Arsenal’s defense has been the problem this month

Arsenal haven’t kept a clean sheet since the 2-0 win over Spurs (January 15th) and have just two clean sheets out of the 9 matches since the World Cup restart. And before you say it’s because Arsenal’s #5 has been injured, he’s played in 7 of those 9 matches (he missed City, xGA 1.7 and Villa, xGA 0.5). It looks to me like there’s either a structural problem with Arsenal’s defense, one which I think teams are figuring out and have learned how to exploit. Or that there’s some kind of mental blip happening at Arsenal.

What it is, exactly, I’m not sure.

Here’s a chart of Arsenal’s 3-match rolling average xGA for this season (Premier League matches only).

Arsenal had a great start to the season, followed by a small dip in form when we faced Man U, Spurs, and Liverpool over a 4 match span. That poor run was exacerbated in the chart here by the 1.8 xGA in the Leeds United match. And just to make the point again, Arsenal’s supposedly great defensive wall (#5) played in all of those matches.

I rewatched the last four games over the last two days and I can see one theme in common but it’s not one I was expecting and not one that I think is for certain the main cause. Everton played midblock, Brentford played deep block, City played high block, and Aston Villa played Emeryball (sort of, I think he’s stopped running the overlapping fullbacks with the dragback to the center). All four of those teams (yes, City especially) played longball tactics, so that’s one thing they had in common.

I also got the sense from watching the games that it was pressure which helped them quite a bit. Not a full on 60 tackles a game or anything, but selective pressure applied to the defenders and midfielders which is forcing turnovers. Most notable the last few matches are Zinchenko, Tomiyasu, Benjamin White, and Gabriel. Saliba has had a few mistakes as well but I’m hesitant to call him out on them because he’s also been playing very well and recovering from his mistakes, whereas Zinchenko and the others really didn’t.

Weirdly, Ramsdale’s psxG (post shot xG) over this period of four matches is very poor. He’s allowed 9 goals on a psxG of 4.8. I say “weirdly” because watching him play it feels like he’s made some absolutely critical saves (for example Bailey in the Villa match and a few clawed away shots against Man City). The saves, though spectacular, must have had low xG. I’m fine if you just want to ignore this part because I don’t really blame him. It’s almost certainly more of a team problem.

There’s no question that Arsenal’s defense is ailing. Arsenal still have the 2nd best goals against record with 23 which is amazing since 9 of those goals against were scored in the last 5 games. I hope this is just a mental blip and isn’t indicative of a larger structural problem which teams have figured out how to exploit. If the former, then all we need to do is get our heads on right. If the latter then Arteta has a huge problem he needs to solve.



  1. Very interesting analysis. One has to hope the in-house analysts are across the issues involved. Cheers

  2. Thanks for sharing. It feels mental to me, but that’s just the eyeball test. Passes less sharp, players not in spaces, etc. It feels like periods early last season where defenders have labored to get the ball out.

    1. I did want to include the thought that a big part of the problem is that Nketiah is not as good at holding the ball up, attacking, and distributing and that a good attack (especially with the way Arsenal play) is part of a good defense.

      1. Nketiah is more of a goal threat, so hard to say he is not a threat at all, but he is worse at hold up play. The key differences are that he does not garner the same attention from — or cause the same disruption to — a low block that Jesus does. Jesus is an agent of chaos in the penalty box. When Jesus is in the box all defenders keep an eye on him, whereas you only need a couple of them to track Nketiah. So when Jesus is playing it seems every other Arsenal attacker gets another half a second to pass or shoot.

        1. I don’t think I said he isn’t a treat at all so you must be directing that bit at Rhoon. Nketoah is a goal threat who hasn’t scored in 450 minutes of play and he does have a bit of xG in the last two games but was totally blanked (1 shot, effectively 0 xG) against Brentford. And if he’s not putting his chances away and not able to get shots against low block teams (Brentford) and also making just 11-14 passes (Man City and Villa respectively) then I think it’s fair to say that he might be a problem.

          Not that we can do much about it other than pray for the return of Jesus.

  3. The one unifying theme I could point to during this run is a loss of control. Usually we put our foot on the opponent’s throat and not let up until we score. We can do that because we can pin them in their half, and that happens because our front line presses the ball to force lofted passes and our back line wins the duels and second balls which resets the attack. There is no respite and no ability to counterattack. It’s complete suffocation. What Everton did was they hardly waited to be pressed. They just kept putting lofted passes up to DCL and he was able to outjostle Saliba often enough. Arsenal weren’t really ready for this and didn’t put enough bodies around the CBs to help them compete for second balls. So when Saliba couldn’t get a clean clearance, Everton were in place to pounce with superior numbers. Against a scrambling Arsenal defense not used to having to defend this way, they were able to carve out some great chances. Brentford repeated this same tactic with Toney, and it worked almost as well.

    The other unifying theme is conceding possession. This is an inevitable byproduct of playing the way we do. We try risky passes because it’s part of our identity to play out of pressure and we do it well. Most of the time the verticality and incision we get from playing this way sets up not only the chances we create in transition but also our control of the game overall. But it doesn’t take much for a top team to profit from a mistake in possession. Every team we face wants to capitalize on it. Aston Villa and City both punished such mistakes with a high level of efficiency. This is one area where Thomas Partey is massive, because he can erase these types of mistakes with his recovery speed and physicality in deep areas. It’s no coincidence that we’ve conceded three of these goals without him (though City being one is hardly fair). Jorginho is an excellent defender because of the way he anticipates the ball, as I keep saying, but he can’t replace Partey in that way.

  4. I wonder if part of the defensive frailty is related to Zinchenko’s selection in recent games after his recovery from injury. I like what he brings to the team but when I see him popping up inside Odegaard on the right wing, it’s clear his left-back defensive duties are not high on his priority list. We do leave a lot of space at the back for Gabriel and Saliba to cover. No surprise we’re vulnerable to balls over the top, as many teams seem to have figures out.

    1. I was wondering the same thing – I remember Arsenal feeling much more no-nonsense defensively when Zinchenko isn’t playing. the upside to Zinchenko is an overload in midfield. I suspect teams have figured out their best approach is catch Zinchenko out by playing long, quickly so the midfield advantage is dissipated.

      1. Zinchenko inverting actually makes it harder for teams to play through us because he can close down that inside left passing lane. The system is designed for him to do this. I can’t remember a good example of a diagonal ball being played into the LB space he vacated. The runners aren’t there because they are pinned high by his movement. Instead teams have played high balls towards their striker who usually pulls on to Saliba in the opposite channel and then compete for second balls from knockdowns.

        When the ball gets turned over, Zinchenko does pull back into the traditional LB area where he has stood up really well to being targeted aerially. Every game he wins headers against taller players because of his timing in the air. He doesnt get enough credit for how good he is at that.

  5. Nice work, Tim.

    This shows that a 38 game season with other competitions in between is a long, tough slog. What the Invincibles did is beyond remarkable.

    It was always going to hard to maintain our level throughout.

    What did we want at the start? Top 4. Now look at us… we are fretting about our title chances slipping. Im loving supporting this club again… the fight, the toughness we added (mentally and physically), the togetherness. The fans lift players after errors.

    As positionally suspect as Zinch can be, man what a tough bugger he is. The bredda lives and breathes competitiveness and fire. He epitomises this season’s Arsenal. Im happy, just so long as we dont suffer a significant collapse.

  6. I think it’s remarkable Arsenal have even maintained top spot since jesus’s injury. It’s just been so obvious the difference his addition to this side has done this season. Everything he does: holding, pressing, dribbling, tackling, making space for others all upped everyone’s level so much, I can’t believe it’s only now we’re starting to fully feel his absence.
    His tenacity and defending from the front is unmatched in the league and it affects our defence. And Martinelli doesn’t seem to press as well without him.
    I love Nketiah but we need Jesus back badly.

    1. Jesus, Zinch and Saliba revolutionized our unit. Saliba in his utter class (and ability to shift Ben White), Zinch for the dynamism he brings to our build up and control, And Jesus for, in directly mostly, bringing that goals we so lacked last season.

  7. I think that Tim’s global analysis is confirmed by all individual eye tests. Most of us will agree that Saliba is a little less supremely confident and a little more error prone than before. We saw White experiencing a sudden drop in level, his replacement by Tomi, who didn’t shine against City, White’s satisfactory return. Gabriel has confirmed what many thought before: under pressure, he loses a lot of his composure. And, indeed, we are less in control. The Zinchenko issue has been treated above. He is brilliant in his midfield contribution but less defensively minded than Tierney for instance. Quid pro quo.
    In conclusion the overall conclusion of Tim’s piece is confirmed by my very un-scientific perception.

  8. jayke, i mentioned the point about zinchenko last week. think about this: except for the 1-1 draw against southampton, arsenal has won every league game where zinchenko didn’t feature. likewise, except for the 3-2 win over liverpool, every game where arsenal has conceded more than one goal, zinchenko was in the side? is that a coincidence?

    i also mentioned that zinchenko reminds me of thomas vermaelen in his first season at arsenal. on the surface, you see this quick, energetic, buccaneering, electrifying, strong-tackling central defender with exceptional technical skill and a cannon of a left foot that i hadn’t seen since the cannon on megatron. and no, i don’t mean the michael bay movie character. i mean the after-school hasbro cartoon character from the 80’s hooked up to energon cubes, megatron. that’s the cannon that vermaelen had. as electrifying as he looked, there was always something didn’t sit right in my head about how he looked. we finally saw it near the end of the season against barcelona, where he was absolutely bullied.

    zinchenko gives me a similar vibe to vermaelen. i’m reluctant to make any declaration but he just doesn’t look right to me. this season’s data confirms that arsenal clearly win fewer games and concede more goals with zinchenko in the side. as usual, i’ll let time tell.

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