Premier League • England

Why Arsenal WILL beat Liverpool and Man City to the Premier League title: Key defensive improvements explained

Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal badge and the Premier League trophy

Mikel Arteta is aiming to lead Arsenal to the Premier League title

One of the most impressive aspects of Arsenal’s improvement this season compared to the last is how they’re able to prevent teams from playing.

The more recent Arsenal sides have played good attacking football but have been easy to get at. This weakness meant the later Arsene Wenger teams, the Unai Emery teams and the early Mikel Arteta teams would have ‘bogey’ teams at the bottom half of the table, or would come up against a deadly attack and concede three, four, five, six, and even eight goals.

That’s seemingly not the case anymore under Arteta. Having played under a defence-first manager in David Moyes in his time at Everton, he’s clearly taken aspects of his game to help create a more complete side. A side who have both physical and defensive prowess without sacrificing any technical brilliance. Here are some of the key aspects.

Centre-backs playing as full-backs

Arteta has put a lot of focus on winning duels, getting everyone back quickly behind the ball and keeping a stubborn defensive shape out of possession.

With former centre-backs Benjamin White, Jakub Kiwior, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Jurrien Timber all playing in full-back positions it adds to the defensive quality of the team. Now there are full-backs who can defend wide areas well in 1v1 scenarios when up against the toughest wingers in the league.

This season vs last season

Arsenal have conceded the least goals in the Premier League in 2023/24 so far this season with only 23. In second are Liverpool with 25, third is Manchester City with 27 and fourth is Everton with 37.

With 23 goals conceded in 27 games that’s an average of 0.85 goals per game, projected to concede 32 goals by the end of the season. Compare that to last season, Arsenal conceded the third least goals with 43 – tied with Manchester United. In joint first were Newcastle United and Manchester City with 33 – a big difference.

Several times in games last season Arsenal would concede two or more goals. In fact, in the title run-in they went on a run of conceding a lot of goals versus teams such as West Ham (two), Liverpool (two), Man City (four), Brighton (three), Bournemouth (two).

In addition to this there were a lot of games where they were comfortably ahead and would go on to concede at least one goal and not get a clean sheet. They ended the season with 14 clean sheets (joint second).

Whereas this season they’ve already got 11 clean sheets in 27 games, if they maintain this level then they’ll beat last season’s tally soon. The most significant statistic related to Arsenal’s defensive improvements is their shots on targets against.

This season they’ve only faced 61 shots on target, compared to Manchester City’s 78, Liverpool’s 94, Tottenham’s 113, Manchester United’s 135. Arsenal’s 61 is an average of only 2.26 shots on target against per 90 minutes.

On the other hand – last season Arsenal faced 136 shots on target against in 38 games, an average of 3.58.

This may seem like a small improvement but the repercussions over the course of a 38-game season are drastic. It stops teams from playing against you and allows you to pick up points much more easily.

All the best title-winning sides have a strong defensive foundation and Arsenal have clearly built that.

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Summer signings

A big aspect of their defensive solidity has been the additions of two duel monsters in the midfield back in the summer transfer window: Declan Rice and Kai Havertz.

Declan Rice

Rice has been performing at a ridiculously high level for West Ham and England for years now. An established Premier League starter for a team who would compete for European places every season and even captained the side.

There’s barely any talk about how much Arsenal paid in the summer for him due to the world-class performances he’s been putting in.

Rice started off at youth level as a centre-back and it shows in his defensive prowess. He has quality tackling ability. A natural springiness where he lunges in with one leg bent allowing him to jump up after he’s swept the ball out the opponent’s feet. His defensive dominance is a key part of Arsenal’s defensive spine.

Arsenal summer signings

Arsenal’s summer signings

Kai Havertz

Havertz’s best position has been widely discussed and disagreed with by everyone, but this is what normally happens with a Raumdeuter.

His role bridges the gap between midfield and attack but his off-the-ball work-rate and physicality has been a big part of Arsenal being able to match more physical teams whilst outplaying them technically.

Whether in midfield, or as a striker or anywhere in between, Havertz is a nuisance for defenders and constantly puts pressure on them.

David Raya

Another summer signing is David Raya. The Spaniard coming in brought a lot of controversy due to his addition jeopardising the position then starting keeper Aaron Ramsdale, but since Raya has come in he’s added another dimension to Arsenal’s goalkeeping position.

One of his best strengths is his ability to claim high crosses. Due to the fact he does so very often with so much confidence, he’s able to start more quick attacks by rapidly releasing the ball out to onrushing attackers such as Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka etc.

Doing so at this point in games enables Arsenal to exploit holes in the opponent’s defensive structure as they track back. Raya is also incredibly composed on the ball. Receiving the ball high up, playing as a situational centre-back whilst in possession all while being under pressure from pressing attackers. Yet so often he keeps calm and passes to safety. He has a good pass selection to escape danger.

Jurrien Timber

The final signing was Jurrien Timber. Sadly, Timber got injured on the first game of the season but when he’s back, he’ll be an important part of the team and add some serious on the ball quality to the defence. He’s back in training and hopefully will be back on the pitch soon.

The Brazilian colossus in defence

One of the biggest individual improvements has been in Gabriel Magalhaes. Gabriel signed from Lille in 2020 for €26m as one of Arteta’s first defensive signings.

The Brazilian added some real aggression to the backline but often was too aggressive and didn’t time his aggression well. He’d go to ground too often to slide tackle opponents. But the timing of these tackles was poor. Many times, he’d give away penalties or get sent off. But season after season he just keeps improving.

Now he’s able to channel his aggression in duels and be dominant without being reckless. Less pointless fouls given, reads the game to push up and intercept, better timing of tackles, loads of lateral power to travel sideways quickly and make big tackles.

He’s even become part of the leadership group at Arsenal as he’s been given the captain’s armband a few times when Odegaard has been taken off and rightly so.

Whenever a new player joins Arsenal, in all photos and videos of them settling in, Gabriel is there talking with them, helping them to settle in and like feel a part of the team. His leadership and mentality is huge in the big games too. He’ll often have his best games when he comes up against the toughest strikers to face.

Another area of Gabriel’s game is that he’s a threat from set-pieces and corners. Since Gabriel signed for Arsenal, no other defender has scored more goals than him. This season in the Premier League he already has four goals, last season he got three, the season before, five. A dominant aerial presence.

Ice-cold Willo

French centre-back William Saliba is one of the most composed defenders in the league.

His calm manner on the ball enables him to be uber press resistant and play out from the back. Despite such a tall frame he’s got shorter legs with good hip mobility to allow for a tighter turn radius, making him quicker to turn and carry the ball past players easier.

Saliba’s ice balances Gabriel fire. When Gabriel engages and pushes up to be the aggressor, Saliba drops to sweep. It’s a style of defensive partnership that we’ve seen thrive in the Premier League for years now.

William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes stats

William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes stats

Saliba reads the game so well and doesn’t rely on his physicality to win back possession but his defensive intelligence.

The most fascinating thing about this is that physically he has the ability to dominate people in duels, but instead keeps a cool head and reads the passes in behind and then turns past the pressing attacker to progress the ball into space.

His security on the ball is massively down to his passing and technical ability with both feet. He’s not completely ambipedal but his weak foot is very good.

He’s able to pass through the lines, ping passes over the top of defences or switches out wide with either his right or weaker left foot to great execution.

The spine of Gabriel, Saliba and Rice is a trio of athletic beasts of elite technical ability. A trio of colossus athletes that are the foundation for Arsenal to build upon and allow their attack to shine.

Unsung heroes

Players such as White, Kiwior and Tomiyasu are all also key parts of this team and have improved a lot on the ball.

They add a lot more in possession. In fact all three of them have been involved in goals at some point this season but from open play, not just set-pieces.

Making ghost movements up to the striker position or overlapping wingers to create cutbacks, there’s a real feel of a system where everyone has importance in the team and anyone in the team can win the game for Arsenal.

2024 form

For years there’s been a reputation around Arsenal by media that “they’ll fall off after Christmas”.

But this season it’s seemingly been quite the opposite. Since the New Year, Arsenal have been in deadly form. In 2024 they have the lowest shots faced in the league (47), the fewest shots on target faced (12), the fewest goals conceded (3) and the most clean sheets (3) all whilst scoring the most goals in the league (25).

They’re truly dominating all their games right now and even managed to score three against Liverpool, four against Newcastle and six in respective games against West Ham and Sheffield United recently.

Improved depth

The big question is if they can keep this up for the rest of the season. A big positive is they often score the majority of their goals in the first half and noticeably reduce the intensity in the second half to reserve energy.

Key players are subbed off to rotate them and squad players are given minutes to boost their fitness and fight for their place in the team.

There are loads of players who’ve spent most of the season injured such as: Fabio Vieira, Gabriel Jesus, Thomas Partey and Emile Smith-Rowe who are all back playing for the first team now.

In addition, players like Timber, Tomiyasu and Oleksandr Zinchenko are all approaching a return too.

They’ll suddenly be able to have more players available and have quality depth for these key games. Smart additions of players like Jorginho and Trossard are able to perform at a high level when required but are comfortable being part of the squad not starting every game.

This enables other regulars to get rested at times when there are a lot of fixtures. Resting of these players is the key to Arsenal maintaining a high intensity throughout the season.

Last season during the run in Arsenal lost Saliba, Partey, Tomiyasu, Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli all to injury, missing key games at the end of the season.

The starting XI they started the season with was never used towards the end of the campaign and the back-ups weren’t up to the required level.

Saliba would come out, Rob Holding would come in. Now, Tomiyasu, White, Kiwior or even Timber could fill in there. This season, Partey has been injured for most of the season but it hasn’t affected Arsenal anywhere near as much because they’ve had Rice and Jorginho available.

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