Mikel Arteta has a dream, folks. A dream to evolve Arsenal into the Manchester City of the south.
Such an aspiration has seemed light years away for much of his tenure in north London thus far, but comparisons are rife between Arteta’s Gunners and Pep Guardiola’s Cityzens at the start of the 2022/23 season.
Arsenal have previously teased their lofty potential under the Spanish boss, but injuries, immaturity, and a lack of quality in key areas prevented the Gunners from enjoying a sustained run of City-like form. Edu Gaspar quickly went about rectifying some of the club’s qualitative issues in the summer transfer window and the Brazilian’s savvy work has left Arteta with a superior and deeper squad compared to the promising 2021/22 iteration.
Once again, Arteta’s strongest XI are proving that they can compete with almost anybody. Through seven games in the Premier League, Arsenal are top having lost just once. Gabriel Jesus has been lauded for transforming the Gunners in attack, as has Granit Xhaka for evolving into an effective advanced #8. Other individuals have been praised immensely, including the returning William Saliba, but a group that hasn’t been given enough credit is Arsenal’s defence.
We’ve arrived at a point where Arteta isn’t too far off from achieving his ultimate goal. Arsenal can now be described as a Manchester City lite, and it’s Arteta’s bold, aggressive, and technically proficient backline that’s aided the Gunners’ evolution in 2022/23.
Arsenal’s defence deserves huge credit for club’s stellar start to season
Arsenal have improved in so many aspects this season, but their capacity to press more intensely for longer periods has been pivotal in ensuring the Gunners assert total control in contests. Their PPDA (passes per defensive action) is currently the fourth lowest in the Premier League (10.9).
An effective press allows a team to win the ball higher up the pitch, while it should also increase their possession share. Arsenal have been able to sustain attacks at will this season because of how well they’re pressing, and their aggressive defensive line has played an underrated role in their effective press.
The Gunners are blessed with a balanced centre-back pairing and two full-backs that aren’t shy to back up the press out wide. Ben White and either Kieran Tierney or Oleksandr Zinchenko have been brilliant in ensuring their opposite number aren’t given a second in possession should the opposition escape Arsenal’s first pressing wave.
The height and intensity at which the Gunners press, however, means that a high defensive line is imperative to ensure they remain compact. As a result, Arsenal’s defensive line, on average, has been the second highest in the Premier League this season according to @markstats. Only Man City’s backline has been stationed higher upfield than the Gunners’.
Vigorous high pressing combined with an aggressive defensive line has propelled the likes of City and Liverpool to the very top in recent years. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy, however, and Liverpool have shown at the start of the season how easily their defence can be exposed if all the moving parts aren’t working in harmony.
That’s why Arsenal’s defence deserves heaps of credit and why they’ve been so important to the club’s brilliant start to 2022/23. Despite this high-risk strategy, the Gunners have surrendered the second-lowest xGA (expected goals against) from open play in the division.
The introduction of Saliba has been crucial in Arsenal’s defensive success, as has the ever-increasing maturity of this side. In their opening few games of the campaign, the Gunners would cede control in the second period and run the risk of seeing their lead slip. Against Brentford, however, they produced a performance that saw them assert total control from minute one until Ethan Nwaneri’s record-breaking introduction in added time.
That’s where Mikel Arteta wants Arsenal to be every week.
The Gunners’ defence was once one of the poorest position groups in the Premier League. Individual errors were rife, and the lack of confidence that emanated from the backline often had a crippling effect on the rest of the team. Such errors haven’t completely disappeared – as we saw against Leicester and Fulham – but they’re now anomalies as opposed to normalities.
Thanks to excellent coaching and astute talent ID, Arsenal’s defence is now one of the best the Premier League has to offer.