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Mikel Arteta’s defensive improvements limited by tools

Mikel Arteta has undoubtedly improved Arsenal’s defending during his first three months as head coach. But the progress made is limited by the tools at his disposal.

One of the more surprising consequences of Mikel Arteta’s appointment as Arsenal head coach was the immediate and significant defensive improvements the team made. Arteta was a possession-orientated midfielder who struggled in defensive phases. He then worked with Pep Guardiola for three-and-a-half years, another coach obsessed with controlling matches through dominating possession. And yet, the focus of Arteta’s early weeks in charge was his team’s work without the ball, not with it.

Specifically, Arsenal became a much more structured and well-drilled pressing team. Unai Emery had attempted to inject a high-intensity high-press defensive approach prior to Arteta’s arrival, but his coaching was poor and the team often relied on passion and energy to bail them out. There was a plan. It was all heart and fight with no direction.

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Arteta provided structure and assignment. Players were given detailed instructions of when and how to press. The team started to work as a unit, rather than individuals each haring onto the pitch independent of one another. The defensive line was pushed much higher up the pitch, players started to work harder, responding to Arteta’s call regarding ‘non-negotiables’, and the defensive statistics improved as a result.

In the 15 games prior to Arteta’s arrival, Arsenal kept just one clean sheet and conceded 28 goals. In his 15 games in charge, Arsenal conceded just 12 goals with seven clean sheets. In the Premier League, Arsenal allowed five or more shots on target in 61% of matches under Emery. Under Arteta, that figure has halved to just 30%.

Prior to Arsenal’s victory over Everton earlier this season, Bernd Leno provided some detail on how Arteta has improved the defence in his programme notes:

“You can see more structure. We are defending like a team and we have more possession – we are controlling the game more. We have more in our hands and you can see we don’t concede too many chances. There were a lot of games where we conceded a lot of shots and a lot of goals. At the moment I’m happy that we don’t concede too many chances or too many goals because the defence is the most important thing, not only for the goalkeeper but the whole team. When you defend very well, you win more games and we have the quality to score a lot of goals. If we defend well, we can be successful.”

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But while improvements were made, there was only so much that Arteta could enact. They say a good workman never blames his tools, but Arteta really was dealing with some tools in his defence. And while the collective approach was more focused and cohesive, on an individual basis, the mistakes still undermined the team’s defensive success.

Shkodran Mustafi made a terrible blunder in the 2-2 draw with Chelsea. David Luiz and Sokratis both made simple marking errors against Olympiakos, while Leno himself was kicking passes straight out of play for cheap corners. Leno also made a howler in a 2-1 loss to Chelsea. Arteta was hamstrung by the players he worked with.

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The improvement Arteta inspired is reason for hope. They prove that he is a capable coach who can fix the defence. What is missing is the quality of player; the ability of the tools at Arteta’s disposal is short of the required standard. And that is where the summer transfer window comes in.

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