Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Arsenal's defence, rather than rival teams, is the biggest obstacle to top-four ambitions

Unai Emery's team are capable of scoring goals against any team in the Premier League, but keeping them out at the other end continues to be a problem

There were 26 shots in all. Under other circumstances, that would have been the most extraordinary element of an eventful North London derby.

In the end, perhaps it felt a statistical curiosity. But, two weeks after Manchester City had 30 attempts at Tottenham Hotspur’s goal, Arsenal had 26. Previous Champions League finalists were rarely subjected to such a bombardment.

But Arsenal’s reward was the same as City’s, just as the scoreline was: a point apiece for a 2-2 draw. Honours even in North London, but also in another season-long battle. Arsenal’s essential conflict for a top-four finish is not with Tottenham, nor Manchester United or Chelsea, but themselves.

It is a question if their potent, relentless attack can score more goals than their porous, erratic defence concede on such occasions.

The early evidence is not encouraging. Arsenal’s games against Tottenham and Liverpool tend to be the most consistently entertaining of the big-six showdowns.

The last two weekends have provided plenty of drama, some of it at Arsenal’s expense. If conceding a combined five goals is not bad enough, the manner of them is still more damning.

Since the start of last season, only Brighton & Hove Albion have given away more penalties than Arsenal. It is evident why. After David Luiz’s needless tug on Mohamed Salah came Granit Xhaka’s stupid – and there is no more polite way of describing it – lunge at Heung-Min Son.

No player has gifted opponents more Premier League penalties in the last three seasons than Xhaka. If the figures suggest he never learns, so did Luiz’s eye-catchingly chastening awful 10 minutes at Anfield.

Then there is Sokratis Papastathopoulos, by far and away the worst defender featuring regularly for a top-six side. The Greek has a tinpot dictator’s belief that he alone can fix things, despite plenty of proof his interventions can make them worse.

He has more conviction than judgement, and Christian Eriksen’s opener was in part his fault. He shares Luiz’s worst characteristics, but not his best ones.

Between them, there is a triangle of recklessness where former Arsenal teams have had triumvirates of reliability. Given the excellence of their attack, perhaps all Arsenal require is an axis of solidity at the heart of the team.

Instead, their centre-back partnership and senior midfielder all suffer from rushes of blood to the head. The supposed policeman charged with protecting the positions Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe can create have occasional tendencies to transform into the Keystone Cops.

In part, it highlights Arsenal’s crisis of captaincy. Experienced players at the heart of the team, ones who ought to be leaders, display flaws in their decision making.

They can set the wrong sort of example, whereas the 20-year-old Matteo Guendouzi brought the right kind of drive in Sunday’s fightback from 2-0 down. Arsenal’s soft underbelly leaves them looking reliant on scorers and youngsters.

Certainly Rob Holding’s reputation, which rightly rose last season, has been elevated again during his long lay-off, though it should not fall to the junior centre-back to bring calmness.

In Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin, there are superior full-backs who should be fit soon, but the strength of defences tends to come from the middle.

Meanwhile, Luiz has a tendency to alter perceptions. He had a wretched game at the Emirates a few weeks into his second spell and emerged as a talisman when Antonio Conte reconfigured his side with a back three. He can be a catalyst for both better and worse.

A comeback and a fantastic forward line turned a probable derby defeat into an uplifting affair. Yet the underlying problems bode badly.

“The defenders have to take responsibility,” Luiz said on Sunday. They are fine words, but actions will speak louder.

Updated: September 3, 2019 04:16 AM

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