This weekend sees Man United host Arsenal in a fairly significant Premier League match, important even with the caveat that it’s November. Arsenal, who currently sit atop the table five points ahead of number two Chelsea, is feeling fairly bullish at the moment. It’s hard not to blame them. They’ve scored the second highest number of goals in the league behind Manchester City and have the fifth lowest goals against.
But in recent days, the Arsenal’s back four in particular has come into renown, especially after Wednesday’s significant 0-1 Champions League win against Borussia Dortmund in the Westfalenstadion. As always, a look at the numbers alone in a single match tells us nothing, and not even because of the notion you need the added layer of tactical analysis–they tell us nothing because of the heavy influence of random variation on a single match which confounds the certainty of any pundit who claims “the better team won.”
But, in case you were wondering, here are the pertinent ones: 15/4 shots in favour of Dortmund, 3/2 shots on target in favour of Dortmund.
Aaron Ramsey’s goal was against the run of play but Arsenal’s performance in the final 30 minutes was extraordinarily confident. Rather than sitting back willingly inviting Dortmund pressure, they retained the ball in advanced positions and consistently threatened from a traditionally atypical route that has featured heavily in Arsenal’s attacking recently: crosses into the box. Olivier Giroud and Mertesacker both went close, and the Dortmund goalkeeper, Roman Weidenfeller, appeared uncomfortable under heavy pressure.
At 1-0 Arsenal demonstrated they could defend in two entirely separate ways. They could frustrate Dortmund through ball retention, having enough faith in their passing ability to push forward, potentially allowing Dortmund space to break into. But only once, following a set piece, did the home side threaten on the counter-attack.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but it raises an interesting point about the first hour of the match in which Dortmund managed 11 shots (though with only two on target) and Arsenal took no shots whatsoever. So in light that, I just want to ask some questions.
To what degree did Arsenal’s defence help stop those Dortmund shots from becoming goals? Or did Dortmund’s poor finishing play a part? How much of a part did luck play in helping keep those shots from going in the net?
How would the outcome of the match had changed if one of those Dortmund shots took a deflection and went in? Would Arsenal’s back four still be commended on a job well done had the final half hour proceeded the way it did with Arsenal taking the same number of chances after the 60 minute mark (4, with 3 on target) but still losing 1-0 to Dortmund?
How did the goal change the dynamic of the match exactly? Was Arsenal’s decision to push up (mostly via the right channel) in the last thirty minutes specifically tactical? Was it directed by the manager, or did it flow organically from the available passing options and a perceived opening of space on that right flank? Did the ‘game state’ effect play a part somehow? Were Arsenal aware of this effect and therefore worked in some way to help mitigate it?
Is there a way to specifically measure the influence of Arsenal’s back four on stopping Dortmund’s attack in the last thirty minutes? Or was their performance more intangible? What would those intangible qualities include? Good communication? Intelligent movement to cover space? Closing down passing options?
To what extent was Dortmund’s ‘desperation’ culpable in their lack of solid chances in the final phase of the match? Would another tactical decision on Klopp’s part have allowed Dortmund more attacking options? Or was their failure to equalize entirely down to Arsenal’s solidity at the back?
Can we use Per Mertesacker’s last tackle as evidence of good defence?
Or is there an argument to be made in context that Arsenal should not have been caught that high up the pitch away from home? Or are these things inevitable (they sure seem to be), and so we should commend Mertesacker for his excellent reflexes? Should the other Arsenal players tracking back be equally commended for tracking back to support him as well?
Finally, was the Dortmund match part of a bigger picture of coherence in the Arsenal defence? Or is it a total team thing (ie attacking players tracking back more often to help out, better ball possession preventing opposition attacks etc.)? What were the similarities in the performance against Dortmund from other key Arsenal matches this season? To what degree did the defence break down when Arsenal lost to Dortmund at home? Was that the outlier performance? Or was Wednesday’s game the outlier?
I’m not asking these questions to be facetious (truly). I do think most, if not all, have objective answers. I guess my point is that we take these answers too often as a given when we try to make long-term claims about a team from a single result.