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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Arsenal top clean-sheet charts with Liverpool – but full-backs must stop preventable goals

Ahead of Arsenal’s seismic game with Liverpool on Sunday, Mikel Arteta had something to address.

During his side’s 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest on Tuesday, defenders Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ben White were seen quarrelling following Taiwo Awoniyi’s 89th-minute goal at the City Ground — a goal which made for a nervy ending for Arsenal, who up until then had controlled the match with fluency and ease.

Asked if his full-backs had made up following their confrontation, Arteta attempted to make light of the situation, saying: “They’ve been in the same house the past few days sharing wives and everything! It’s fine they’re living together now. They’re best mates.”

But beyond the anecdotes involving wives and marriages — last February, Arteta described William Saliba and Gabriel’s partnership as a “happy marriage” after the pair clashed during a 1-0 win at Leicester City — there is a serious problem with Arsenal conceding poor goals through their full-backs giving away chances.

First, let’s put their defensive record into context.

Since January 1, 2023, Arsenal have kept the third-most clean sheets in the Premier League (15; behind Liverpool and Manchester City) but have also made the joint-most errors leading to goals alongside Tottenham Hotspur (11). These errors hamstrung their title challenge and it has continued to cost them points this campaign, even if they avoided that against Forest.

The below table shows the full picture of their problems.

Arsenal are not open but are error prone

Team

  

Errors leading to goals

  

Errors leading to shots (inc. goals)

  

clean sheets

  

goals conceded

xG against

  

Points gained from losing position

  

Shots on target faced

  

Matches played

  

5

17

12

41

41.75

20

117

43

9

26

18

47

53.9

25

162

44

11

23

15

50

45.52

18

152

44

8

14

14

51

60.36

14

180

44

3

14

16

52

66.44

16

182

43

7

18

12

55

62.89

12

190

43

7

17

10

55

58.3

16

193

42

6

19

11

62

74.82

7

226

43

7

24

11

63

71.07

12

204

42

4

8

10

64

59.83

22

186

44

5

12

11

65

73.73

18

219

42

9

14

13

65

68.8

5

195

43

9

29

10

65

66.04

10

211

45

9

22

10

66

64.2

19

170

44

11

27

11

73

69.57

14

204

44

5

18

9

74

70.28

14

227

41

8

11

7

75

71.18

13

202

44

This season, Arsenal are ranked joint-first in the league for clean sheets alongside Liverpool and Everton (eight), but have only managed a shutout in consecutive matches once — they beat Bournemouth 4-0 in late September and then Manchester City 1-0 in early October.

In the eight matches immediately after they’ve kept a clean sheet in 2023-24, Arsenal have drawn four, won three, and lost one. Two of those draws — at home to Fulham and Spurs — had seen Arsenal take the lead only to gift their opponents an equaliser.

Liverpool have also kept consecutive clean sheets once this season, but their context is slightly different. Since January 1 last year, they have won more points from losing positions (25) than any Premier League side. In short, they usually concede first while Arsenal (who have gained 18 points from losing position; sixth best) tend to get pegged back after taking the lead.

Arsenal do not give away many chances. Since January 1 last year again, across the 17 teams who were neither promoted or relegated last season, they rank second-best for both shots on target faced (152) and xG against (45.5).  The issue, however, is that when they do give away chances, they tend to be preventable — and these are more dangerous to concede. It has resulted in Arsenal conceding five more goals (50) than the value those chances would suggest they should have done.

One example of a self-inflicted error is the goal from Fulham midfielder Andreas Perreira during the 1-1 draw last August, which came from a wayward Bukayo Saka backpass. Another is Carlos Alcaraz’s opener for Southampton off the back of Aaron Ramsdale’s misplaced pass in last April’s 3-3 draw.

Preventable goals often happen when players fail to put enough pressure on the ball and are not decisive — and this is something that plagues both Arsenal full-backs.

Zinchenko has been guilty of this several times in the winter months, the most recent being at Forest this week. Despite Awoniyi scoring after Saliba misjudges the flight of the ball, the Arsenal left-back puts no pressure on his man Gonzalo Montiel, who loops a header into the box.

Last season, Chelsea forward Noni Madueke’s goal at the Emirates was the most glaring example of Zinchenko’s faults. His body shape and reaction to the ball being played in behind him were concerning, despite Arsenal being 3-0 up.

But he is not the only culprit.

White has been punished for not engaging his man. Take the below example from the 1-0 defeat against Newcastle in November. Despite the controversy surrounding the goal, White could have prevented a dangerous situation at source after being told by Jorginho to close Joe Willock down.

This inaction is why many of the ‘preventable’ goals Arsenal concede start from wide areas. A few have come centrally — both goals in the 4-2 win over Aston Villa last season, for example — but the overriding trend is of teams finding those spaces out wide. It requires a solution.

Arteta may have had those answers with defenders Jurrien Timber and Takehiro Tomiyasu. The Japan defender’s height (6ft 2in) and ability to play off both feet was a major factor in keeping Mohamed Salah quiet when Arsenal beat Liverpool 3-2 at home last season, while the Dutchman’s recovery pace and agility made him a better fit at left-back in pre-season.

However, injuries and international duties have left Arteta without either in most of Arsenal’s more transitional matches this season.

Despite the frustrating nature of these goals, it does make sense that such a large share of them come from mistakes. Arsenal’s aggressive defensive approach to ‘suffocate’ opposition teams means Arsenal tend to be structurally dominant, so the chances they give up are most likely going to come from individual errors. Their structure is not as porous as it first was when Arteta took charge, so the chances they concede now feel more glaring — especially the ones that are converted.

Arteta was phlegmatic after that 2-2 draw with Fulham — Errors are part of football,” he said. Even so, Arsenal have been gifting away needless goals for over a year now and there needs to be significant improvement soon if they want to compete, with space being exploited in those full-back areas as well as passivity when defending costing them.

It looks as though full-backs will be under the microscope again this weekend, even if Salah is not available. Liverpool right-back Conor Bradley’s emergence as a threat on the right flank should provide a different challenge to solve.

(Top photo: Daniel Chesterton/Offside via Getty Images)



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