Arsenal defence makes balance hard to come by
They’ve made 13 errors leading to goals in the Premier League since start of last season
Arsenal’s defence was exposed again against Tottenham last weekend. Photograph: Getty Images
It is not the sort of admission with which a member of the goalkeepers’ union ought to be comfortable. In the throes of a discussion about Arsenal’s identity, Bernd Leno was asked whether his team were the sort who backed themselves to outscore all comers. “Yes, I think so,” Leno said.
The comment was intended as praise for the forwards and, from the evidence of Sunday’s 2-2 home draw with Tottenham, Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the new signing Nicolas Pépé, who started together for the first time, they look primed to wreak havoc.
But implicit in the question was a point about Arsenal’s openness at the back, their susceptibility to errors and the sense that good teams such as Spurs and Liverpool the previous weekend will be able to create plenty of openings against them. Leno cannot ignore it. Nobody can.
There was a moment early in the Spurs game, with Arsenal 1-0 down, when Son Heung-min was played clear up the inside-left channel and David Luiz was the nearest defender. Everybody expected him to engage Son but with David Luiz it is sometimes best to expect the unexpected.
He turned and hared back towards the middle, leaving his central defensive partner, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, to come across to look after Son and the Arsenal support, almost as one, to ask: “What’s he doing?” There was a collective roar of alarm. Son cut inside Papastathopoulos and bent a shot for the far, top corner that was brilliantly saved by Leno. Arsenal got away with it.
They had not got away with the sequence of mistakes made for the opening goal, which started with Papastathopoulos’s decision to step up to contest a header with Harry Kane. He lost out, leaving a gap that was compounded by David Luiz gambling on trying to nick the ball from Son. David Luiz went the wrong way, allowing Son to move away from him easily. The Brazilian was eager to put Arsenal back on the front foot but he would have been better advised to try to contain his opponent.
David Luiz has previous in failing to read Son. Remember last season, when he was at Chelsea and hared into a challenge on Son and kept on haring? Son cut in on goal and scored in Spurs’s 3-1 win at Wembley.
On Sunday the final botch of the piece belonged to Leno, whose weak push-out from Érik Lamela’s shot gave Christian Eriksen a tap-in.
According to Opta, Arsenal have made 13 errors leading to goals in the Premier League since the start of last season, when Unai Emery took over – the most of any club. Leno, with six, has more than anyone else during the period.
There are mistakes in the concession of most goals and the Opta statistic simply draws on those that are clear and obvious, to use the buzz phrase.
Emery was a picture of frustration when Eriksen scored and he may wonder how he can legislate for such individual aberrations. There was a shocker from Granit Xhaka for Tottenham’s second goal – a ludicrously rash challenge that gave away a penalty, which Kane converted.
But the broader picture concerns how Arsenal set up, with the full-backs pressed high, David Luiz eager to spark attacking transitions and questions over the configuration of the midfield. The upshot is that teams can find space behind the Arsenal defence and between the lines – particularly on counterattacks when the game is stretched.
Sead Kolasinac is extremely dangerous when barrelling forward from left-back and blasting in those low crosses but is he sound enough defensively? Arsène Wenger once said he would not use Kolasinac as a left-back, only as a left wing-back. The hope at Arsenal is that they will look more secure when Héctor Bellerín and Kieran Tierney are fit to play at right- and left-back respectively, although Emery will still demand they press high. Perhaps their pace will get them out of trouble on the defensive transitions.
“We can score against everybody but the key is always the balance with the defence,” Leno said. “That is the most important thing. The three players up top, with Pépé there now … we have unbelievable quality. They can score the big chances but also score from nothing. The other teams have to be aware we have a lot of dangerous players and that gives us big confidence.”
Emery also talked about balance after the Spurs game. He knows it is delicate; so difficult to get right. It was notable he dropped Dani Ceballos, the creative midfielder, because to start him along with the front three might have been too attack-minded, too risky. He began with a more solid midfield three – with Mattéo Guendouzi, called up by France on Monrday for the injured Paul Pogba, outstanding – and sent on Ceballos for Lucas Torreira when Arsenal were chasing the game. Whither Mesut Özil, who was unused on the bench? Could Emery accommodate him from the start in a system with his new front three? Özil continues to feel like a problem for Emery.
The manager must also wrestle with the question of whether Aubameyang can play to the point of maximum expression off the left. It is clear Lacazette must play in the centre but Aubameyang, too, tends to look more threatening in the middle. He scored Arsenal’s equaliser against Spurs shortly after being switched to centre-forward, following Lacazette’s substitution.
What is plain is that Emery’s team will be fun to watch. The old chant about it being “one-nil to the Arsenal” may need an update.