Arsenal’s season this term was a game of two halves.
In 2012 the Gunners conceded a high number of goals and were 5th place behind Tottenham on New Year’s Day with 33 points.
Flash-forward to May 19th 2013 and Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Newcastle at St James’ Park saw then clinch a Champions League qualifying spot ahead of their North London rivals, after conceding the fewest goals out of every team in the league in 2013.
They finished out the season on 73 points, a 3-point improvement on their 2011/12 campaign, having conceded 37 goals in total – 12 goals less than last term.
In 2013 no other team conceded fewer goals that the Gunners – after manager Arsene Wenger dropped his captain Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker’s partnership in the middle of their back line saw Arsenal go on an unbeaten run of 10 games.
Their defeat at White Hart Lane saw the French boss take massive decisions for their 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz back in March and the manager stuck to his guns, leaving his skipper on the bench as backup for the remainder of the season.
In their last 10 games, Arsenal conceded just 5 goals – they kept an impressive record 5 clean sheets in that period. Compare that to their last 10 games of 2012 in which they conceded 15 goals.
Koscielny and Mertesacker as a unit lost just one game in 2013 and I suspect Vermaelen will find it hard to fight his way back into Wenger’s starting lineup next term as a result.
It also helped that, from the Bayern Munich away game onwards, Arsenal defended far better as a team. The midfield and even the forwards contributed a lot more and there seemed to be a focus on pressing high up the pitch, winning 50-50s in midfield, and chasing down lost causes.
Arsenal also improved their formerly calamitous defending of set pieced – they constantly come in for criticism for their zonal marking but they’ve proven in the latter stages of this season, they can make it work for them when they organize, focus and concentrate.
For a number of years, pretty much since the retirement of Tony Adams and Martin Keown, Arsenal have become something of a ‘soft touch’ defensively. Where they could get away with it a few seasons ago due to their abundance of goal-scoring talent up front, that hasn’t been the case this term.
Wenger’s policy of scoring more than the opposition doesn’t work unless you have superior quality in abundance and following the departures of their former captains Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal haven’t packed quite the same punch in attack.
Instead, what happened this season at the Allianz and in the Premier League following that game, was they put their focus on defending first and foremost. Their priority was to keep a clean sheet and then build on that by nicking goals.
They stuck with that mentality for the remainder of the season and it paid dividends in the end for them. Wenger showed for the first time in his career in England that he is capable of adapting his philosophy and system and, more importantly, Arsenal are capable of defending.
This Arsenal defence is the most solid, durable, reliable and consistent as we’ve seen probably since 2002. They’ve basically shipped goals for a decade but it seems they’ve now found their flair for the art of defending. The old chant ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ may not have been left at Highbury.
Arsenal can build on their defensive displays this term by continuing to keep it watertight at the back next season and if they add some more firepower up front they could have a trophy-winning formulae at long last.