Why people who argue for a new defence at Arsenal are missing the point

By Tony Attwood

There has been some commentary recently about why Arsenal had their worst season in 20+ years in the League and FA Cup last season.   A few people argue it was down to an individual player or two, some cite the entire defence and some cite the management.

I personally find all such arguments rather simplistic, not least because they don’t take into account the fact that at the Emirates, even when faced with some disenchanted supporters with their banners, the club did rather well last season.   And if that is the case, that the club did particularly well at home, then the issue is why was there this home and away difference?

That is the problem to be solved.   And it is an important one, because if one takes the utterly simplistic view that the defence is rubbish, we would risk getting rid of a stunningly good home defence just because the away defence was poor.  Better surely to get that defence to play well in all games, home and away.

In the following league tables only matches played at home are counted.  Here is last season with a very good home record.

Pos Team P W D L F A GD Pts
1 Manchester City 19 16 2 1 61 14 47 50
2 Arsenal 19 15 2 2 54 20 34 47
3 Manchester United 19 15 2 2 38 9 29 47

To see just how good that home record was we can go back to the first of the Wenger league winning seasons where at once we can see something strange – that in terms of win, draw and lose at home, this season’s team was equal to the 1997 title winning team.  But in terms of goals scored this current team was way ahead.   The goal difference was roughly the same so we can say the attack made up for the slips in defence.

Pos Team P W D L F A GD Pts
1 Arsenal 19 15 2 2 43 10 33 47
2 Manchester United 19 13 4 2 42 9 33 43
3 West Ham United 19 13 4 2 40 18 22 43

2001, like this past season and the 1997 season saw us win 15 games at home but this time with only one defeat.  And the goal difference was again  very similar, with fewer goals scored.

Pos Team P W D L F A GD Pts
1 Arsenal 19 15 3 1 45 13 32 48
2 Manchester United 19 15 2 2 49 12 37 47
3 Liverpool 19 13 4 2 40 14 26 43

2004 – the unbeaten season – obviously had the best home record although it is interesting that it was still 15 games won.   So in each of these seasons – the season just gone and the three title winning seasons, we won 15.  But here again our goal scoring last season at home outshone even this amazing unbeaten team.

Pos Team P W D L F A GD Pts
1 Arsenal 19 15 4 0 40 14 26 49
2 Manchester United 19 12 4 3 37 15 22 40
3 Chelsea 19 12 4 3 34 13 21 40

So in many regards the home form of Arsenal last season was up there with the best.  Of course not as good as the unbeaten season, because nothing is as good as that, but still alongside the home form in the other two seasons.

Thus my question is, how could we have title winning form at home, and such poor form away?

The first argument that we can get rid of is one that might suggest that Mr Wenger’s teams only perform well at home.  If one takes 2011 for example we had the best away form in the league but were only 5th in the league if we just count home games.  But by and large home and away form runs together.  For some reason this last season it did not.

One could argue that somehow the club had put together a group of players who simply could not win away, but I really can’t see how that argument works, unless one brings in a psychological element.  That is to say, once the run started the players became more nervous and more tense playing away, and so were less and less able to play their normal game.

Now of course I know that many people distrust anything said by psychologists, often because they confuse psychology, which is a science, with psychiatry – especially Freudian psychiatry – which most certainly is not.

I can’t really do anything to overcome such prejudice other than to say the study of behaviour (which is what psychology is) is a profound scientific study which does help explain why people behave as they do.   Of course if we are talking of the whole defence we are talking about social psychology, with perhaps one or two players under performing and then the problem spreading.

But does it really work like this?  Do players become nervous after a run of results?

I believe they do, and let me give an example.  On 22 January 1977 Arsenal, then under Terry Neill, were 5th in the league, just six points off the top team with two games in hand.  Maybe not favourites to win the league, but still a solid position.  Even with just two points for a win, we were in a strong position.

But then, in the next ten league games Arsenal won nil, drew two and lost eight, including having their all time worst run in the league of seven successive defeats.

Look at the team sheets and there is no obvious explanation there. The key players were consistently present, Rice, O’Leary, Macdonald, Brady, Stapleton, and yet the club just kept on losing.

Then after that successive run of defeats, having drawn away to Stoke City Arsenal went on a ten game run in which they lost only once (to Liverpool, who won the league), winning six of those games.   Only one player of significance was added towards the end of the defeats, who then played on through the victories, and that was Willie Young.

How does one explain that if not by the team becoming increasingly worried about the run (for the defeats) and then once the victory had been achieved, starting to be more relaxed. Yes, Young helped, but he didn’t turn the team round on his own.

My point is that negative runs like this happen, and they can be very difficult to bring to an end.  Worry and tension builds up and players get more and more cautious, with the natural flair going.

Of course it is the job of the manager to rectify this, and in this regard Mr Wenger and his team failed this last season.  It was a bad failure, but one such failure in 20 or so years overall ain’t too bad.  Plus if (as some people seem to want to) we talk of the worst season in 20 years for the club, it is interesting to compare this season of 6th with all the other teams in the Premier League.   Our worst was quite a bit better than other teams’ worst – which simply tells us that all teams slump sometimes, but we have slumped less than others.

However the main point is that to interpret that finishing position of 6th as (by way of example) showing that we had a rubbish defence would be a serious mistake and lead to some good players being thrown out.  We had a bad run away from home in the league not a rubbish defence.

Quite why newspaper journalists and TV commentators can’t get this, I don’t know, but that just seems to be how it goes.  Hopefully our new manager and his advisers will realise that the away form of last season is what needs to be fixed, not the entire defence.

PS: I used to put a note at the end of articles pointing out that we have rules of commentary on this site set out in the page called “Comments”.   After a few years of this I thought that was a bit obvious and stopped mentioning it, but the page is still there, and I still think the rules are reasonable.  Sorry if you don’t, but there are plenty of other Arsenal sites that have different rules, and you can always express your opinion there.  One thing we never do however (and which is done elsewhere) is we don’t change any comment.  We either publish it as is, or we don’t.

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45 Replies to “Why people who argue for a new defence at Arsenal are missing the point”

  1. AW was really good to all of, and we should be thankful to him forever. It was time for him to leave, and he did that with his gentle smile.

    Time to support the new manager. I for one am happy the club didn’t go for a romantic decision in Arteta (seemed like ManU’s Moyes appointment). Emery seems a logical choice, specially as he is a Europa League specialist.

  2. if your home form is good there is something to work on -is the basis for success. Therefore should be easier to improve away from home. There does appear to be a vulnerability defensively -maybe due to the overall structure more so than individual defensive players -three at the back was tried but did not provide the answer lets hope the new manager will find the right change without affecting the basic ethos of the team

  3. Tony
    Thanks, I was one of those who thought simplistically, that it was our defence which was the problem
    Life aint as simple as it first seems is it ?
    As always thanks for great analysis, even though I am wrong !

  4. It’s all been officialed by the club, Emery new manager of Arsenal.
    Best of luck!
    You may need it to take on the press the pundits and the fickle fans. He does look like he has a bit of fight in him to take them on.

  5. Thank god ,it has been finally announced . Welcome Unai ,and good luck to you !

    Now that he has the reins , the rest of those smart alecs can take a break , and let him worry about the composition of team as well as tactics.

    And I do hope that he will totally ignore those other media idiots, especially our erstwhile ex-players . Or he could quote suitable old Basque sayings to those idiots !

  6. In my opinion, another factor that cause major slump is UNCERTAINTY .. at the beginning, it was AOC & Gabriel who moves away, then the contract saga of sanchez, Ozil, Wilshere & Ramsey. Then in January, Giroud, Sanchez & Coquelin move away.. plus the Wenger Out factor put extra pressure for the player to perform…The lad may not enjoy their game due to this factor. The business they’ve done in January is superb, but as a team, you need time to gel together, by the time they gel together it was already too late. Some may not think togetherness or team gel together is important, but if you recall back, The INVINCIBLE achieve that feat with only one new addition, that is Jens Lehmann..IMO, you can not judge a team that is in transition period due to many players in and out. But, since wenger not winning the league since 2005, it is hard for him fix the team anymore. Maybe next season the players will be more relax.

  7. It’s hard to imagine Emery being at Arsenal until the 2040 season, it seems unreal that could happen, but that’s exactly what Arsène achieved.
    Emery and Arsène seem to have a lot of previous mutual respect for each other too which makes Arsenal look the class act they are.

  8. Welcome Unai, you’ve got a load of work to do, so get cracking. You may need to talk to AW on how the PigMob gets about refereeing in the EPL to prepare a suitable antidote. Bon chance.

  9. It’s official,Unai Emery is our new manager. Welcome sir to the best club in the world.

  10. Just a little moderator note since this issue of what is and what is not published in comments has been a topic of late. One of the rules is that comments should relate in some way to the article. Many comments that wander off topic do get through, but when it comes down simply to sending a link to another web site without any comment beyond something like “you must see this”, generally speaking I don’t put these up unless they really are linked to the theme under discussion.

  11. The first thing this article highlights is the validity of the claim that defensively we weren’t good enough this past season. Comparing the supposed “title winning home form” with those of title winning seasons, we see that we clearly conceded the most this season (even double a particular season)
    Secondly, the explanation you give for the away results isn’t new. Every team facing relegation or poor form(ask Liverpool the season they almost won the league 2014) will tell you, the trick is to break the cycle of losses and hopefully things will stabilize. At the end of the day, the manager pays. I believe an experienced manager knows to never allow his team get into that rut in the first place as the longer it goes, the harder it is to get out of. I’m not blaming Arsene, but he knows how these things work, its not chance or psychology that gets blamed, its the manager as the buck stops at his desk. Its the same cycle of poor results that gets managers sacked everywhere, the same run if poor results that gets teams relegated everywhere, hell its the same run of poor results that derailed guardiolas man city last season, and got ancelotti or Ranieri sacked. Its the same issues psg had in europe while swatting everyone else aside in france. so let’s not bring one high falutting explanation when Wenger is involved, its the same psychological issues that happens everywhere when results are poor, the manager is usually expected to find a solution, when that doesn’t happen, he usually pays the price.
    However I agree partly with you when U say our defense wasn’t too bad, since im of the opinion that we defend well or badly as a team. I’d rather say our defending as a team was bad this season, after all we conceded 51 goals, that’s too much for a team aspiring to win the league.

  12. Interesting heading for this article Tony. It would appear that SM and his team are already looking to bolster, perhaps even replace certain aspects of our defence – non?

    Are they missing the point too? I doubt it. I think they are highlighting some chinks in our armour and being proactive. It’s either that, or poor coaching?

    Quite simply, I am just interested to see if UE can get a tune out of our defence. The way I see that happening is through better positioning and awareness for the whole team, not just the defence.

  13. Whist I fully agree that we don’t need a new defence, the goals against at home shows that there is definately an issue there. We have conceded some really silly goals at home (and more so away) which shows me that something does need to be done about the defence. The problem seems to me that there is a lack of composure at CB.
    Kozzer has been nursing an injury and knows he has let the team down on occasion, so when he plays he’s playing with a little more nerves than usual.
    Mustafi has had excellent games but he also has had terrible games.
    We can say that about every CB in the squad except Per this season, but he has been injured for most of it (I’m not sure Chambers had a bad game this season but he certainly has in previous seasons which some of the ‘fans’ won’t let him forget).
    So IMO the new manager will have to decide if we need a new ‘Calm’ CB or is it something he can drill out of the existing CBs.
    The other point is that Xhaka is not a DM. He has the odd game where he’s excellent but it’s not his natural game, which is a creative+ B2B. The problem is that since Coquelin moved from DM to a more B2B roll (and then leaving us) there’s been a vacancy in the position. However real DMF players are few and far between, as they tend to be more naturally defenders or MFs and converting either to DM loses qualities a successful team needs. So most of the converted DMs available aren’t actually an improvement on the options we already have, but the right player could make a major impact.
    Or maybe Xhaka can be coached to be a bit more consistent in his defensive role…
    As soon as I read or hear anyone saying our team needs a major rebuild I know 100% that the writer/speaker doesn’t have a clue what he’s writing/talking about, however there’s no doubt we do need a change or two.

  14. When the entire team defended as a team, our defence was excellent. When the front and midfield left the back four and keeper to do all the defending, our defence was patchy and last ditch. It’s as simple as that. Sadly the defenders themselves caught the whole flak, when it was never about them, but about the team working together as a whole.

  15. Tony

    I don’t know why you keep ignoring stats and facts when it comes to defending last season.

    Arsenal made more errors leading to goals than any other team in the league. 15 out of 51 goals were messed up by our players. Some of those goals were collective mess-ups (e.g. that goal v Swansea when Arsene was yelling at Monreal for letting the ball go out). 15 out of 51 means roughly every third goal was a gift to the opponents. Of those 15, 11 were messed up by Čech, Xhaka and Mustafi – our defensive spine. That’s equal to second-worst team in the league (Bournemouth). Just five goals more conceded and we’d have been as defensively bad as WBA and Swansea who both got relegated.

    As for our home record, we conceded 11 goals to Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man C combined. Those four games we didn’t win despite having a lead in two of those and absolutely battering Man U. We also conceded three to Leicester on the opening day.

    We were poor defensively – both collectively and individually – and that’s why Arsene couldn’t find the right back three/four.

  16. Josif, I think it is a little harsh to say I am ignoring stats and facts when the whole piece centred around the statistics of how we did at home and how we did away.

  17. I think he meant to say you selected stats to suit your narrative, we all do that in a debate, however, you can’t expect to win such a debate if you ignore the key stats. Just like when you tried to hold up mustafi as one of the best defenders in the league by using pass statistics, it wasn’t pong before someone pointed out that that isn’t a key stat in defending at least not when compared to things like tackles won, aerial duels won, interceptions, blocks

  18. The media are amazing, they know for definite we only have a £50 million pound transfer budget and have been repeating this for the last month, so they must know the inner workings of the boardroom.
    Yet until 2 days ago they didn’t even know who the manager was going to be.

  19. I have said this before, but I really do feel that the terrible away form since the beginning of the year has been due to the chopping and changing in the defence with a view to protecting certain vulnerable players for the cup games.

    It worked to a certain extent but did have the adverse effect of almost making the players frightened to play away from home in the league.

    I can only wish good luck to our new manager and his staff.

  20. @knobby Exactly.

    I love what Ivan Gazidis just said:

    “I’m really delighted and excited to announce the new head coach. I know that came as a bit of a surprise, perhaps there were one or two rewrites necessary. But those who know won’t speak and those who speak won’t know”. BOOM….!!!!

    Then he has another dig at the liars:

    “I’ll give you a little insight into the process. We formed a three-person committee of me, Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi. We had some clear criteria: aggressive, entertaining football; personality that fitted with Arsenal’s values; also a record of developing players through detailed tactical instruction and also cultural demand, pushing players.

    “We looked through and analysed on the basis that every coach in the world would be interested in this position. We don’t believe any position in world football is more attractive. We created an eight-person longlist. All of them were interested and took part in extensive, in-person interviews. None of them at any stage withdrew their interest. So we were in a fortunate position to make our first choice, and that’s what we did. Our first interviewee was conducted on 25th April, our last was conducted on 15th May and we interviewed Unai on 10th May. We made our unanimous recommendation to the board on 18th may, accompanied by a 100-page dossier. We then met with London members of our board on Monday this week. Unai and Raul and I flew to Atlanta and met Josh and Stan Kroenke and flew back on the red-eye last nigh”

    He’s just said what we all know. Arsenal are a class club who refuse to do business via the media. I suspect this is why the media hate us with such a passion.

    Well done Ivan.

  21. Unai himself had these words for Arsene Wenger:

    “For all coaches in the world you are a reference. I learned with him all the things in football.”

    Those who know football, know. Similar to what Gazidis said, I really like this man.

  22. Welcome Unai Emery.
    Hopefully, you’ll make Ems home and a fortress.
    And trophy-laden and fun.

  23. I’m glad to hear him state a point I’ve always agreed with. Arsenal FC is an attractive destination for any coach. I’ve never agreed with the unsubstantiated opinion that a manager would refuse arsenal because of fan discontent. For me any manager who can’t handle that is not good enough to manage us in the first place. A proper manager I believe will only turn down a team like arsenal if he’s not assured of being given the tools (salary inclusive) needed to achieve the objectives set. Welcome Emery, wishing you the best

  24. Academic work I’ve read shows that there is a slight “home advantage”. But regardless of whether one plays at home, away or at a neutral ground; the final result of a football match has a much larger random content than other sports. In other words, even if one team is of higher quality than the other, the result is not always that the better team wins.

    So, if we ignore the home advantage, our record at home and away is the same in quality, any difference in specifics (points acquired) is just due to random chance.

    In writing that, we also need to ignore any difference in officiating between home games and away games.

  25. @gold

    Yes, Arsenal is a huge club that will attract any top Manager. Unfortunately, the media have motivated the type of fans who love nothing more than abusing their own club. They don’t deserve to support this club imo.

  26. Gazidis really smashed it today but I’m more than impressed with Mr Emery. He’s obviously a brave man and he has already answered to one of my requests I had for Arsene’s heir. Not so long ago, I wrote that every manager of Arsenal should thank Arsene for his work (training center, new stadium, pretty decent team, youth prospects etc) as none of them will have to go through the same growing pains Arsene had to go through between 2006 and 2013.

    Funny thing: not a while ago, we had a short-list of 16 candidates for a new manager. Mr Emery wasn’t nowhere near it. He wasn’t on the list of candidates (13, I think) I had analysed here two years ago or so.

    Kudos to Ivan Gazidis.

  27. The only reason for the poor away form is that the players and staff got sick and tired of catching the train to matches, they want to fly in a private jet.

    My thought on the poor away form:
    First period – start of season to end of December, played 10 away matches – W3-D3-L4, Arsenal were unlucky in some away match Stoke with offside call, Watford with questionable ref decisions.

    Second period – January to end of season, played 9 away matches, W1-D1-L7. Factors for bad form include last longer in cup competitions therefore played more games > more travelling > more team rotation > lead to lack of cohesion, also most of the senior players left during January, and structural changes at the club was underway.

  28. I am stunned. The WOB’s now appear to be EOBs.

    Head WOB at LeGrove is not happy. Incredibly he has attacked Gazidis and accused him of a ‘PR cover up’ over the ‘panic’ appointment and for stitching up Arteta. I kid you not. I now expect this to become a media narrative, despite Gazidis clearly detailing the process.

    My real concern is what will happen if we get a few bad results?

    I was naive, a part of me thought that once they got their way and Arsene Wenger left they would get behind the club. I was wrong. Someone needs to explain this to me because I do not get it.

  29. Josif

    “Gazidis really smashed it today but I’m more than impressed with Mr Emery”

    Totally agree.

  30. AFC Nemesis,
    ‘…I do not get it..’ Sorry you don’t, but my take is that this all about the clicks and ad revenue from kicking up a storm over everything a majority seems to agree with. That way you can go all the way smiling to the bank knowing that your aims are being met because people are populating your website in spite of its otherwise despicable write ups.

  31. So the ridiculous view put forward by the likes of Neville and Wright that the manager selection process was a shambles has been shown to be utter nonsense and completely without foundation. Yet again they have shown thenselves to be completely clueless as to the true facts and yet they are still in a job, misleading people on a daily basis. Sack the pair of them.
    According to what we now hear from Arsenal it seems the search for a new manager was undertaken with meticulous planning and attention to detail.

  32. I agree with you, Tony. The only reasonable explanation for the bad away run is confidence. Arsene Wenger pointed up the importance of it many times.

    I must be honest, reading about our new manager I still feel sad, and disloyal to Arsene Wenger.

    Arsenal has always presented appointments that surprised the press. They are one of the most successful clubs in keeping things private, for which I am grateful. I have no doubt the decision on who to appoint was taken after a great deal of thought and while it may be a surprise to us, was no surprise to the Knronkes and Gazidis.

  33. I am not overly concerned that Unai Emery will face difficulties in improving our defensive tactics. He is a skilled and perceptive professional and will use our youth setup, our current squad and our lacunae and bring in 2-3 new faces to shore up our defence…he is already making plans to do so. He is a perfectionist and a student of the game. He improved Sevilla enormously with much less than AFC has, raised PSG to Olympian heights and also saw what bad officiating can do to destroy a club that threatens the status quo, has a winning record in every team he’s coached (Total GP 719 won385 drew155 lost179 %wins53.585) and is known for his ability to raise up a club’s performance despite any obstacles in his way. When compared to Wenger, he is clearly in the same class: Emery is 46, Arsene was 46 when he came to AFC, Wenger’s stats as manager over his career – (GP 1,702 won919 drew367 lost416 %wins 54.0)…almost identical to Unai’s, they are similar in tactical approach, Arsene’s name resembled Arsenal, Emery’s name resembles Emirates! Emery has had greater success in Europe than Wenger and equal success in winning the league triples so we are getting a winner in this man.
    He won’t be harassed by the English media because his English is mediocre at best…so he can claim not to have understood the questions! He intends to im,prove it significantly and it should be interesting to see whether he can even understand the cockney accent in the dressing room. He seems serious, studied, passionate and intense but also, like many Catalans, persevering, proud, calm under adversity and elegant…..remind you of anyone?
    I get very good vibes from this man and hope the players do as well.

  34. IMO very nice analysis, thanx for clearing that up.
    Don t pay attention to the professional haters, they need the negativity for their clicks. Let us be real supporters and support. I m excited about the new coach. We will have another thrilling rollercoaster ride of a season with lots of exciting football. Lets go Emery! COYG!

  35. @ AFC Nemesis -23/05/2018 at 2:41 pm – Nice to see that the club settled on the new manager in a calm ,firm and decisive manner , after weighing all the options. Well done the board. And as most of us have come to expect and accept.

    My only questions is , ” Why didn’t those idiots of the press stake out the airports ?”Why was UE not sighted in Paris , London or in Atlanta ?

    Or were the press too busy at the pub ,discussing the relative merits and short comings of Arteta ? And how could they have got it all wrong ? Were there too many red herrings thrown at their faces ?

    And who could have done this ?

  36. @AFC Nemesis. That isn’t accurate, there are no EOBs. The overwhelming majority of those who wanted Wenger out are extremely happy with the Emery appointment (look around at all Arsenal related channels and you’ll see this), and why wouldn’t they be? He checks many of the boxes that gooners who wanted Wenger out wanted in a new manager.

    If you look at that Le-grove article’s comments you’ll see that the site’s author is getting hammered by the vast majority of the posters who are overwhelmingly in support of the Emery appointment. He (one person, one opinion) simply was all in on Arteta and is disappointed that it didn’t happen, and his article reflects HIS opinion.

    Emery is a choice that can and has united the fan base, no reason to invent a division over it that simply doesn’t exist.

  37. omgarsenal

    Good run down on Unai Emery, except I believe he is from the Basque region of Spain, not the Catlan region.

  38. Not to mention that despite his obvious preference for Arteta and disappointment that he wasn’t picked, in the article (i believe you are referencing) , Le-grove clearly states he expects Emery to improve things at Arsenal.

    Not only that but he follows it up with an entirely new and positive post that acknowledges he accepts the pick and won’t moan about Arteta anymore (no doubt in response to the hundreds of backlash responses he got), and goes on to detail all the potential positive things and even his excitement about Emery coming in.

    So there’s nothing for you to be stunned about. The WOBs as you term them are elated with Emery as a choice, as is the entire fan base.

  39. One last point..the Same line from gazidis you like about in the knows not knowing, so did le-grove.

    Let’s bury the divisions and not make up imaginary ones.

  40. This article is bang on. The failings away from home were team-wide.

    I’ll need to check back carefully, but I’m confident that on only 2 occasions in our 19 away fixtures last season did we actually score more than 1 goal- against Everton and against Crystal Palace.

    Such a low scoring rate simply won’t get the job done, however good (or bad) your dfeence might be.

  41. “Bobome – kicking up a storm over everything a majority seems to agree with.”
    They weren’t the majority, just the loud minority, as show by the pathetically small but vocal demonstrations.

  42. My biggest concern was the individual errors which directly contributed to giving away goals, inconsistent defensive performances and lack of leadership at the back. I painfully remember the defensive mistake by koscielny which gifted Athletico Madrid the away goal which proved costly in the semifinal tie.
    I am however optimistic that the new manager is able to address these issues and will demand not less than 100% from the current squad and also from any additions that the club will/may add.

  43. Danford “no reason to invent a division” – So is there or is there not an article dedicated to criticizing the Arsenal board, the selection process and the new manager on one of the biggest Arsenal “fan” blogs on the internet, then?

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