Goals win games but defences win titles.
The old adage is a tired one but nobody can say it isn’t true. Even for Pep Gurdiola’s swashbuckling Manchester City side, who netted more than 100 goals on their way to Premier League title glory last season.
Alongside their success at the top end of the pitch, City still had the best defence in the league, with just 27 goals conceded, better even than Jose Mourinho’s bus parkers (28).
Arsenal, meanwhile, shipped 51 goals in that campaign – a fact that probably ended up costing Arsene Wenger his job as the board went in search of a new manager to take the team into the new era.
So how are we faring so far?
After 17 matches played in the Premier League season to date, we have conceded 23 league goals, seven more than any other side in the top five and more than Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle (22)
At this stage in 2017/18, with 17 Premier League matches played, we had conceded 20 goals. At the same stage in 2016/17, we had conceded 19 goals.
In 2017/18, we had conceded just one goal by the end of the quarter final stage of the Carabao Cup. This season, we had conceded four by the end of the quarter final.
The point is clear – Arsenal simply aren’t good enough defensively to force their way back into the top four. Until they tighten things up at the back, they will continue to fall short in their bid to return to Europe’s top table.
For all the improvements Unai Emery has delivered this season, and there have been many, he has failed to get a firm grip on the defence. In fact, he is even faring slightly worse than Arsene Wenger, who was long accused of neglecting his defence in favour of simply out-scoring the opposition.
The question is: how has this happened?
Many were firmly of the belief, myself included, that much of Arsenal’s defensive fragility in the Wenger years was down to poor tactical choices more than it was down to the quality of personnel.
It is still early days, of course, but, at the moment, you would have to question whether that was indeed the case.
If we rule the contribution of the manager out, that leaves us with little choice but to lay the blame with the players. Are they good enough to do what the manager wants of them?
The great irony is, Shkodran Mustafi, Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin have all looked much improved this season, compared to the calamity-strewn final season under Wenger. Appearances, it would seem, can be deceiving.
Let us not forget that Emery has been faced with much greater injury pressure on his side than Wenger was at this stage last season. On a number of occasions already, Emery has been forced to employ Granit Xhaka in his back line, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielney, and Sokratis have all been pressed into action in different positions across the back. Add to that the untimely injury to our best defender this season, Holding, and you have something approaching mitigation.
But those excuses can only take you so far. The truth is, clean sheets have been in desperately short supply for the Gunners, with just three collected in league football so far this term. Last year, we had nine to our name by this stage and, the season before that, we had four.
The Spaniard will be acutely aware of these issues but, try as he might, nothing has yet worked for him. Whether things will improve when he can get a settled back line and midfield playing together is a different matter but, until then, gaps must be plugged. As our last few outings have shown (defeats to Southampton and Tottenham), we can’t keep relying on our attack to get us out of jail because, when they have an ‘off day’ we have no insurance policy behind to take the pressure off.
What seems certain is that, come next summer, Emery will be looking to dip into the market to add some defensive reinforcement but can he afford to wait that long if the board truly wants him to push for the upper reaches of the league?
Change was always going to be gradual as we moved from the end of an era into a new dawn but regression was certainly not on the menu. With a hectic festive schedule ahead of us, there are going to be plenty of minutes to be played and plenty of points at stake too.
If we are to start the new year in good shape in the league, we must find a way of addressing our biggest, most persistent flaw, before we are swallowed up into mid-table with no chance of recovery.
After three months of smooth sailing, our last seven days have seen us move firmly back into choppy waters. Here’s hoping we can stay afloat.