Analysing Arsenal’s defensive system

The number of goals conceded by the Gunners has much to do with the side’s expansive style of football.

The history of tactics, as Jonathan Wilson puts it, is the history of the manipulation of space. So when Arsène Wenger wanted his side to become more dynamic in order to break down deep-lying opponents, his idea – borrowed from the philosophies of Dutch Total Football and adapted by Johan Cruyff at Barcelona – was to stretch play to create more space. But the flip side of such an expansive style requires a careful balancing act at the other end, as opening up the pitch for midfielders to exploit gaps means the distances between attack and defence must be well deliberated. The solution, as Barcelona have so expertly displayed, especially under Pep Guardiola in recent seasons, is through high intensity, asphyxiating pressuring of the opponents. “Without the ball,” said the Barca coach, “we are a horrible team. We need the ball, so we pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back early.”

The stats so far seem to support the shift to 4-3-3 – or they do in an attacking sense at least. A voracious Arsenal have so far plundered in 53 goals in the league this season, at a goals to game ratio of 2.6 but profligacy on both sides of the pitch in big games mean the figures may not be as impressive as they were during the start of the season. At the back, the Gunners have conceded 23 goals, five more than the best defence in the league (Chelsea) and four more than Birmingham. What will be most displeasing, however, is that those goals have only come from a stingy 61 shots on target. Does that suggest Arsenal concede far higher quality chances than other teams or should more blame be attached to the goalkeeper Manuel Almunia? Certainly those are the shots which trouble the goalkeeper the most but it also backs up Wenger’s assertion that nowadays his men between the sticks need to have a far greater all-round game to them as their reflexes seemingly are only troubled two or three shots a game. “Every [modern] rule that has come out in football has taken something away from the ‘keeper,” says Wenger. “That means basically today he must be good with his feet, good with his hands, be very quick, be highly focused for 90 minutes, not make any technical mistakes and it makes the job very hard.”

Universality breeds fluency seems to be the maxim in defence also. For Arsenal to play a passing game, the defenders must be technically proficient in order to keep the ball circulating while being masters of reading the game and mobile to snuff out potential danger.

It can be also argued, however, that such an expansive style can put much strain at the back. The theory is that the more elaborate a team becomes, the more possession they will have hence requiring greater resources. So when Bakary Sagna makes his frequent forays forwards to support the attack, Gallas is needed to push wider, and as the defensive line stretches, the gaps become larger. Playing an expansive style will cause more resources to be used thereby creating undue strain at the back. Of course the trade-off for this is effectiveness but as all personnel are ball players it is harder to shake off that elaborate nature. On one side Wenger has tried to make the side more dynamic, the other looking to ensure his side is organised at the back. “I believe we have quality defenders and it’s more a case of balancing the team defensively,” said Wenger during the disappointing campaign last season. “It’s always easier to correct what doesn’t work defensively; if you don’t create chances you are always more worried.”

Indeed, one of the tenets of this 4-3-3 solution requires all playes to squeeze the space quickly when defending. Starting from the front, it has been a dignified success for a young team who’s natural instinct is too look forward. “I think we all want to get the ball back very quickly,” explains Bakary Sagna. “Everyone is defending quicker and the forwards are doing more. It helps us play as a team. We worked a lot on this in pre-season because we changed the formation and we have to keep working on it.”

As with all formations, there are subtleties underneath that render the labeling of systems as semantics. Tony Adams comment that the formation is indeed a 4-1-4-1 helps shed some light on the attacking and defensive responsibilities of individuals. Using the main forward as the focal point, the two wide men and central midfielders either side of the defensive midfielder look to play around him. Pushing up between the lines, it allows the side to better combat deep-lying teams and interchange positions. In the defensive phase, the quartet pressure in the same band up the pitch rather than having to drop back completely thereby not inviting the opposition at them.

However, as mentioned earlier, once entering the defensive phase Arsenal must suffocate the space quickly, which is a difficulty in itself when you consider stretching the play is fundamental to this style. Thus the problem that may arise is if the opponents bypass the first wave of pressure and are left with space, particularly down the channels, to attack one-on-one. “You have to stay away from one-on-ones,” explained Eugenio Fascetti to World Soccer Magazine when discussing the position of the libero (and incidentally he was the last manager to deploy a traditional libero in Serie A – while coaching Bari in 2000). “If your opponent plays with one striker, there should be no excuses. One of the two centre-backs must get him, the other sweeps from behind. If there are two strikers, one of the full-backs must mark him, leaving the centre-back free. In zonal marking, this is complicated. It’s easier to have someone like De Rossi tracking back and acting as libero, with two centre-backs busy marking the two strikers.”

Indeed Alex Song has been Arsenal’s Danielle De Rossi if using Fascetti’s analogy. The defensive midfielder’s secondary role is to cover for the central defenders, his primary as a dynamic screen in front of the back four, getting the ball back quickly and allowing for the side to keep shape from transitions.  “I know that my position is crucial in the team,” the Cameroon midfielder said. “When everyone is attacking, I want to hold, so that if we lose the ball I’m the first defender in the midfield to stop any counter-attacks and passes coming through. It’s a vital role – I just need to close quickly and give the ball forward when I receive it. This year we have done well, everyone’s contribution when we have lost the ball has been very good. We’ve turned quickly to defend just as we turn quickly to attack when we win it.”

And despite it being a successful, there is still room for improvements. It’s like the saying in Brazil goes; “trying to organise a football team is like having a small blanket on a cold night – pull it over your neck and your feet get cold, cover your feet and your neck freezes.” The side has worked on a system of pressuring high up the pitch and closing down quickly, but it can be made even more difficult once the team opens up the pitch in the search for goals. “It’s difficult to have so many people going forward and as well have everybody straight away defending well,” says the French manager. “It’s a consequence of our philosophy a little bit.”

Although Arsenal do not concede many chances – which highlights the effectiveness of the defensive system during approach play and that a big part of defence is attack – the chances conceded are usually of a greater quality. Take for example Manchester City, who had five shots on target and ended up scoring four of them, three as a result from transitions. It’s easier to score when afforded more space and against a less organised defence, especially if teams get given ample one-on-ones to attack with speed. Landon Donovan had a great game for Everton in the recent 2-2 draw, taking advantage of the multitude of space given out wide to take on Armand Traore who was caught indecisive, not just because of his tender age, but also for the lack of cover in front of him. The idea has been for the full-backs, in anticipation of potential danger, follow the winger and squeeze them of space early.

Brazil under Dunga has specifically set-up his team to guard and take advantage of transitions, displaying how key readying yourself for such moments are in the modern game. Arrigo Sacchi, the zealot but fantastic former AC Milan coach used to have his side practice defending with five back, all organised against ten unorganised attacking men. The result; the defending side always won. Jose Mourinho also likes to have five back in anticipation of transitions and has had great success (although it can be argued Arsenal are doing the same especially as Wenger has told his full-backs to be a bit more selective in their forays forward).

The most concerning of all for the Gunners has been defending from set-pieces, where from the same passage of play, 14 goals have gone past them in 28 goals conceded in Europe and the league. Part of it can be blamed to the height issue (or bravery, tracking runners etc.), another mentality. (Long balls through the middle and picking up the loose ones where a problem last season, this season the statistics are a bit more scattered). It is evident in Almunia in particular the trust isn’t there in his players while Fabianksi and Manonne are impulsive to the airborne pass.

Further analysis of the defensive system can come in the form of Barcelona and Wigan who are teams at two ends of the 4-3-3 spectrum. The former suffocate opponents through constant attack and pressure; the latter just haven’t got the skills to be as consistent either on the ball, defensively or ruthlessness, culminating in the 9-1 mauling by Tottenham. Attacking is one part of the system and teams that have denied Arsenal space through the centre by pressing high and stopping the ball getting wide, have generally posed the Gunners backline more problems [and better results too West Ham (2-2), Everton (2-2), Burnley (1-1) and Fulham (0-1)].

Overall, however, Wenger will not be much too disheartened by his rearguard collective. Being the most effective offside trap in the League – catching the opponents out 91 times already – shows a harmonious defensive unit and one that is good at squeezing play. Of the (slightly) higher number of goals conceded compared to their direct title rivals, some have been rendered insignificant due to the result being out of question. Others, such as the 3-0 defeat to Chelsea was disappointing but with analysis mostly concerned with the attacking failings, ergo it shows confidence in a quality backline. It’s maybe as Wenger says; for an attacking side, it’s only when you don’t create chances that defensive question marks come to the fore. And Arsenal have been scoring their fair share.


18 thoughts on “Analysing Arsenal’s defensive system

  1. Hi. Great analysis!
    In the 4-3-3 that we play, the biggest gap of space is left between the winger and the full backs and of course behind the high line. To minimise the space we had Diaby/Denilson sitting near the left wing. On the other flank we need Sagna to push up to plug the gap. Basically due to the long distance between the defenders and the keeper, we just need to slow down the other team to get the team back into shape and the defenders must track back quickly. To prevent losing the ball in dangerous areas, our defensive minded players must play out safe and accurate passes rather than trying the Hollywood pass.
    We can also try overloading one side of the pitch. That is if an opponent player launches a counter attack on the right side of the pitch, our defensive minded players should pressure that side, forcing him towards the touchline. He is less likely to do a cross field pass to the other side.

  2. Concentration is still an area that needs fine tuning, i will like us to use 2 banks of 4 for 5-10mins whenever the opposition are having their great spell to snuff them out and counter from there [especially in the prem were there arent many teams with quality vision to still play thru crowd of players]. Too many times against Bolton the midfield bank just didnt get back into position hence exposed the defence sometimes. Also better concentration for set plays

    “Thus the problem that may arise is if the opponents bypass the first wave of pressure and are left with space, particularly down the channels, to attack one-on-one.”: The Brain

    I agree that second phase defending after the initial first pressure is also a weak point bcuz the mentality of out attackers isnt quite geared defensively as soon as ball is lost or opposition bypass the initial pressure on a CONSISTENT BASIS.

  3. Great analysis.

    Our offensive minded players can not shirk their duty defensively as such a formation relies heavily on defending as a unit.

    I believe we are progressing, but the goalkeeper situation does not help. It will be very interesting to see the goals conceded stat in the 2nd half of the season

  4. If we continue to play this formation and perfect the ‘weaknesses’ as stated above, and IF we can keep the players 2gether for 2 more seasons, I can assure you, Arsenal will not only RULE the EPL, we will conquer Europe.Imagine Fab, Diaby and Song in same midfield for two more years of consistently playing 2gether…!

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. The comparison with Barca is of course pertinent, since as is known the 4-3-3 played this year goes back to Barca as it goes back to Ajax and Dutch system. However Barca as a team (not just individually)are just on a much higher technical level, and that makes all the difference. I often think why our midfielders do not have the same success in pressuring the ball and crowding it out and regaining it in midfield like Barca does so successfully and breathtakingly at times( even against a Manu or chelsea or Real), with Xavi,Iniesta,Messi, Alves +the DM. we just don’t do that well. Maybe Arshavin Dudu, Walcott,or Rosicki just do not have either the ability or discipline for that, so we concede the 2nd third of the pitch very often in the game even to the likes of Bolton,’Ham or Portsmouth(!) let alone the Chelsea. second, Barca have one of the bravest keepers and certainly one of the best in a one on one situations, his distribution is also very good and fast . You need an excellent keeper that can bail you out if the high line defenders cannot stop the counter. we do not have that. Almunia is probably the worst distributor anyone has seen on that level. moreover We certainly do not have the prodigious crossing of an Alves or even just the very good one of Abidal which really stretch the opposition. Some stats say that we have the LOWEST(!) crossing success (ie ball to target) in the league!!, the opposition knows this futility of ours( it is not the same as the height issue but accuracy) and it forces our game much more through the center and narrows our options, this is a point re the offensive side of the fullbacks, but also what is really crucial for this system to work are center backs with excellent ability to bring up the ball up, ours are good but not excellent in this respect.Guardiola may have overestimated Chygrinski but you can see what was his attraction, he is one of the best medium and long range opasser of the ball for a center back that you wil see and Picque is not much worse.I love Vermaelen and Willie but they are not really that. Of the rearguard Only Song does bring the ball across really well( protect the ball well,creates space around hiimslef thru game-balance changing turns etc), in fact while we do very well, highest quality, in the atacking third passing department, I think our 2nd third passing which is the condition of control of the game(!) is not as good. It is sometimes shocking how unable we are to snuff out an opposition’s pressure thru sheer quality passing in that second third.We are bound to move the ball quickly to the last third because we have no good control of the 2nd third. I think if you look at Barca, THIS is the area they control the game completely. with all the Arsenal emphasis on quick passing it does not happen that often, we have the creative force but not the preparatory holding one.

  6. A very thought provoking article – it’s unusual for me to read something that isn’t too judgemental! Great stuff.

  7. Almunia is the weak link. Slow (does not move his feet quickly enough), poor positioning (gets caught in no man’s land), indecisive (confuses his centre backs), bad a communication (he plucks the ball of the head of a defender that does not know that he is coming). Does not cover his posts well, and falls on his bum making it easy for strikers to chip him. Nuff said.

    1. During Arsenal,s last game against Bolton Gallas as, usual was ballwatching ,allowing Taylor to stroll past him while Gallas put his arm up for offside ,it,s not Almunia,s fault with all those ridiculous backpasses,weak attempts to stop Tim Cahill from advancing into the box ,unable to out jump little Osman etc.

  8. Great article. In comparison with Barca, it also helps that they play in a league that is more protective of the star players, who subsequently don’t get kicked off the park and injured as a result. Our team is just a deep as Barca’s (if not quality-wise) I assure you but they don’t lose their top players for months on end.

    The EPL is a very rough league to play in and players like Xavi and Messi would be injured a lot more I reckon due to the heavy kicking and physical play in England. Just look at Merida vs Bolton, comes on and within 5 mins he’s kicked hard on the ankle and is now out for tomorrow’s return fixture.

    In this league, you need pace to get away from the “hackers,” technique to confuse them, and more than anything else, strength to withstand the almighty kicking you get playing here.

  9. Excellent read mate, though I think our main defensive failing are solely down to the absence of a top quality keeper. Almunia does not really inspire confidence, his command of his box is dreadful and he’s tends not to communicate with his back-line. Add to this his indecisiveness and that annoying habit of punching the ball when it could have been caught, I think its safe to say we could do much better. Personally I’m gutted we didn’t get Given. The goals conceded vs shots at goal stat does not lie, in some games there have only been a handful of shots against and yet we’ve conceded.

  10. Ammonia would not even be 1st choice for most premiership teams. So it is perplexing to me he’s our No. 1. It’s true defence is a team responsibility, but there is not 1 shred of evidence he’s gonna win us any games based on merit. We could have stick Mannone, Fabianski or Szczesny between the sticks & not do any worse. If we’re not buying any worldclass keeper at least Wenger should drop him, at least for a few games to curb his complacency.

  11. Superb analysis

    I think mr. Wenger is somewhat inspired by Chilean national coach Bielsa with regards to our defensive style of play. When balanced we defend very well, but as underlined in the analysis above, we strive to be very fluid when in possession, and subsequently our players roam around the pitch in order to create space and stretch the play. I think the game at Emirates against dutch side AZ showed us how well that style of play works when the players are up for it.
    But with so many players roaming around the pitch trying to create space in the last third of the pitch, we are vulnerable in the transitionel phase when losing possession. Almost always we are caught unbalanced and quite often outnumbered in the middle third.
    When that happens we try to regain possession immediately. Since our players are physically weaker than most opponents in midfield, we rely heavily on our ability to read the game and intercept passes rather than engaging in physical battles. Barca perfect this part of the game which is all about conquering and not defending. We still need to work on this, and players like Song and Diaby are getting better by the minute. We need to be very strong tactically and mentally to cope with these situations which occur quite often, and first and foremost we need to be strong one on one.
    Bielsas players constantly play one on one when losing possession, and they keep trying to win the ball back. We seem to be content with chasing the ball whilst getting organised at the back, but I think it is a work in progress. Give Wenger and the players another season or two and we will perfect the conquering part of the game and be able to dominate much more than we do today.

  12. Concentration for the full 90 minutes plus injury time is what keeps blank sheets,do Gallas ,Silvestre,Traore,clichy ,Sagna ,have this quality ,no not yet ,only Vermaelen has it for now ,that,s Arsenal,s defensive problems simplified?

  13. If you see the CBs at Barcelona, they are not that mobile. Pique and Puyol are pretty slow. But they are excellent readers of the game. When Barca midfielders hound the opponents and slow them down, these guys with their expert reading of the game will pick out the loose balls.
    Another thing to note is that Barca’s pressuring is much better than our’s. It is tough for teams to get past the first wave of pressure of the Barca attack. We are not that good. That might be down to the fact that in the premier league, the counter attacks are much faster. The premier league players move the ball much more faster than the La liga players.

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