Arsenal has thrilled this season with an attractive, high-intensity brand. Goals have flowed uncontrollably. Only Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham have fared better in the final third. However, the same can’t be said at the opposite end.
The hallmark of every great team isn’t just offense. While it’s great to nick goals aplenty, the ability not to concede is even more crucial. Ask Virgil van Dijk. The Dutchman is obsessed with clean sheets. Whether alongside Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren, he simply doesn’t want Alisson Becker to retrieve balls from his own net.
Sir Alex Ferguson understood this theory. Jose Mourinho too. No wonder both managers thrived balancing attack and defence. Unai Emery is a student of this school of thought. On arriving North London, he reckoned a drastic shift is required for the Gunners to compete.
“With time, only technical quality and offensive freedom were taken care of while losing defensive structure,” Emery told Spanish newspaper Marca. “What I want is to combine both and become more competitive. Arsenal was in a decline. We had to stop this, and begin climbing.”
Indeed, Arsenal hasn’t quite done enough at the back. The Gunners splashed over £220 million on attackers in Arsene Wenger’s final two seasons. Mesut Ozil. Alexis Sanchez. Lucas Perez. Alexandre Lacazette. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Then later turned Sanchez into Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The defence, however, didn’t get equal attention. The most expensive rareguard since 2016/17 is Shkodran Mustafi. Bar the German, the Gunners spent a miserly £19 million.
Emery pretty much followed the same template. Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Stephan Lichtsteiner, are past their prime with a combined age of 64. They came for no penny. Emery’s failure to find a permanent solution is plaguing his team.
It’s alright to hit the target quite often. After all, in the end, goals win matches. Arsenal has only failed to break the duck in one league outing. That was the season’s opener against Manchester City. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s 13 strike is unmatched in the division after the first round of matches.
The malaise, however, is they give opponents too many chances. The Gunners’ paltry three clean sheets in the league is dreadful when compared to rivals. Liverpool (12), City and Chelsea (8 each). Even Spurs have managed seven shutouts.
Arsenal’s defensive frailties are becoming all too glaring. The table shows they’ve allowed 25 goals. Only Manchester United (30) have been worst among the top seven. Liverpool is yet to surrender double digits. Spurs, City and even Maurizio Chelsea have yet to cede 20.
The 1-1 draw at Brighton was another example of how Arsenal are still getting picked off far too easily at the back. Brighton’s equalising goal resulted from a simple long ball, poorly judged by Lichtsteiner, and for all Arsenal’s attacking flourish this season, it remains alarming how one or two simple passes are often enough to undo them.
Southampton discovered that before Christmas, as did Tottenham in the Carabao Cup, and most worryingly of all Liverpool, the Premier League’s most dangerous direct attacking side, are up next.
While Emery may argue injury hasn’t been fair, none will remember if he ultimately disappoints come May.
Written by Toby Prince
Follow Toby on Twitter @prinzToby
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