There was an oddity about Arsenal last season. You think about them and why they failed to win the title, and you think of the open door of their defence, haplessly swinging on its hinges after another humbling away defeat against one of the top sides: they let in six at Manchester City, six at Chelsea, five at Liverpool and three at Everton. Yet apart from those games, and after the opening day 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa, Arsenal’s defensive record was pretty good last season.
Only Chelsea kept more clean sheets than their 17, while there were only seven games in which Arsenal let in more than one; City, by way of putting that in context, had 11. Again, only Chelsea’s record in that regard was better (five), with Everton in third (10). Arsenal were fine most of the time, but when things went wrong, they went badly wrong.
There are two possible reasons for that. It may be that Arsenal were vulnerable to particular types of teams, or it could be that once they got behind and started chasing the game, things had a tendency to get worse rapidly, either for reasons of mental fragility or because, as is more likely, they were unable to cope with teams countering against them as they pushed forwards in search of an equaliser.
That fragility against good sides away from home remains the major question about this Arsenal. After the 3-0 defeat away to Everton at the beginning of April last year, everything had gone right. They won their final five league matches of the season to take fourth spot. They won the FA Cup to end their nine-year trophy drought. They bought Alexis Sanchez, after Mesut Ozil another major signing to boost morale and convince fans they really will compete. They won the Community Shield, sweeping aside a Manchester City team who didn’t look especially interested. They scored a late goal to beat Crystal Palace and win their opening game of the season. They held out with 10 men to get a valuable draw away to Besiktas in the Champions League play-off.
And then Everton again. It’s true that they came back to draw from 2-0 down, something that speaks of a spirit and resolve, and it’s true that, this time, they only let in two rather than three, but still, all the old doubts remain. This was not a team that looked defensively solid when placed under pressure, Romelu Lukaku, deployed on the right against Nacho Monreal causing almost the same chaos he had in April.
In fairness to Monreal, once he is isolated by a bigger, quicker forward, there’s not a lot he can do. There’s an onus on the left-sided midfielder and/or the holding midfielder to cover. In April against Everton it was Lukas Podolski on the left, on Saturday it was Mesut . Podolski last season averaged 0.9 tackles and 0.2 interceptions per game. Özil last season also averaged 0.9 tackles and 0.2 interceptions per game; he, along with Jack Wilshere in midfield, didn’t make a single tackle or interception on Saturday.
Finding comparisons isn’t easy, because of course teams play in different ways and place different demands on their wide men, but Willian, for example, made 1.8 tackles and 0.7 interceptions last season – he won the ball back twice as often as either Ozil or Podolski. Or David Silva made 1.2 tackles and 0.6 interceptions. Wide players have to involve themselves in the defensive side of the game, particularly when there is no obvious holding player.
Mathieu Flamini played from the start on Saturday, although he may not have done had Mikel Arteta not been injured. There has been talk of perhaps signing Sami Khedira who is, apparently, on his way out of Real Madrid. But the suspicion is that this goes beyond individual players, that there is a more general issue that, in the biggest games against the toughest opponents, everybody has to put in more of a defensive shift.
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