Thursday, August 18, 2022

It’s the defense: By the Numbers

I keep turning this post over in my head. What numbers matter?

I remember when Arsenal got beat 5-1 at Anfield in February 2014. That felt like a low point but one which we turned around: beating them 2-1 in the FA Cup one week later on the way to our first piece of silverware in 9 years.

The next year Arsenal played an unusual defense-first approach to Liverpool and beat them 4-1. And this really felt like we had turned a corner, like we had learned how to play in the big games for the first time in years.

Then Liverpool fired Rodgers and hired Klopp and since then, Arsenal have played 5, lost 3, drawn 2. In the last three games, all losses, Arsenal have conceded 11 goals to their 4.

This is the problem. These are the numbers. Wenger’s weakness as a manager has always been defense. His best defensive performances were in 98/99 when his team conceded 17 goals and 03/04 when his team conceded 26 goals. Both of those teams conceded the fewest goals of any team in the League.

It’s important to understand defense in the context of each League season. The average goals allowed by the best defensive team in the League (just counting since 1997) is 27. Wenger’s average has been 36 but.. from 1997-2008, Wenger’s teams averaged 33.45 goals conceded and from 2009-2017 that average jumped to 40.44.

Wenger’s nadir in terms of defense was 2011/12 when Arsenal conceded 49 goals. That was the infamous trolley dash season where Wenger tried to hold on to Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri but gave up after Arsenal had their asses handed to them by… Liverpool in a 2-0 loss on opening day at home. Nasri wanted out and had a stinker. One of the few stats that I have memorized: he was dispossessed 9 times on that day.

Buying Mertesacker and Arteta helped and over the next four seasons, Wenger seemed to have gotten control of the defense – in 2012/13 Arsenal conceded 37, then a bad year with 41, then 36 and two years ago posted an impressive defensive record, allowing just 36 goals, 1 more than the best defense in the League. That was the Coquelin season and not coincidentally the last season that Arsenal have made a real title challenge.

Here is the screen shot from my database with all of the above data:

That 2015/16 title challenge also had underlying stats that looked great for Arsenal. Again, a screenshot from one of my databases:

Arsenal only allowed 35 big chances that season and just 97 SiP (shots in prime, shots between the penalty spot and the goal). And when we did allow shots Cech saved them at an unbelievable rate. Where Arsenal failed that season was simply in conversion: we couldn’t put away the chances we were creating.

But the next season, in an attempt to generate more offense, Wenger dropped Coquelin and Arsenal went right back to conceding chances:

Arsenal went from conceding 35 big chances to 59 (from 0.92 per game to 1.55 – and Big Chances are scored at a 50% rate, so this is a key stat) and from 97 SiPs allowed to 124. Özil and Alexis also stopped creating as much, the BC created and SiP created numbers went down but that was OK because Arsenal’s conversion jumped from a bog average 11% to 14%. What lost Arsenal the top four finish last season was defense. Arsenal conceded 44 goals, 18 goals more than the best defense in the League.

And now already in this season Arsenal have allowed 7 Big Chances and if I sort the entire table by defense only, Arsenal are 5th worst in the League:

Of course it’s three games in and there’s a lot of room to turn things around but it looks grim, folks.

I need to say two major things here. First, I’m not advocating for the use of Coquelin. I have a lot of love for Coquelin and I think many Arsenal supporters underrate him but a club like Arsenal shouldn’t be relying on a player of his limited abilities. In the match against Liverpool, Bellerin made an error on the corner kick but it was also Coquelin’s responsibility to cover there and he was way too deep in the opposition box which left Bellerin all alone and gambling. Coquelin was also caught ball-watching on their 4th, leaving huge spaces open for Emre Can to roam into. Coquelin may be a short term answer but over the long run Arsenal need a player like Kante or Leipzig’s Keita.

However, it’s also not a coincidence that Wenger’s 07/08 team only conceded 31 goals – which is the third best of any Arsene Wenger side – and that side also featured a terrier-like midfielder in Mathieu Flamini.

But second, the problem here is larger than simply personnel. I have no doubt that Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka are capable of playing as a two man shield in front of the back three. They would need to be told that’s their job and they would need to be trained on how to play that way but I’ve seen Aaron play a more defensive role for Wales and he’s not a stupid boy. He can play in a variety of positions. With his lungs and movement, he could be a great asset in a two man midfield.

And Xhaka’s obvious flaws are both his physical limitations in terms of speed but also his decision-making. Again, this is something that a good manager would either get out of his game, find a way to compensate with a good pairing, or would get rid of the player.

The problem is that Arsenal don’t seem to train on defense. There’s no defensive cohesion to this team and players (like Ox and Ramsey) are caught cherry-picking up the pitch or allowing their marker to run right by them. Instead of a team approach to defense, Wenger relies on special performances from individuals. And when those individuals fail to perform he seems to have little time for them: Mustafi is being sold, Mertesacker was dropped 105 games ago, Vermaelen, Szczesny, Gibbs, Holding, Chambers, even Sol Campbell was unceremoniously dumped after a bad game, on and on – Wenger consistently blames the defensive personnel and not the system which exposes them. Modern football managers will shred your team unless they are organized.


Sources: my databases


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Seri.. Lemar…

Too Drunk To Be Offside

Its the defense sure, but above all its the gaffer. How long has the team been in need of a holding mid for? Has he signed one all these years, nope. Just how many times has he let the contract of top player run down so as to put the team in a tricky position. You would think he would have learnt his lesson after Fuckri and van Cuntsie, but look where the club is now. Why do these players refuse to commit, because they don’t believe in the guy in charge. They don’t believe they will win the trophies… Read more »

Ranjan Das

That is where you get it wrong – Xhaka is not a holding mid fielder at all. He is a deep play making midfielder who was supposed to be a tough tackler. His leg breaking tackling skills meant that he has been specially asked not to jump in any more and since he does not have pace, he is essentially useless when he does NOT have the ball. I have heard a lot of pundits and I think some of them just like to bash Arsenal/Wenger but I think Lee Dixon makes a very good point. Arsenal are a very… Read more »


He didn’t say Xhaka is a holding midfielder, he said the opposite. Wenger is the one who mistakenly thought Xhaka could be a holding midfielder, one who could also create.


3 games and 8 goals

Third Plebeian

Hey, Report: It’s a bit of a trollish move to copy and paste the exact same comment in every article.


Think we need a ‘report spam’ feature.


Here’s one. Arsenal spend weeks trying to get Chamberlain to sign contract, give one last hurrah against the bin dippers, then agree fee with Chavski within 24 hours.


Arsene has had more than 1 bad game this season already…
time to be dropped ?


Your final paragraph sums it up brilliantly.

The lack of system has been shown up in a time where every top class manager has an idea of how they want to defend, be it by parking the bus effectively or by gegen-pressing or by keeping the ball the whole time.


….and Liverpool have just bought Keita. Ffs.


They are trying to buy Lemar also


I’m so disgusted with with the Keita news. But the fact is we had a manager who’d spoken to him, the Champions League qualification, the new-ish stadium and we didn’t get it done.

Now look at us. Our complacency has been so so costly.


Not sure how much you can blame the defense for this one, the whole team was SHIT.

bob davis

Absolutely, we win as a team and we defend as a team. I couldn’t believe how high up the field Ramsey was not laying. Just hope we can get our shit together for Bournemouth!


It will be difficult to play any worse

Cazorla\'s Both Feet

It’s more frustrating for me when the defense fail to do their job. It’s down to them to make sure we don’t lose, and they failed spectacularly.


I agree hole team was shit,, but as I’ve always said if u don’t concede u can’t lose,, only draw or win,, should get some defensive advice from GEORGE GRAHAM,, I’d be happy to win 1 nil every week


It’s really tough to not lay a lot of the blame on Nacho and Holding. Last 2 or 3 seasons I’ve liked Nacho, but he’s had a bad start so far. And Holding just doesn’t look ready for big games yet.

Then again,Wenger made the call to play both of them instead of Kol and Mustafi and choose Welbeck over Lacazette up front. So he has to shoulder the majority of the blame IMO.


Can’t blame individuals when there is no system..


I’m also observing a curious impotence when it comes to building up play from the back three through midfield and onwards. A lot of passes are either purposeless (sideways or backwards) and too many passes get intercepted or broken down by pressing opposing players. What’s going on? A lot of the opposition chances have been generated by Arsenal players giving away the ball in critical areas of the pitch …


Danis commentators were quick to dissect Arsenal:
“Klopp has told his midfield: Be all over Özil and Ramsey – they’ll both need a lot of touches on the ball”. (my translation).
Bar leaving Xhaka out of that, they were spot on.
That’s a huge part of the bluder…


Playing with 2 number 10s in a game like that doesn’t seem like the best idea to begin with


Agree, there must be one n°10. We’ve got one, one of the best 10 around, but the other player thinks he can be a 10 too, but he has not the slightest talent to be one. The problem is that the second 10 already played first 10 and it was a failure…


buy anyone..talent is not the problem..organisation is a problem..and organisation is a problem in the whole of arsenal as a club.


Exactly.. a leader leads, motivates.. our players have lacked motivation for years


At the end of the days it is all those Wenger supporters fault for buying tickets and not chanting wengerout every game. That’s what you get for handing a relic of a bygone age clearly past his prime another contract extension.

Wenger doesn’t care, he gets a nice fat paycheck, total freedom, and zero accountability in the most comfortable club in the world, Arsenal.

You sack a manager who doesn’t perform, not allow him to be a dictator for life just because he used to win trophies a long long time ago.


Sometimes the management baffles me. Here we are, hardly professionals, analysing the boy and their performances and hitting on patterns yet to be fixed. Wenger isn’t stupid, and I can’t believe he doesn’t see the things we do…. what on Earth could his rationale be??? I want there to be some sense and you just struggle to find any these days


I’ve got to the point where I don’t think there’s any rationale at all. I think the old man has lost his marbles, sadly. He needs to go, now.


Doesn’t matter whether he’s old. Look at Fergie. What matters is that he’s lost the plot. There can be no other explanation. His team selections are near suicidal.


Sorry if this has been asked before but what was wrong with the team and the formation that beat Manchester City and Chelsea? Why have we moved away from that?


Perhaps we were trying to ‘improve’ it


Wenger has some fixed ideas on how to play, which is filling the final third. That doesn’t work out for various reasons and he stumbles onto solutions like deploying Coquelin as a DM or deploying another CB in a back three. But that’s not how he wants to play and he tries to get his wish, thus he pushes Coquelin forward e.g. He’s not particularly married to defensive concepts, he wants to flood the opponent’s final third, that’s why he pushes everyone forward.


Wenger likes his teams to play “his” style of football and makes changes only when forced to.

Happens every season: “the Arsenal way” doesn’t work, Wenger switches to something more pragmatic, “saves” the season, keeps his job, then tries to make “the Arsenal way” work the next season, repeat.

We are currently at the no-structure-individual-expression stage of the season, quickly approaching the minor-adjustments-against-inferior-teams stage.

Cazorla\'s Both Feet

That was down to how incredible Santi is and the fact that he and Coq made up for deficiencies in each others’ game. Santi was pulling the strings and carrying the ball through the channels to link up with the front line and Coq was soaking up all the pressure and allowing Santi to initiate counters. There’s no such partnership at the moment.




I don’t understand what contribution Steve Bould is giving to the team. He used to be a defender playing for Arsenal. I would like to shout “Sack Steve Bould!!!”


Out of all the so called big clubs we are the ones that continue to take regular spankings with the whole team happily pulling their own pants down. Countless times wenger has messed up team selection and formation, he has got it down to a fine art, it’s always lurking and ready to explode like a steaming freshly trodden cow pat.


Perhaps that is what he does to them and they don’t like it.


Thank you so much god the analysis Tim. I’ve been saying for years that Wenger quite simply does no form of defensive drilling. It’s nice that your analysis appears to back up what my eyes tell me every week. And to all those saying ” we need this player or that to make the defence better” – the point is that personnel are not the issue. You could play the great AC Milan back four of the early nineties, even in their preferred positions ( radical, I know), but under Wenger they would still concede. No drilling, see.


It’s not that they are ‘undrilled’ as such, it’s that the team is not set up to protect the defence at all. Take mourinho as an example: do you think he would allow his DM’s to get away with ball watching (coq), getting too far forward constantly (Ramsay) or giving the ball away in stupid areas (xhaka)? I’m pretty sure they would be told to conform to the set system immediately and if they couldn’t or wouldn’t, then they would be out the door. Put simply… we need a manager who understands how the tactical side of the game works… Read more »


I agree. I too have mentioned often enough the Perry Groves comment during a guided tour of the stadium years ago – “Wenger doesn’t coach players in how to play, he expects them to know that already”. I make no apology for repeating this because the same mistake is still being made. Steve Bould is a bench warmer; if he had any ideas to offer he would have resigned already in protest at the lack of implementation. Until this team recognises that every game is a Cup Final in PL, well be stuck as a Cup team (and we can’t… Read more »


Great analysis, I always enjoy reading your articles.


This crap defensive start confirms what you were saying before the season started – that the ‘successful’ switch to back 3 was a statistical anomally for 10 games end of last season, because other teams were putting their big chances away at much lower rates, and we were scoring our big chances at higher rates. Your numbers confirm what my eyes continue to see – other team’s midfielders and attackers by-passing our swiss-cheese midfield running at our hapless defense far too often. Liverpool hardly had to try to build up play, and actually had slightly less of the ball. They… Read more »


I completely agree with this article.. I have been screaming for years about how the system we play at Arsenal can leave the best defenders looking like morons. We play a high risk game and the time is long past when we had superior attacking talents to make up the deficit. We need to do 2 things quickly 1. Drum team defending perhaps first into Wenger’s ears and then the team’s (sadly i’ve seen us play well defensively in the past so it means we know how) 2. Get a midfield partner for Xhaka who is a more rounded midfielder(Quick,tenacious,… Read more »


Exactly, if we hade carvahal, ramos – varane, marcelo yesterday or the back 3 of juve it would change nothing the would still be exposed and look like fools .


The midfiled is the problem because in the last 10 years the midi filed is not protecting the defense never were is is the setup made by wenger, in some odd games like fa cup chelsea or city game or some home games that we won against the big 4 we played as a team and defended as a team and our midfield pair were making clearance after clearence in our own box and we won those game deservedly.


I wonder how much of this lack of effort and players wanting to leave is down to the questionable decisions and lack of players coming in when we clearly need it. We were playing so well towards the end of the season and in preseason. It’s not like we can’t. Yesterday we didn’t even try. We are selling defenders that we need to keep. We made two good signings but it’s obviously not enough. Leaving the new signings on the bench and playing players out of position. Like a couple of years ago when we only signed Petr Cech. Nobody… Read more »


I’m pretty sure that summer when we didn’t bring in anybody but Cech broke the team’s faith in Wenger, that’s when Alexis and Özil probably started to doubt they can achieve anything with Wenger in charge.


It seemed to be the start of it. Ozil one year, Sanchez the next and then ‘stability’.


Any stat to show coquelin playing alongside Xhaka and Ramsey in a back 4 formation adds steel to our defense? IMO.. playing a midfielder in a back 3 won’t be a bad option.. Elneny was just not the right guy to do that.

He\'s got no hair but we don\'t care...

The ONLY way anything will change is a consistent and dramatic boycott of home games. An emirates that has 40,000 empty seats will send a visible and unavoidable message to the club.

The blind loyalty of the most magnificent fans in the country, the mighty Gooners, must temporally stop and stop now.


Something I’ve never understood about the way we defend relates to the way we attack. Wenger has always coached his teams not to waste attacking opportunities by shooting from distance. We’re known for concentrating our attack in high xG shot locations (or as pundits call it, always trying to “walk the ball into the net”). If we’re so aware of how effective that attacking approach is, then why aren’t we as focused on denying opponents shots in those locations? Even when Coquelin starts Wenger instructs him to push high up the field, and he’s often in the wrong location when… Read more »




Defense is correct. Look at a dictionary.


Defence and defense are different spellings of the same word; yet belong to different forms of the English language. Defense is used in American English, and defence is used in British English, which spans Australian and Canadian English. It is important to maintain spelling consistency within a piece of writing.


pedant alert: defense is American English. So is ‘gotten’. What’s wrong with plain old ‘got’?

Kostas Greek Gooner

I agree that we don’t train defense but honestly,
do we train attack?
The only thing we train is sideways passing and how NOT to counter attack.

I am beyond madness or sadness guys.
I am happy.
I am nirvana.

I finally realized our problem.


Do we even train?


Maybe Wenger should take some advice from blogs over here. I wonder if he even knows these statistics. Nevertheless, this is a well penned blog amidst what is nothing less than a tragedy. We have the personnel (provided that mustafi stays and there are few injuries), and we need to focus each game on the defensive performances here on.


Funny thing is that the 352/343 is basically a defensive formation. A back 5 when defending and 2 DM’s in front should be solid. As it is for chelski, spuds, juve etc.

But wenger has literally no idea how to make the system work.

You also really need your front 3 to contribute plenty of goals per man bcos the lack of attacking options elsewhere.

Which is another problem, bcos few of our forwards/attacking mids actually contribute enough goals to make it work imo.


Steve Bould used to be a defender didn’t he? What level of input does he have as AM? It must be driving him fucking nuts that we are so shite at the back.


I’ve never understood why Wenger doesn’t go for a player in the Carvalho mold that is strong defensively, athletic/agile, has good endurance and good technically. We either have someone that is one or two of those traits, but never all of them. I like what Xhaka brings on offense, but he is a huge liability on defense and we all know Ramsey’s problems with positional discipline. We may be able to get by with attack oriented defensive mids against lesser sides, but we’ve seen time and time again how we get carved open by teams that wait for us to… Read more »


Carvalho isn’t that athletic or agile, which is why no good team has ever bought him. He’s slow as fuck

Boom xhaka lacka

atrocious performance by everyone on the pitch, not one single shite was given, a fit Jack Wilshere should be put into that team, someone with passion and an arsenal man and someone who on his day can be very very good. surely a CB is arriving in the next day or two if we are getting rid of Mustafi. Great deal for the Ox let him off, madness he was anywhere near that pitch.


Wot defence?

Da Oli G Show

Arsenal conceded more goals in the first 5 minutes of the season than Huddersfield has in their first 3 full games in the Premier League. It’s not about the talent, it’s about organization, intensity, and effort.


Good analysis that exposes our flaws and that the managers approach only works if you have a team of invincibles. We do not. At this point I’d rather have a manager that seeks a point from top clubs at their place even if it means a 0-0 draw in an ugly game. At least defensively you’d have something to build on.


Thanks for the analysis- and your point about Ramsey is a good one and pretty central to the problem: What is he being tasked with? I seem to recall we went through a spell like this with Arteta where Ramsey was playing striker and leaving Arteta exposed – who is quite Xhaka-like in speed and (aside from this match) passing quality. Wenger finally pulled his head out and told Ramsey he had to stay put and hold down the deeper role, and it worked quite well for a chunk of the season. But now, and basically every season since Ramsey… Read more »




Get N Zonzi and shore up the defensive side FFS.


For me, the problems really began with the decision to rebuild around the British core. A manager who never seemed to trust British players suddenly decided he wanted to build his team around them. In the past, teams were built around Bergkamp, Vieria, Henry, Fabregas – now it was Walcott, Ramsey, Ox. And for whatever reason, he just refuses to admit that hasn’t worked and that we need to move on. Instead we doubled down, adding the likes of Welbeck, Chambers, Holding. None of them are good enough. Hopefully the trashing by Liverpool is the final straw that finally prompts… Read more »


I think we focus way too much on the British core when in reality this team has been built around Ozil for the last 4 years. If your top players aren’t consistent, the players around them won’t be either. Most of the players you’ve mentioned will do better under different management and that extends to most of our squad irrespective of their nationality.


Completely disagree with the idea that these players will do better under different management, its just another excuse rolled out by the British media for why these players have failed. A legitimate effort to build the team around Ozil would have meant that all these players were replaced – a serious team doesn’t have the likes of Ramsey and Ox blundering around in midfield for five seasons. England hasn’t produced a real top class player for 20 years and struggles to put together 11 decent players – the idea that we could build a team based on that talent pool… Read more »

Just Me

Your analysis is exactly right. The tragedy is that the coaching staff seems to be oblivious to the obvious.

Teryima Adi

Defense wins you the league.


Well the biggest stat we are missing is the level of stubbornness and mediocrity the manager brings to the table. We would be definitely leading that table.


“Mertesacker was dropped 105 games ago” – where did You get that from? He started against Norwich on 30 April 2016. 105 league games is more then 2.5 seasons, so following that statement his last start would be like at the beginning of 2014/2015 season.


“Instead of a team approach to defense, Wenger relies on special performances from individuals.” Well put.

that gunner kg

Great piece. Loved it.



ian hutcheon

I unfortunately can only watch Arsenal on TV. all the comments above are so true and hurtful to realise our Club is being ruined by one man’s stubbornness to realise his time is up. Professional footballers know when they are past it and so should Managers. Trying to play like Barca with mediocracy is cloud cuckoo thinking. For years now the defence has been exposed by quick incisive counter attacks, while the team crowd the opposition half trying to score from the sublime pass. I am struggling to remember a through ball to a quick forward and a goal. Giroud… Read more »

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