Arsenal's defensive improvement has slipped ahead of make or break week for Mikel Arteta
The Gunners' defensive record had improved this season, but they are now without a clean sheet in their last eight games. Arsenal face Olympiacos in the Europa League on Thursday and then Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby on Sunday. This will be a test of Mikel Arteta's credentials as Arsenal manager.
A dejected Mikel Arteta the manager / head coach of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Burnley and Arsenal at Turf Moor on March 6, 2021 in Burnley, United Kingdom.
The Gunners' defensive record had improved this season, but they are now without a clean sheet in their last eight games.
Progress might have been difficult to see, but it was there. Even as Arsenal toiled over the first half of the season, when Mikel Arteta’s side lost five of seven games played before Christmas, there was encouragement to take from the way the Gunners had managed to tighten things up at the back.
Now, though, Arsenal have gone eight games in a row in all competitions without keeping a clean sheet. While the North London outfit have sharpened their edge in front of goal, finding a creative spark in the likes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, their defensive resolve has been weakened recently.
For years, Arsenal’s primary vulnerability was widely identified as being in defence. Even going back to the latter days of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, the Gunners were seen as being soft at the back. Signings like Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos were made, but no real improvement was charted.
It was therefore logical that Arteta made Arsenal’s defence his primary focus upon taking over at the Emirates Stadium. The improvement was almost immediate as the Gunners conceded 0.8 goals per game over Arteta’s first 15 games as manager. In terms of shots allowed, Arsenal only allowed an average of 12.5 per game compared to the 15.8 per game given up by Unai Emery’s team.
Only Manchester City (19), Chelsea (25) and Aston Villa (27) have conceded fewer goals than Arsenal (28) in the Premier League this season, underlining the progress made. But standards are starting to slip as the Gunners have conceded in recent games against Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds United, Benfica (twice), Manchester City, Leicester City and Burnley.
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An even more worrying trend is that Arsenal have conceded the first goal in five of their last seven games. This is less than ideal for a team with such fragile confidence. There’s only so many times a group of players can muster the energy and fighting spirit required to come from behind.
One factor in this defensive downturn has been the absence of Rob Holding, who hasn’t featured since suffering a head injury in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City towards the end of February. Arsenal have missed the 25-year-old, who has become something of a defensive leader under Arteta, at the back in recent weeks.
It’s possible Arteta has merely shifted the focus of his team in an attempt to increase their productivity at the other end of the pitch, something that was holding the Gunners back before the emergence of Smith Rowe as a key figure. By pulling the duvet closer to the neck, Arsenal have left their feet uncovered.
This has the potential to be a make or break week for Arteta. First, Arsenal travel to Athens for the second time in just two weeks to take on Olympiacos in the last 16 of the Europa League. An exit from continental competition at this relatively early stage would expose just how underwhelming this season has been for the Gunners.
Then, on Sunday, Arsenal will host Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby. With Jose Mourinho’s side on the rise and hopeful of forcing their way back into the top four, the Gunners will face a real challenge to keep Gareth Bale, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min quiet.
Arteta must find a balance to get Arsenal through both games otherwise his position could come under fresh scrutiny. Without hope in the Europa League, a place anywhere close to the top four and an improved defensive record, the Spaniard might find it difficult to argue he still deserves the faith of the fans and his employers.