Since Mikel Arteta’s appointment, there is no doubt that the gunners’ shaky defense has somewhat shaped up. In fact, a recent stat shows that under Arteta that we now concede an average of 0.8 goals per match. Under Unai Emery, we conceded 1.45 per 90. Neither aforementioned number is particularly good by any stretch, but nonetheless, we have shown improvement in this regard.
With the solidifying, however, comes a chink in the armour. The gunners have an undeniable weakness and are extremely vulnerable from set pieces. Just recently, in the Sheffield United game, the only goal conceded came from a “Stoke city-esque” long throw in where our defense looked like they had no idea how to deal with it. Rob Holding, who has been solid upon return, rose like a salmon out of a white water stream and completely missed the looping aerial ball. Sead Kolasinac then failed to clear his lines, kicking it right into his own teammate, Shkodran Mustafi. Sheffield took advantage and scored.
Two games ago, we conceded a goal from a short corner taken by Brighton where Lewis Dunk bagged a goal. And looking even further back, Olympiacos knocked us out of the Europa league (2-2), both of the Greek side’s goals came from set pieces. There is even more set piece scenarios that saw Arteta’s men suffer, however those already mentioned are enough cause for concern.
In all truth, the weakness is cause for concern. However, the good thing is that it seems Arteta is trying to alleviate the issue. In the most recent Arsecast extra, it was mentioned that we do not have a particularly tall side, and that in itself could be a reason why we struggle with sides who pose an aerial threat. Arteta clearly recognizes this and in my opinion, I think that if Pablo Mari was fit, he’d most likely have played against both Brighton and Sheffield United. The Spaniards 6 foot 4 frame would certainly help to deal with sides that take the long ball approach in order to create chances. Furthermore, that of William Saliba is also coming in next season, so on the front of player height, we are going to grow substantially, literally.
Another reason for so many goals being conceded from set pieces is Arteta’s insistence on using a zonal marking tactic when defending them. The former Manchester city number two seems keen on instilling the defensive tactic that both Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger preferred instead of Emery’s man-to-man marking. While it is understandable that one would certainly follow in Guardiola and Wenger’s footsteps instead of Emery’s, this means that a rough transition is going to have to occur. Though some players in the squad played under Wenger and Emery, there are also some that played exclusively under the latter with the club and the transition from man-to-man marking to zonal will be tricky, however it is possible and will just take time.
All in all, Arsenal’s vulnerability from set pieces are definitely a cause for concern, but that is just for the present moment. With patience and time I’m sure our ability to defend them will improve. New personnel and a better understanding of a zonal marking system will certainly see said woes diminish in due course. Arteta seems like an incredibly self-aware individual and that is a good thing, one can’t fix an issue that they do not know they possess.
It seems as though the Spanish head coach is making all the right moves, taking the right steps and saying the right things thus far, let’s hope his misfortunes from set pieces subside and he and we have a fruitful future that sees far less set piece goals trickle in.