not where I want us to be but we’re far from the putrid dumpster fire I feared we would be after that 4-0 drubbing.

    2. Ramsey played well this game but like having a baby, timing is everything. Ramsey doesn’t get pilloried for making forward runs, he gets criticized when he makes them at the wrong time in the buildup phase which when combined with sloppy possession play, leaves the midfield wide open. And frankly, he shouldn’t be criticized for following Wenger’s instructions.

      Ramsey did play closer to Xhaka and more conservatively this game, which is what I and most of his critics have been wanting. Once possession is established in the final third and a penetrative pass has been played, Ramsey’s late runs into the box for crosses and cutbacks can be put to good effect. What Wenger’s version of total football seems to lack is a clearly defined system of rotation and covering when deeper players vacate their positions to go forward. Total football doesn’t just mean that midfielders are free to go into the penalty area but that other players, even attacking players cover the gaps left behind.

  12. Shard, sorry to miss you, brother. Some fam insisted that I watch the game with them, rather than in a pub. Which was good, because I had some crisply duck in pancakes too 🙂 Hope you enjoyed the game, wherever you watched it.

  13. Amazing when we come to play, we can be the better team away at Stamford Bridge. Without Özil no less (this will be a judgement free post). It also goes with saying that we would have bitten your hand off for a 0-0 result before the game to be honest.
    An MRI in 2 days time will tell us how many weeks, er months Welbeck will be out for. Damn.
    The question now becomes who will step up and replace Welbeck when we want to rest Sanchez? Will it be Nelson? Time will tell if he can step up physically to handle this next level. One thing for sure today we had men all over the pitch and Chelsea (Luis) was the one to finally crack.
    We take care of our business like we did today and we will be okay at the end.

  14. A very solid performance today. A notch below great.

    Back three played well. Didn’t give up many chances apart from the breakaway by Pedro. Moustafi had another monent of inattention. He should have pushed up so that our back line was flat. That said, Pedro was Koz’s responsibility and Koz was way out of position. We were quite lucky.

    I think Moustafi had a pretty good day in the air and shut Morata down pretty effectively. No physical cowardice today.

    Iwobi stood out as bad. I would have to rewatch to evaluate his defensive contribution, but I noticed a lot of walking and shepherding, but few real challenges. From an offensive standpoint he was a disappointment. He had the one good pass to spring Bellerin, but otherwise seemed to be hesitant and slow to make decisions. Definitely room for improvement.

    All griping aside, I am immensely proud of the team today and Wenger deserves full marks for putting us in a position to win.

  15. the biggest highlight for me was the way arsenal’s front three set up defensively. welbeck, lacazette, and iwobi were fantastic. they systematically denied the chelsea defense a pass to their wingbacks and forced everything to their two center mids on their half of the field. it’s a highlight for me because i set my u19s up to defend the exact same way. it forces opposing defenses to play a low percentage long ball or to play the ball into a congested and narrow center of the park. when the ball went to the left defender, you saw welbeck pinch in and drop a little and vice versa with iwobi. that went away when those players went off but it was a clear strategy that made it difficult for chelsea to play out from the back. that strategy and ramsey providing a more balanced display are the reasons arsenal played so well today. i don’t know if it’s something the coaching staff introduced or if they worked it out but i hope it was wenger.

    unlike most, the game went exactly like i expected. after my bike ride this morning, i wrote that arsenal had every chance to win the game and they did. i even predicted chelsea’s formation change at halftime and that’s exactly what they did. it’s proof that this team can win if everyone is on the same page, disciplined, and wenger isn’t trying to be clever.

    an aside, i noticed a few seasons ago that ramsey seems to respect the bigger teams and plays more conservatively in those games but seems to play more reckless against the likes of stoke and leicester. if he could assume a more healthy respect of all opponents, i think he’ll have a very good career at arsenal. we’ll see.

    1. Trying to determine if it’s greater respect from Ramsey or the fact that he loves being where the action is. Against the bigger teams most of the action is in the central areas. I guess it’s a mix of the two.

      1. there seems to be a lot of action when arsenal are being countered and ramsey is nowhere to be found. maybe he’s heard the fan’s grumblings and has decided to do something about it. i really don’t care, as long as he continues to play the way he has recently. bournemouth isn’t what i would consider a big team but he was very disciplined in that game too.

        1. Maybe, Wenger yanking him off at half time against Liv did the trick. I hope the change doesn’t degrade slowly with time.

  16. @Joshuad
    Interesting, when I was watching Iwobi I thought he was not doing a particularly good job of cover shadowing the wings, but then Chelsea didn’t test it either. Maybe I’m wrong about Iwobi. Certainly the BTN opened my eyes to his pass accuracy and chance creation. (91% and 3).

    It would be ironic if, filling in for Ozil, he were underappreciated as well.

    I’m definitely interested in rewatching this game.

    1. Pass map

      Lacazette was almost completely isolated.
      Ramsey is our number one creator by XGChain. But didn’t seem to be feeding anyone in particular.
      Iwobi was number two, but most of his passes seems to have been to Bellerin.

      To my mind this calls into question both Ramsey and Iwobi’s contribution because neither was able to open a supply line to Lacazette.

      1. yesterday was not about ramsey or iwobi’s contribution in supplying lacazette but more about lacazette’s failure to make himself available. center forward is tough, especially against quality opposition. david luiz had a very good game yesterday and had lacazette in his back pocket. however, luiz has no answer for giroud and has been dominated by the big frenchman multiple times. without good center forwards play, it’s tough to create good chances. i’ve said time and again, giroud may not be a better player that lacazette but he’s definitely a better center forward.

    2. it’s not that iwobi was covering or shadowing the wings but he took up positions that made it difficult for the chelsea backline to play the ball to the wide areas. chelsea were forced to play the ball into a congested midfield or play the ball long. since they didn’t want to lose the ball centrally in front of their defense, they looked to play the ball long; passes they often missed. the only passes their back 3 were completing were to each other.

      iwobi’s contribution was less about technical skill or work rate and more about tactical skill. that’s probably why i enjoyed his performance so much.

      1. This video highlight’s Iwobi’s contribution… by staying in midfield he contributed to a 3 v 2 advantage and sowed confusion in Chelsea’s defense.

        Makes me feel better about his contribution. But it also underlines what he didn’t do, i.e., turn and run with the ball or feed Lacazette.

  17. May I respectfully point out that in my opinion the new website is a bit too minimalistic? I feel like I’m floating in nothing.

  18. Excellent By The Numbers on Arseblog, Tim. Which you’ll no doubt reproduce on this blog in longer form, thus rendering this a dead post.

    Your stats on Ramsey’s successful dribbles and the comparison over time rather dramatically undermines the argument that he hung back more in this game. I think a lot of the argument around this player in particular is mired in imprecise, impressionistic/subjective arguments.

    Thus we get an argument like he’s “nowhere to be found.” (WTH kind of analysis is that?). The man is an intelligent footballer, not the headless chicken he’s (too) often caricatured as.

    The stats show that he was no less conservative, and indeed came closest to breaking the deadlock. I’ll repeat again… the issue is midfield balance and compatibility, which I don’t think we have yet. The heavy a focus on an individual player is puzzling. There are individual parts we can tweak and improve on, but it’s a team sport. Our failures and successes are often down to how we play collectively.

    1. Hey Claude,

      How does it undermine that? Is it literally impossible to
      (a) have a number of successful dribbles
      (b) be more positionally disciplined in midfield than in previous games (admittedly a low bar in this case)?

      A while back there was a discussion on this blog about upholding high standards of politeness and generosity towards each other (standards which had slipped a bit at the time, for which I take my share of the blame), and I recall there were complaints about how calling someone else’s point a “straw man” and/or dismissing it with the phrase, “no one has ever said that…” were both being used unfairly to shut off discussion rather than to lodge legitimate and fair criticisms (overall I was sympathetic to this worry). With this history in mind, I am loathe to return to those forms of argument.
      However, I have to say–and I mean this in a spirit of utmost respect and generosity–I feel your recent defenses of Ramsey on this thread have more than a bit of the straw man about them, and I’m very tempted to utter the phrase, “no one is arguing that…” Let me explain:

      1. You respond above to perceived suggestions that Ramsey play the role of “minder” to Xhaka, and argue that it’d be silly to force Ramsey into such a conservative role just to cover the Swiss’s weaknesses. To the degree I understand this term, I think of an almost entirely defensive role: a minder covers defensively for creative and/or weak/inexperienced types who can’t/don’t look after the defensive side of the game themselves–e.g. being a Flamini to a Fabregas.
      But I–and, as far as I can tell, others here–who have criticized Ramsey’s defensive discipline and positioning (personally I’ve been as critical of his discipline in his passing and holding his position when we HAVE the ball, so it’s not all about getting back to defend for me, but I digress), HAVE NEVER argued that Ramsey should sit back and cover for Xhaka or anyone else the way we might expect, e.g., a Coquelin or Flamini to do.
      I have at times picked out Vidal, Roy Keane, and Kante as 2-way, aggressive players that Ramsey could learn from and look to emulate, but (a) none of those players have ever been purely defensive–they all have/had the engine that Ramsey has that allows them to break forward into dangerous positions from midfield; and (b) in saying I wanted to see him adapt his game more in their direction, I was never suggesting that Ramsey be even as defensive as them, just that he balance his game out with more of that aggressive, ball-winning component and look to hold his position better both with and without the ball (I think I was careful to add that caveat most of the time).

      2. You also say that it’s inconsistent to criticize Ramsey for bombing forward so often, while at the same time appreciating his goals in crucial games, e.g. FA Cup Finals, comparing this attitude you criticize with wanting to have kids without having sex (or something to that effect). But, again, this seems a little bit straw-man-y here, surely? Surely great goal-scoring midfielders (and purely on goal-scoring record alone, I’m not sure Ramsey has proved himself a “great goal scoring midfielder”) can also show adequate midfield discipline, especially when playing in a midfield two.
      I think Ramsey showed the right balance yesterday (though, like Henry, I still think he broke forward too early at times during our buildup), and I’ve praised him for doing so. But I also still think he deserves criticism when he falls short of that balance, and yesterday’s performance is the exception that proves the (recent) rule. You’re right to point out that there was more to his good performance than just being a bit more cautious positionally–e.g. he was refreshingly tidy with the ball–but he needs to play this way every game if he’s to earn back my trust and (in this guy’s opinion) deserve a starting spot in our two-man midfield.

      If that makes me a slave to “impressionistic/subjective arguments” regarding Ramsey, then so be it–in the end we all have to trust our own eyes–but, the numbers from Tim notwithstanding, I don’t see how your own view, that Ramsey’s performances haven’t systematically suffered from his pushing forward too early and a general positional indiscipline (or at least not in a way that calls for singling him out), is any less impressionistic or subjective.

  19. Reading the comment section once again it strikes me how low the expectations have been set for this Arsenal side.

    When a solid and entirely proffesional display, rather than a spectacular one like the one against Chelsea at the Ems which produced the 3:0 result last season has all fans and pundits singing praises , it really makes you wonder.

    Some of the pre game predictions set the tone of course , but you have to wonder where the lopsided Chelsea win was supposed to come from.

    Sure, Arsenal lost 4:0 at Anfield but that was entirely due to “special circumstances”( according to Wenger), totally outside of his area of influence and had nothing to do with the squad selection and tactics.

    But Chelsea lost to Burnley at home in the league opener.
    Then they beat Tottenham in what can only be described as a smash and grab at Wembley , where Spurs totally dominated across all statistics with twice the possession , shots , and corners , and Chelsea scored from their only two shots on goals from the brilliant on the day Alonso and with less than brilliant Hugo Loris’ help.

    Then they beat the goal leaking Leicester by the narrow margin of 2:1 , with Leicester wasting a goal mouth chance for the equalizer .

    With Chelsea’s two biggest impact players absent from their squad , Hazard and Costa, Arsenal should have , and were more than equal to them , and probably might consider themselves unlucky not to win the game.

    The big talking point of course was the omission from the squad Arsenal’s two most talented players .
    I’m a big fan of both Ozil and Sanchez but both players have been so massively mismanaged by Wenger to the point where opting out of playing them isn’t detrimental to the squad any more.

    Wenger’s policy of appeasement to his star players by the virtue of practically guaranteeing their start in every game , regardless of their performance, opponent and tactics, have contributed to Ozil and Sanchez’s less than proffesional conduct on the pitch manifesting itself with arm waving , head shaking and sulking whenever they feel their team mates fail them.

    Ramsey was the man of the match for me and his adventurous runs forward didn’t result in Arsenal defensive calamity, mainly because there was no Ozil roaming around at the same time which would make it two Arsenal players out of proper defensive shape when Chelsea retrieved the ball.

    Some of the comments from Arsenal players were also a bit disappointing .
    If they needed to prove that they could compete with the likes of Chelsea, then it was themselves they needed to prove it to and not the fans.

    Most of us have already known this for a long time.

    1. The hardcore reality of the situation is that Chelsea football club passed Arsenal football club over 15 years ago now and we have been second best to them ever since then. That kind of thing breeds insecurity and maybe even an inferiority complex, as much as none of us want to admit that. A performance like this is a possible starting point to show that we are capable of closing the gap with them.

  20. On a good day Ozil doesn’t like to do defense. On an equally good day, Sanchez looses the ball a lot. These ‘shortcomings’ will be somewhat amplified this season as they are leaving. I personally think Wenger should use this opportunity to get them in line or use them as subs if at all; especially if he wants Rambo to keep bombing forward. Use the hungry players.

  21. Its a shame how after i read this article i saw for myself how it has worked so well… Maybe only against chelsea. Keep up the good work Tim.

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