How Arteta's Arsenal have become defensively solid
"I take pride in the fact that people go home having felt that for 90 minutes today, life is beautiful." - Arsene Wenger.
For over two decades, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal team played some of the most entertaining, fluid football that the English top flight has ever seen, winning three league titles and seven FA Cups along the way.
However, in the second half of his tenure as Arsenal boss, this beautiful football came at a cost, in the shape of defensive solidity. The Gunners were often maligned for being too soft at the back as comical defending quickly became synonymous with Arsenal.
This only got worse during Unai Emery's short stint in the hot-seat. His Arsenal team shipped a whopping 51 Premier League goals in his only full season in North London, the 9th best defensive record in the English top-flight. It was this, coupled with the lack of cohesive attacking football, that ultimately saw the Spaniard replaced with fellow countryman Mikel Arteta just over 12 months ago.
Since his arrival at the Emirates, Arteta's side have taken huge strides towards shoring up their frequently leaky backline. Only Manchester City have conceded fewer league goals than Arsenal so far this campaign, a far cry from a team that has seen players like Shkodran Mustafi and Mikael Silvestre in the heart of their defence in recent years.
Saturday's scoreless draw against Manchester United was the fifth time that Arsenal have shut out their opponents in their last seven league games, picking up an impressive 17 points from a possible 21 along the way.
In these seven games, Arteta has finally found an apt balance between defence and attack, switching from his previously favoured 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1 system that centres around Hale End wonderkids in Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe.
The Gunners have utilised two different left-centre backs during their impressive run. Pablo Marí impressed in wins against Chelsea, Brighton and West Brom but picked up a calf injury in training that has since seen him replaced with David Luiz for the games against Crystal Palace, Newcastle, Southampton and Manchester United.
Marí's brief Arsenal career has been plagued with injuries but when the Spaniard has played he has brought a level of calmness and maturity to the defence with his methodical reading of the game, reminiscent of former-Gunner Per Mertesacker.
Described as a leader and a great communicator by Arteta, Marí has all the qualities that his boss is looking for in a centre half. Many of the Arsenal faithful were worried the absence of summer signing Gabriel Magalhães, who tested positive for COVID-19, would spell trouble for a struggling side but Mari quickly dispelled any doubters he had with some fine displays at the back. The 27-year-old showcased his defensive prowess, boasting an impressive 77% win rate in aerial duels as well as averaging 2.33 tackles and interceptions per game.
His subsequent injury seemed a huge blow to an already depleted backline. However, the much-malligned David Luiz has also stepped up when called upon. Conceding just once in four games since coming back into the team, Luiz has illustrated that he can still be relied upon.
The Brazilian's gritty performance in Saturday's stalemate against United deservedly earned him Sky Sport's Man of the Match award, a reward he was granted in the corresponding fixture last term.
While the left-side of the Gunners' backline has been chopping and changing, the right centre-back has had a mainstay in the form of Rob Holding.
Holding has had plenty of critics since his move from Bolton in the summer of 2016. The Englishman had struggled for a consistent run of games due to a plethora of injuries, including an ACL tear in 2018 that kept him sidelined for over a year.
Upon returning to the side in early 2020, Holding continued to struggle, looking off the pace when he was given a chance by Arteta. This culminated in talks of a move away from North London with a loan move to Newcastle seemingly on the cards last summer. The move eventually fell through but there was a sense that Holding wasn't in the manager's long-term plans, which has since proven not to be the case.
The 25-year-old has featured in all but three of the Gunners' 21 league games this season, only Bernd Leno has managed more. Holding's influence on the team has grown as the weeks have gone by. He appears more composed when attackers are running at him, taking time to assess his options instead of zealously challenging for the ball as he would have in the past.
His up-turn in form hasn't gone unnoticed either, earning a bumper new contract to keep him at the Emirates until 2024. The Manchester-born defender managed a staggering 10 clearances and six ball recoveries on Saturday which has seen many Arsenal fans call for Gareth Southgate to hand him his first England cap ahead of this summer's European Championship.
It is not just Arsenal's central defenders that have improved their defensive record. Tactical work from Mikel Arteta has been successfully deployed by other outfield players too, particularly in the form of pressing.
The San-Sebastian born coach has set Arsenal up in a 5-3-2 or 4-4-2 when pressing with Granit Xhaka dropping to form a back five out of possession in the former system.
Thomas Partey is often tasked with blocking passing lanes when Arsenal don't have the ball while Lacazette and Smith-Rowe frantically press opposition defenders, forcing them to make a mistake under pressure.
This perfectly sums up Arsenal's new strategy in defence and one many of the top teams utilise in modern football. The best form of defending is not defending deep but, in fact, pressing high.
For the equalising goal against Southampton, Arteta's front five again pressured the Saints defence into a mistake. Xhaka sat deeper, screening in front of the defence to offer extra protection. He then slid through Pepe who made it 1-1.
The energy provided from Smith-Rowe and Saka appears to be infectious, with record-signing Nicolas Pepe proving he too can put in a shift for the team. In fact, the Ivorian international put on a solid defensive display at the weekend, winning seven duels and managing three tackles and interceptions, all the while creating three chances for his team-mates.
Similar to their central defenders the Gunners' press is not yet the finished article, much is to be improved upon during the remainder of the season as they need to prove themselves on a consistent basis if they want to be regarded as one of the best defensive sides in the land. What is clear to see, however, is that with just 20 league goals conceded all season, they are on the right path.
- Aaron Catterson-Reid (@ReidTheGame)