Mikel Arteta’s Focus on Defensive Solidity Could Pay Dividends for Arsenal

This season, Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals, and scored the most, and are top with seven games to play - Reuters
This season, Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals, and scored the most, and are top with seven games to play - Reuters
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Mikel Arteta’s Focus on Defensive Solidity Could Pay Dividends for Arsenal

This season, Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals, and scored the most, and are top with seven games to play - Reuters
This season, Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals, and scored the most, and are top with seven games to play - Reuters

For the past four seasons the team with the best – or joint-best – defensive record have won the Premier League. This season, Arsenal have conceded the fewest goals, and scored the most, and are top with seven games to play. There has been a renewed focus on defence under Mikel Arteta and it could pay dividends in silverware.

Arsenal finished five points behind Manchester City last season, conceding 10 goals more than the champions. In this campaign they have let in six fewer goals than the side with the second-best defensive record, Liverpool. They are conceding 0.77 goals per game compared with 1.13 last season, helped by three clean sheets in a row. They welcome Aston Villa on Sunday, knowing another could put them one small step closer to glory.

I spoke to Bukayo Saka after Arsenal beat Brighton last Saturday and he alluded to the fact the team stay in games and possess a clean-sheet mentality. That was summed up by Gabriel Magalhães’s celebration of a blocked shot. Since the turn of the year their Opta xG against, in 11 matches, has been 4.98, while second-best are Manchester City with 12.28 in 12 matches, showing Arsenal are not giving up chances.

It helps that they signed Declan Rice and David Raya in the summer and that William Saliba has returned to fitness. But don’t overlook the importance of Kai Havertz, who is brilliant pressing from the front, initiating that with Martin Ødegaard.

At the heart of the success are Gabriel and Saliba, aged 26 and 23. They could play six or seven seasons together unless Arsenal sell one or both of them – which I cannot see happening – and become the best pairing in Europe. Against Brighton there were no qualms about leaving them one-v-one because the team know they are quick, strong, physical and always in a ready stance position so they can step in to win the ball or, if it goes in behind, have a foot race. They have great game understanding and are very loud.

I was with Theo Walcott at the Amex and he said the defences he played with were pretty quiet whereas the current crop are really vocal. We were on the pitch and got in the way of the back four’s warmup and they shouted at us to move. They were polite but it put the fear of God into me, so I cannot imagine what it is like being their teammate and being told off for not pressing from the front. Communication is imperative and they set the tone and have such a strong mentality.

Ben White is incredibly consistent and brings versatility within the structure; he can become a third centre-back or move into midfield to be an extra man, depending on whether it is Oleksandr Zinchenko or Jakub Kiwior at left-back. He has the stamina to get up and down as an attacking full-back, aided by a great understanding with Saka. He has scored twice and created four goals in the Premier League this season, while helping Arsenal secure nine clean sheets. Like Gabriel and Saliba, he is becoming better as he matures, helped by big-game experiences.

Rice can mop up anything, protect the backline and break forward to create space for fellow midfielders. He struggled at the start with Arsenal, trying to understand his role, and I do not think Arteta really knew how to get the best out of him, but now he knows his place.

When Jorginho plays, Rice can be a more attacking player but also support him defensively, completing a triangle with Ødegaard. Off the ball Rice is phenomenal and he is exceptional on it, making him the heartbeat of the team. The successful sides I played in always had a central midfielder who provided the legs and energy. That is Rice’s role at Arsenal

Arsenal do not press randomly; it is with a plan and pattern. They want to force opponents wide and into making long passes. The forwards put the effort in to block off passing lanes and make a cul-de-sac for the opposition so there is often nowhere to go other than long.

Left-back remains a problem for Arsenal and teams are targeting that side. Arteta selected Kiwior in the Champions League quarter-final first leg draw with Bayern Munich on Tuesday – when their defending was less impressive than it has been in the Premier League – but replaced him with Zinchenko at half-time. Brighton also targeted that position and would have had greater success if Simon Adingra had not been so wasteful. It was a warning sign.

In the run-in, Arsenal will come up against wingers who will cause them problems and defenders hate tricky wingers, regardless of form. Villa can choose from Leon Bailey, Morgan Rogers and Moussa Diaby; Chelsea have Cole Palmer and Noni Madueke; Tottenham possess Dejan Kulusevski and Brennan Johnson; and Alejandro Garnacho has proved a threat down the right since switching for Manchester United.

Opponents will think they have a chance to expose a weakness but Arsenal have plenty of evidence that they know how to stop that. They are the best at the back and although they are not perfect they appear to have the right mentality to make it through the difficult moments.

- The Guardian Sport



Sabalenka, Medvedev Advance as Rain Continues to Disrupt the French Open

30 May 2024, France, Paris: Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka in action against Japan's Moyuka Uchijima during their women's singles second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex. Photo: Loic Baratoux/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa
30 May 2024, France, Paris: Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka in action against Japan's Moyuka Uchijima during their women's singles second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex. Photo: Loic Baratoux/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa
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Sabalenka, Medvedev Advance as Rain Continues to Disrupt the French Open

30 May 2024, France, Paris: Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka in action against Japan's Moyuka Uchijima during their women's singles second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex. Photo: Loic Baratoux/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa
30 May 2024, France, Paris: Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka in action against Japan's Moyuka Uchijima during their women's singles second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Complex. Photo: Loic Baratoux/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa

Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka stayed out of the rain and moved into the third round of the French Open on Thursday.
The second-seeded Sabalenka beat Japanese qualifier Moyuka Uchijima 6-2, 6-2 on Court Philippe Chatrier as showers again affected play at Roland Garros.
The inclement weather, which is expected to last for much of the day, halted play on all courts not equipped with a roof for the third consecutive day, The Associated Press reported.
“It’s going to be a bit tricky today. So we’re keeping our fingers crossed,” tournament director Amélie Mauresmo said.
Sabalenka, who reached the French Open semifinals last year, will next face Paula Badosa, a close friend and her doubles partner for this year’s clay-court Grand Slam tournament.
“It’s always tough to play your friend,” Sabalenka said. “But we know how to separate court and life.”
No. 4 Elena Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion in 2022, advanced by beating Arantxa Rus 6-3, 6-4.
Fifth-seeded Daniil Medvedev also reached the third round after his opponent, Miomir Kecmanovic, retired while trailing 6-1, 5-0. The Serbian player decided to quit the match after 55 minutes of play.
Three days after defeating Rafael Nadal, No. 4 Alexander Zverev beat David Goffin 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-2 on Court Suzanne Lenglen.
“The crowd is always unbelievable in Paris, since we got the two new roofs it’s even more electric,” Zverev said. “When you guys are rooting for me, it’s even better.”