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How Arsenal's defence has been the catalyst for title challenge

By Alex Keble 1 Mar 2024
Arteta, Rice

Alex Keble says Gunners have Europe's best defence and it could make them go one better in pursuit of glory

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Alex Keble analyses Arsenal's blistering start to 2024 and how their defending has provided the platform for their free-scoring style.

Defending is the story of Arsenal's season so far

A goalscoring blitz has been the headline news at Arsenal this calendar year - and understandably so.

Attack is a lot more exciting than defence; scoring 25 goals in six Premier League matches grabs the attention more than conceding only three goals in the same timeframe.

But Arsenal’s defensive record is the real story of their campaign and it’s the characteristic that Mikel Arteta’s team will be remembered for should 2023/24 end with a first title in 20 years.

Arteta’s defining trait as a manager, it turns out, is organising a near-immaculate out-of-possession structure characterised by an aggressive and suffocating press.

Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season, with 23. They have the lowest Expected Goals Against (xGA) of 18.52 and have an xGA total in 2024 of 1.90. This is more than three-and-a-half times lower than the next best team, Manchester City.

Top three defensive comparison
Team Goals conceded Overall xGA xGA in 2024*
Arsenal 23 18.5 1.9
Man City 26 24.9 6.8
Liverpool 25 32.2 10

*Arsenal have played six matches to the others' seven

Arteta’s defensive coaching explained

Like Pep Guardiola, the foundation of Arteta’s coaching is defence.

That might sound counterintuitive, but the microscopic detail of the positional play and high possession that characterise the two coaches are as much about stamping out the counter-attacking threat as they are about creating chances.

For Arteta, the general idea is to press high and hard, albeit in targeted moments. Unlike the constant pressing you see from Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal have certain triggers that make them snap into action, often moving to a man-to-man pressing system to squeeze, suffocate, and win the ball back.

Arsenal rank second in the Premier League for possessions won in the final third, with 173; second for shot-ending high turnovers, with 52; fourth for total number of pressed sequences, with 380; while they rank third for Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), which measures pressing intensity, with 9.9.

Arsenal defensive stats 2023/24
Statistic Total PL rank
Poss. won final third 173 2nd
Shot-ending high turnovers 52 2nd
Pressed sequences 380 4th
PPDA 9.9 3rd
Ave. press duration (secs) 7.12 2nd
Ave. pressures per press 2.99 =1st

Arsenal have the most clean sheets, with 10, and have faced the fewest shots on target, with 137. This is not because of excellent defending in their own third (although that helps, as we’ll show below), but rather because they refuse to let teams even get close to the box, especially in the first halves of matches when waves of Arsenal pressure have started to give them unassailable leads.

To illustrate that point, Arsenal allow only 93 touches per 90 minutes in their defensive third, the second-fewest in the division, and 14.5 touches per 90 minutes in their penalty area, fewer than any other team.

Arsenal v opponents 2023/24
Statistic Total PL rank
Shots on target faced 137 1st
Clean sheets 10 1st
Opp. touches in final third 2,419 2nd
Opp. touches in penalty area 377 1st

The idea is to keep their opponents pinned back, snuffing out counter-attacks at source and forcing opponents into longer (and therefore less accurate) balls forward. Arsenal rank the second-lowest for the percentage of opposition long passes that are completed (45.5 per cent).

Newcastle win shows the best of Arteta

There is no better illustration of Arsenal’s pressing and defensive resilience than their most recent match, a 4-1 victory over Newcastle United in which Eddie Howe’s side could barely breathe.

Alternating between sitting in a ready-to-pounce 4-4-2 and man-to-man pressing, Arsenal never stopped hounding the visitors, with Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard snapping into presses and their team-mates bravely following in behind.

In a classic example shown below, Arsenal swarm Newcastle until the ball is accidentally passed straight to Rice.

Arsenal pressures v Newcastle

This was particularly prevalent in the first half, when Newcastle managed only one touch in the box (which would have been offside) and failed to have a single shot on goal, something that hasn’t happened to them since a match against Southampton in March 2014.

Also in the first half, Arsenal’s 11 regains in the final third were the joint-most in the opening 45 minutes in any Premier League match on record, while Newcastle’s 29 failed passes in their own half were the most of any team in any 45-minute period this season.

Rice, Saliba, and how Arsenal have improved

Arsenal have measurably improved this season compared with last. Their xGA per 90 minutes has dropped from 1.1 to 0.7; their shots faced per 90 minutes are down from 9.0 to 8.4; and their goals against per 90 minutes have also declined, from 1.1 to 0.9.

Looking at the advanced metrics, we see that Arsenal’s pressing has become more intense and more effective. Their shot-ending high turnovers have risen from 1.6 to 2.0 per 90, while their PPDA has dropped from 11.0 to 9.9, their win percentage when tackling dribblers is up from 48.9 per cent to 53.2 per cent, and the percentage of aerial duels won is up from 46.5 per cent to 50.2 per cent.

Arsenal season-by-season comparison
Statistic 2022/23 2023/24
xGA/90 1.1 0.7
Shots faced/90 9.0 8.4
Goals conceded/90 1.1 0.9
Shot-ending high turnovers/90 1.6 2.0
PPDA 11.0 9.9
Tackles won v dribblers 48.9% 53.2%
Aerial duels won 46.5% 50.2%

Beyond Arteta’s team simply maturing with time, there are two main reasons for the upswing in Arsenal’s defensive record.

First is the presence of Rice, whose leadership and intelligence in commanding central midfield – both in and out of possession – cannot be overstated. He is often the first person engaging in the press, his world-class anticipation acting as the trigger for his team-mates.

Rice tops the Arsenal charts for tackles attempted, tackles completed, and interceptions, and is second only to William Saliba for recoveries.

Declan Rice's 2023/24 stats
Statistic Total Arsenal rank
Tackles attempted 52 1st
Tackles completed 32 1st
Interceptions 35 1st
Recoveries 128 2nd

Saliba is the second reason for Arsenal’s dominance. He has played every single minute in the Premier League this season after missing 12 matches in 2022/23, and that consistency alongside Gabriel Magalhaes has given Arsenal a rock-solid foundation.

These two regularly dominate the opposition forwards, both as the last line when Arsenal press high and inside the penalty area.

That was no less true last season. The only difference is that Saliba is playing more often.

In 2022/23 Arsenal won 1.75 points per game (ppg) from the 12 matches without Saliba, and 2.42ppg in the 26 matches with him. This season, Arsenal are averaging 2.23ppg.

Arsenal's points per game with/without Saliba
  2022/23 2023/24
With Saliba 2.42 2.23
Without Saliba 1.75 -

With their first-choice centre-backs available and Rice patrolling in front, Arsenal are formidable even when forced to defend a little deeper, as all teams must in any given contest.

Coupled with a brilliant pressing system, it has created one of the best defences the Premier League has seen - and arguably the best in Europe right now.

“I don’t really like the word ‘control’,” said Arteta recently. "I like ‘dominance’ and not allowing teams to breathe, more than ‘control’."

Sheffield United, up next, certainly won’t breathe easily. 

Twenty of the 31 previous Premier League champions have had the best defensive record, as have five of the last six.

If Arsenal keep this up, they stand an excellent chance of winning this season's title.

Title race

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Man City MCI 32 +44 73
2 Arsenal ARS 32 +49 71
3 Liverpool LIV 32 +41 71
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