Why is Arsenal’s defense so terrible?

For the last couple of seasons, Arsenal have had the reputation of being a good offensive team with a defense so bad it has given its fans a few heart attacks. The table below shows how many goals Arsenal have conceded over the past two seasons (Premierleague.com), compared with their Top 6 Premier League rivals.

Team17/1818/19Total
Arsenal5151102
Manchester United285482
Chelsea383977
Tottenham363975
Liverpool382260
Manchester City272350

 This table alone explains why Arsenal have not qualified for the Champions League in recent years. How can a team expect to challenge for the Top 4, let alone the Premier League title, when they concede so many goals it makes you think they do it on purpose.

 But why are they so terrible defensively? Is it a lack of investment? Awful coaching? Bad luck? Let’s first look at Arsenal’s total wages for the 2018-2019 season (data found on a Kaggle database), and see how much of those wages actually go to defenders and goalkeepers.

TeamDefense wagesTotal wages% for defense
Arsenal58 M$134 M$43%
Tottenham56 M$136 M$41.1%
Manchester City75 M$195 M$38.7%
Manchester United66 M$176 M$37.8%
Liverpool49 M$151 M$32.6%
Chelsea54 M$169 M$32.2%

As we see, Arsenal were this season the Top 6 team that invested the biggest part of their total wages on defenders or goalkeepers. We therefore can’t blame them in that regard. They at least invested some of their money there. So why are they so bad? Why do they have defensive wages higher than Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool but still concede way more goals?

A first explanation is that the wages numbers above are not exactly representative of the reality, given the fact that Arsenal had 17 defenders/goalkeepers in their squad in 2018-2019, while all the other Top 6 teams had between 12 and 14. Those extra 3-5 defenders increase the total wages, but might not be very useful when it comes to competing at the highest level. Players like Jenkinson, Mavropanos, Pleguezelo and Bramall all barely featured (if at all) for the gunners this season, but still accounted for 7.2 M$ in defensive wages for the year. All this to say that maybe Arsenal would have been better off aiming for quality rather than quantity when it comes to defenders.       

A second explanation, strongly related to the point above, is that their defenders simply were not good enough this season. Arsenal might have paid 46 M$ in transfer fee for Mustafi back in 2016, but he certainly did not show he was worth this much this season. Koscielny and Monreal both are in their mid 30’s and seemingly have lost a step. Lichsteiner’s play showed why Juventus let him go for free during the summer (and Arsenal still got ripped off in that deal). Cech quickly lost his starting job to Leno because he couldn’t complete a pass. All this to say that this defense might be expensive, but it probably is not worth all that much.

A third explanation are injuries. It is a bad excuse, but it is an excuse nonetheless. Mustafi, Monreal, Koscielny, Holding and Bellerin all missed at least 7 Premier League matches because of injury this season. Holding and Bellerin both had surgery that ended their seasons in February, which was unfortunate given that they arguably were the two best defensive players on the team (and the two most promising for the future).

A fourth and final explanation is that Arsenal try to play a way that is just not right for who they are as a team. When he arrived in North London, Unai Emery said he wanted to play a high pressing system, where attackers are suppose to create turnovers and force teams to play out of their zones via long balls. Sounds great, but when a team has Mezut Ozil, known for his lack of effort and physicality, as it’s starting number 10, this spells trouble. Indeed, the German had 12 tackles this entire season (Premierleague.com), which makes him the 315th heaviest tackler in the league (very threatening…). In comparison, Dele Alli, a player with a similar role with Tottenham and who had similar playing time, registered 34 tackles, an increase of 283% on Ozil. Fair to say that the Spurs have had better success with their high pressing in recent seasons, maybe because their players are much more equipped to it. Arsenal simply did not have the right players to play the way Emery envisioned this season.

Lack of quality, bad luck with injuries and tactical naivety all can explain why Arsenal have such a poor defense. This summer transfer window will be an opportunity for the club to address those defensive issues. However, with a reported 40 million pounds to spend (Talksport.com) on new recruits, things are looking bleak in North London.

Below is the code used to extract and analyze wages:

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