Defending from the front – How Arsenal has improved their defense
After a horrendous starting 30 minutes against West Ham United, Arsenal managed to hold their opponents at bay. Not only that, but the Gunners managed to out shoot and turn over possession in the remaining 60 minutes. It’s a testament to how Arteta wants his team to play, and how he’s keeping opponents from tearing down his defense.
A Case Study
Looking at the stats, it’s clear to see that something happened around the 30-35 minute mark. West ham was outshooting Arsenal, while keeping them well into their own half. 8 Shots for West Ham against Arsenal’s measly 1 shot, in which a whopping 7 of them were from the penalty area. West Ham did this, while having 44% of possession, pushing Arsenal towards their own box. It’s no wonder the Gunners were credited with 4 interceptions and 9 clearances during those opening 35 minutes.
So what changed? Well, Arsenal started to pass the ball around (That simple? – That simple). West Ham managed almost the same amount of passes in the opening 35 minutes that they did in the remaining 55 minutes (165 to 184 passes). Arsenal also had far less clearances, opting to find a midfielder to carry the ball into the midfield third. By not hoofing it up field, Arsenal managed to go from 9 clearances during the first 35 minutes, to having 12 clearances in the remaining 55 minutes, while West Ham went the direct opposite way, clearing the ball 4 times in the opening half hour to hoofing it long a whopping 17 times in the last hour.
Another thing changed as well. As the ball started to roll for Arsenal, they also had a lot more luck taking on defenders. West Ham have one of the best midfield pairings out there, two powerhouses that are strong in the air, but also disciplined enough to kill counter attacks dead in their tracks. During the first 35 minutes, Soucek had the most aerial duels, winning 100% of them along Craig Dawson. But as the ball entered the midfield third into the legs of Ødegaard, Xhaka and Partey, both aerial powerhouses became less effective, having to defend against the quick feet of, mainly, Ødegaard, who was having a field day.
During the first 35 minutes, West Ham’s Saïd Benrahma and Jesse Lingard attempted the most dribbles, having much success moving through the midfield areas. But from there on out, it was all Arsenal, with Ødegaard making the aforementioned power couple of Rice and, especially, Soucek, look slow and lanky. Ødegaard attempted 3 dribbles and succeeding in all 3, Soucek saw himself ghosted twice (Rice once), topping players dribbled past, bumping Partey down in the process.
As Arsenal laid on the pressure, the game was beginning to be played in the areas that Arsenal enjoy playing in.
I’m going to grant the fact that West Ham, being 3-0 up, would have eased the high pressure on Arsenal, being content with sitting in their own area and defending with a low block. But, as the game progressed, and going into the final 30 minutes being only 1 goal up, Arsenal still managed to create a lot of quality chances. 6 out of the 13 key passes Arsenal had from the 35th minute onward, came after scoring their second goal (Even though evil tongues would suggest West Ham had actually scored 5, with 2 being in the wrong net). So even when going to a low block and trying to suffocate Arsenal’s chances, the gunners still manage to create, also hitting 3 on target from the 61st minute and onwards.
So what has any of this to do with how Arsenal defend?
As Arsenal played deeper and deeper into the final third, they began pressing from the top. Tierney, Saka and Laca were all topping the table of pressure in the attacking third, while Chambers, Ødegaard and Aubameyang topping the tables in pressure in the midfield third, and even after a wonky 35 minutes, Arsenal manage to apply pressure 129 times, with 38 coming from the attacking third. In comparison, West ham applied pressure 119 times, but only managed 20 pressures in the attacking third, as they were forced to seek deeper and deeper to stop Arsenal’s offensive moves.
My old coach used to say “The deeper you have to sit, the further away the goal is” and there’s some truth in that. Arsenal’s attacking 6-2-2 formation forces a lot of defenders to return into their own area – and with the desire to press when possession is lost, it forces opponents to hoof it long or get it out of the area, where the likes of Luiz and Xhaka are positioned to scoop up the header or second ball and recycle it high.
This isn’t a one time thing either – the same type of defensive reaction can be found in the 2-1 Spurs game:
In both cases, Arsenal forces quick turnovers based on two essentials.
- Press from the front, creating a need to move the ball quickly out of the area
- Position defensive players in common passing lanes, ready to either snatch the ball or slow down play enough to allow the high pressers to get into defensive formation.
It requires discipline and collective understanding to press in this kind of manor, as there’s a risk of selling your team by either not pressing from the front, dropping to far back from attackers, or vacating your area to chase down a man. Given how terrible Arsenal has looked in transitions earlier, it’s a promising sign of improvement that we’re confident in defending against counter attacks in this fashion.
Now there’s still things to work on. We have seen us getting bypassed by clever playmakers such as Grealish or Maddison on several occasions, just as we’ve been forced backwards by quick and technical forwards such as Watkins and Traore. There’s a need for an athletic upgrade in our defense and midfield – but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the defensive work Arteta has implemented so far.