Mikel Arteta’s Biggest Success So Far? Making Arsenal’s Defence Good Again

Mikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta has instilled a significantly more positive attitude at Arsenal | Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Arsenal’s defence, you say? Surely that’s a sick joke. I mean, c’mon, Arsenal are, and forever will be, diabolical at the back. Right?

Forget history, tradition and Tony Adams, everyone knows that their defending is at a League One standard. I’m fairly confident that it’s written in a contract somewhere, carved into the wall of a cave and memorialised in the very depths of the population’s Twitter feeds.

One must not utter any other explanation of the Gunners’ back line without mentioning some variation of ‘laughable’ or ‘s–t’.

This is 2020 though. We’ve experienced times of remarkable happenings and unprecedented ways of living, and the scope for new occurrences is wider than ever. Unbelievable things can happen, and yes, really, Arsenal look like they can actually defend. Stop the presses. Call a doctor. This is real.

Only the most ardent supporter who’d actually been at the pub since 06:00 AM would’ve expected the Gunners to not only leave Molineux with three points, but with a clean sheet. Can you genuinely say you expected it? No, didn’t think so.

The ones who did were those actually at Molineux, wearing red and white or rocking an inoffensive grey jumper.

Unlike Mikel Arteta’s attire though, Arsenal were anything other than muddled. There was structure to everything they sought to achieve, purpose with every phase of play and a defensive backbone that offered the platform for victory.

It’s…weird. Especially given that two of the back three were frequently-vilified pair Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz, a duo who’ve come under more criticism since their respective arrivals than most clubs would care to receive in their lifetimes.

David LuizDavid Luiz
David Luiz has committed his future to Arsenal for another 12 months | Sam Bagnall – AMA/Getty Images

But it’s not just the personnel stepping up to plate that has aided the Gunners under Arteta. The plan and tactics set in place by the rookie boss upon his arrival were clear from the off. Ahead of trying to simply outscore opponents in the baffling ‘I’d rather win 5-4 than 1-0’ mantra that predecessor Unai Emery led by – FYI, he actually said that – he sought to plug the holes of a leaky defence and make Arsenal harder to beat.

Emery’s time in the dugout was marred with baffling tactical alterations and miscommunicated greetings, but the sheer volume of goals the side were conceding took centre stage. Giving absolutely zero protection to a defence that resembled Swiss cheese was the sporting equivalent of putting a spoon in the microwave. Above all else, it needed amending.

Which is precisely what Arteta has done. He knows that his central defenders are pants, and in order to get the best out of them he needs to shield them in every way possible and address the stark disparity the side showed between defence and attack under the previous regime.

In 16 league matches under Arteta’s tutelage, the Gunners have conceded just 14 goals. That is the third best defensive record in the league. I repeat, not worst, but third best.

By (alarming) contrast, Emery’s final 17 matches saw the club ship in 28 goals. That’s twice as many, maths fans.

Mikel ArtetaMikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta has lost four of his 21 matches at Arsenal since taking charge | Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

It’s not rocket science – ‘the defenders are crap so let’s try and make them less crap’ – but in order for that plan to come to fruition, it’s required the squad buying into a certain philosophy and regaining their confidence under a man who’d never actually managed a football club before. The impact of Arteta makes that final point easy to neglect.

Plenty of criticism came in over Arsenal’s over-tendency to draw matches, but this was merely the early fine-tuning of a rusty old moped that needed a new lick of paint, rear-view mirrors and severe engine upgrade.

Key to that has been (deep breath) Granit Xhaka. Arsenal’s domestic record under Arteta in games that the midfielder has completed 90 minutes reads: 12 matches played, eight wins and four draws. Without him, under the same parameters, they’ve lost all three games.

Kieran Tierney has also attributed to a distinct improvement. With him, Arsenal have a defender who can actually defend. His influence in the final third is profound, but he’s provided an immeasurable degree of solidity at the back through his high work rate and obvious quality.

To have achieved what Arteta has done in such a short space of time deserves heaps of praise. Coming into a job with frightfully more negatives than positives, he’s steadied a damaged ship and steered it towards the shore, all the while battling countless off-field issues and inheriting a squad that still requires considerable surgery.

And that must be addressed in the summer. Granted, financial woes are a concern beyond his repair, but public calls for aid in that department from the hierarchy demonstrate his urgency for support.

Continue in this vein though, and those with the bank details would be foolish to not heed his calls. Fearful of investing too diligently given the failures of the former boss are, to a point, understandable. But there is now a man in charge who legitimately appears to be moving the club in the right direction, and providing him with the tools to carry out his goals is pivotal to re-imaging what Arsenal are as a football club.

This new-look side is exciting. Youngsters coming through and signing these paper-based things called contracts – which many had forgotten existed in north London – coupled with a playing style and ideology that the squad is buying into, is something worth feeling positive about.

It now must be maintained and built on in the right way. Back the man who is overseeing change. It will work.

For more from Ross Kennerley, follow him on Twitter!


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