How Arsenal’s defence became three times better than anyone else’s

Arsenal centre-backs William Saliba and Gabriel during the Premier League win at Burnley

A few years ago, in the summer of 2019, Dani Ceballos experienced the full horror of Liverpool’s defensive intensity. The Spaniard was playing in just his third match for Arsenal, on loan from Real Madrid, and he was left gasping for breath as red shirts swarmed all around him at Anfield.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said a few weeks later. “They take the air from you. You spend so much time defending and when you want to do something with the ball, when you want to breathe, they are back on top of you.”

Arsenal’s manager at the time was Unai Emery, who always wanted to instil a similarly aggressive, hounding approach in his team. Sadly for him, he never managed it. But four years later, his replacement in the Arsenal dugout is now succeeding where Emery failed.

Since the turn of the year, no team in the Premier League has defended as intensively and effectively as Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. They are pressing higher and faster than ever, suffocating their opponents and blocking all exit routes. No way through, no way out.

In six league games in 2024, Arsenal have conceded just three goals. That is impressive enough, but the underlying numbers, which provide a better reflection of their dominance, are extraordinary when compared to the rest of the division.

Since returning from a mid-season break in Dubai, Arsenal’s expected goals against – a measure of the quality of the chances they are allowing their opponents – is just 1.88, or 0.31 per game. Prior to this weekend, the next best defensive team in the league in 2024 has been Manchester City, who have an expected goals against figure of 6.83, or 0.98 per game.

In other words, Arsenal’s defence has not just been the best in the league since the start of 2024. It has been more than three times better than their nearest competitor.

Last weekend, Newcastle United were the latest victims of Arsenal’s intensity. In the first half, Newcastle did not register a single shot, for the first time in a Premier League game since March 2014. Overall, Arsenal regained possession 11 times in the final third, the joint-most of any team since this data was first tracked by Opta in 2009.

The tone was set by Kai Havertz and Martin Odegaard, who led Arsenal’s pressing efforts. Behind them, Declan Rice and Ben White crunched into their opponents. It was aggressive, fast and relentless. Newcastle, in the words of Ceballos, simply had the air taken away from them.

Pressing from the front requires all 11 players to be fully invested in the strategy. It also requires the defence to push high up the pitch, closing the space in the opposition half. In 2024, Arsenal’s defensive line has been the highest in the division: their average starting distance from their own goal has been 46.3 metres (Liverpool have been the second highest, on 45.5 metres).

“It is the approach of the players,” said Arteta. “It is up to them. Eleven players are taking ownership and they are responsible for everything that happens on that field. And then their attitude, their love, that love for defending. You have to love it.

“When you put something into their system and they enjoy doing that and take pride in doing that, and they celebrate their defensive actions as they do an assist or a goal, you can take that to a different level. I think it is spreading amongst the team. That is contagious.”

Arsenal certainly have taken it to a “different level” in recent weeks. In 2023, they conceded an average of 9.1 shots per game. In 2024 so far, ahead of Monday’s trip to Sheffield United, they are conceding 7.8 shots per game.

What is behind this improvement? Partly, time. The pressing patterns are drilled into Arsenal’s players every week, and they are simply getting better at it.

There has also been a personnel change. Jakub Kiwior, normally a central defender, has started at left-back in the last three league games, following an injury to Oleksandr Zinchenko. Kiwior cannot pass the ball like Zinchenko but he is unquestionably a solid defender.

Above all, though, there is a sense that this is a group of players who operate on the same wavelength. The likes of Rice and Havertz are fully adjusted after their summer moves, and each member of the team knows where they need to be and when.

“Everybody has to be connected because every space, the timing of it, the approach, the distances that you have between the players, to read certain intentions and structures of the opponent,” said Arteta. “There are a lot of things but they know it now. It flows, they do it in a natural way and it is efficient. We have to continue to do that.”