Will Arsenal Emphasize Attack or Defense?


Premier League football was back with a vengeance last weekend and after Arsenal conceded three goals to Leicester, on its way to an exciting come-from-behind victory, there was the usual angst among casual fans as well as the professional pundits as to whether Wenger should focus on a more attacking or defensive set up to truly challenge for the title.

As any close follower of the club is aware the debate has been raging ad-infinitum, waxing and waning. It took a more recent grip between March and April this year when the club conceded three goals to West Brom, Liverpool and Crystal Palace in a spate of excruciating defeats. This preceded a switch to three at the back in mid April and a return to defensive solidity as the club won 8 successive PL games as well as victories vs huge opponents (Man City and Chelsea) in both the FA cup semi-final and final.

Wenger in pre-season pledged a continuation of the same formation for the 2017-18 campaign but in the Leicester game questions about the efficacy of three at the back refused to go away. Having fallen behind 2-3 Wenger decided around the 70 minute mark to ditch the starting formation, going 4-3-3, ridding the team of its only specialized central defender and focusing on a far more attacking group of players. Does this portend a return to a more conventional attacking formation?

Never one to shy away from controversy, our own @BlackburnGeorge threw his hat into the ring with a customary acerbic tweet:

George has a very good point and, as is his custom, he is not shy to assert it. Unlike the head-in-the-sand bleatings of most members of the pundit class (on both sides of the Atlantic), he recognizes that football administrators have gradually modified the rules of the game to give advantage to the attacking team.

The decline of the offside trap and more goal-scoring

Jonathan Wilson, one of the finest observers of the modern game, in 2010 concluded that modern changes to the offside rule:

“….has generated a climate in which some of the most beautiful football ever played has been produced.”

I will quote him extensively:

In 2005 that the most radical changes came, and the switch to a law that, 142 years after it was first formulated, at last seems to have got it right. First, it was clarified that a player is offside only if a part of his body with which he is legally able to play the ball is beyond the penultimate defender. That, realistically, is academic, for no linesman can make a snap judgment as to whether, say, it is upper arm or torso he can see protruding beyond the defender, but what the change did was to shift the benefit of any doubt yet further in favour of the forward.

More significant, though was the rewording of what it means to be interfering: “Interfering with play means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate.” A later amendment clarified that: “A player in an offside position may be penalised before playing or touching the ball if, in the opinion of the referee, no other team-mate in an onside position has the opportunity to play the ball.

“If an opponent becomes involved in the play and if, in the opinion of the referee, there is potential for physical contact, the player in the offside position shall be penalised for interfering with an opponent.”

In Wilson’s opinion the law delegitimized the offside trap as evident by the data:

Opta stats show that in 1997-98 there were 7.8 offsides per game in the Premier League, after which there was a fairly steady decline to 6.3 in 2005-06. Since the new legislation came into force, there has been a further decline, to 4.8 so far this (2010-11) season.

Wilson notes that while the old offside rule was to prevent goalhanging and prevent the game becoming about endless hoofs into the danger area where a goalkeeper would battle with a handful of forwards who could legitimately stand straight in front of him, recent rule changes go further.

The modern law stops that, but brilliantly it does it without the side-effect of legitimising the offside trap. And that must, even at its most basic level, be a good thing. Surely nobody, not even George Graham, goes to a game thinking: “Hmm, I hope they play some good offsides today?” Making defenders defend, forcing them to mark or block or intercept or tackle, has to be a good thing.

It must be emphasized that since 2005 there have been several tweaks to the offside rule further liberating the forwards and making the offside trap even more difficult to implement.

Most recent was in 2016 as FIFA amended the law to clarify that an offside player who is not ‘actively involved in play’ is not committing an offence as long as he is not interfering with play. Again this was an attempt to encourage attacking football.

“Interfering with play means playing or touching the ball passed or touched by a team-mate,”

A player could still be offside though if the referee think he is interfering with an opponent, such as blocking a goalkeeper’s view, or has gained an advantage.

Is it any wonder that many ex-pros from the George Graham era, like Arsenal’s Lee Dixon, currently a pundit for NBC, cannot come to grips with modern day defending. The best he can do is grumble and snipe that “back in my day” we had “real leaders” who would “point and shout”. Most of all, the old crones cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that a modern team must emphasize attacking football and score goals rather than a conservative tactic of full backs who rarely break beyond the half-way line and a back four protected by two deep-lying central midfielders. Again George is spot on:

League Winners Are Scoring More Goals

The trend in the Premier League when comparing 1996-2006 to 2006-17 indicate that increasingly the winners have to score more goals season-to-season if they are to win the league.

Premier League Winner – Mean Statistic
1996-2006 2006-2017 Change % Change
GF 77 84 7 9%
GA 32 32 0 0%
GD 45 52 7 16%
Premier League Winner – Median Statistic
1996-2006 2006-2017 Change % Change
GF 75 83 8 11%
GA 34 32 -2 -6%
GD 45 52 7 16%

Both the mean and median statistic indicate that in the last 10 years or so, since the changes in the offside rule, winning PL teams are scoring 9-11 percent more goals compared to the first ten years when Wenger started managing. In contrast, there has been no  increase in the Goals Against data from one era to the next. In fact on a media basis GA has declined by 6%, suggesting champion teams are better at defending despite the declining importance of the offside trap.

Compare the league winners with Arsenal over the same period:

Arsenal – Mean Statistic
1996-2006 2006-2017 Change % Change
GF 72 70 -2 -3%
GA 33 38 5 15%
GD 38 33 -5 -13%
Arsenal – Median Statistic
1996-2006 2006-2017 Change % Change
GF 71 71 0 0%
GA 35 37 2 6%
GD 40 31 -9 -23%

Unlike the top teams in the Premier League, in the 10 years since the big change in the offside rule, Arsenal’s goal-scoring has either remained stagnant or even declined slightly using the mean average. More concerning, Goals Against has increased between 6% and 15% depending on which metric is used. The end result is a sharp decline in Goal Difference from the past era to the present ranging from -13% (mean average) to -23% (median average).

The data is crystal clear. Arsenal has considerable ground to cover if it is to improve on its better resourced rivals such as Chelsea, Man City and Man United who, apart from Leicester in 15/16, have monopolized the league title since 2006.

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203 comments on “Will Arsenal Emphasize Attack or Defense?

  1. For me Ox was a lot better than Bellerin on Friday, oddly enough Hector was way better at Left Back than he was at Right Wing Back, also though Ox was better at Right Back than as Left Wing Back. but then overall the team improved when we went 4 at the back, our midfield took over at that stage, and Ozil was a lot more involved too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Eds if the aaa/wobs/dysphoric maniacs were not so busy chopping off various parts of their own anatomies (that which is left) in order to spite themselves they might have been able to make a coherant critique of the gaffer and ask why didn’t he start with a back four given the personel available on friday night.

    A fair critique that had a fair response (two subs coming on and winning the football match)

    Alas that shipped sailed a long long time ago! There is no longer a debate about the foobtall out there, just a media led ego-fest.
    That’s why i enjoy comparing thoughts with friends here and in the physical world on the football we’ve seen from the two young players Sterling and Chambo, bearing in mind one is more a forward then a midfielder and slightly younger without the big injury interruption.

    Because we love the Football above the sounds of our voices!


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