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.

203 comments on “Will Arsenal Emphasize Attack or Defense?

  1. Not to say any of these are poor footballers, Carroll unlucky with injuries…just, you know, not that great either…


  2. < Sterling has been not much more then an agent's mule since he was a young teenager. It is known! (GoT reference for you all there!)

    The hope with the Ox was that coming from a football family and that he'd prioritise a football career over early retirement (please refer to Sterling).


  3. I’ve enjoyed the Sterling and Chambo comparisons these past few seasons with friends and other football fans. Shame I never made a proper bet but we’ve moved on from that comparison as there’s no need for it anymore.


  4. have you not noticed fins, the best players in the BPL are not English, and its these foreign players that have helped make the BPL a top level league, German, Spanish and France internationals all over the place, have you not spotted them, we have some of each here at Arsenal, they actually make us the good team we are, you are confusing the England national team for the League, its not the same thing, in fact have you not noticed all the times that the media, the FA, the national team supporters bemoan how the lack of English players at the top teams, in fact now they say in the BPL in total, is causing England to fall behind at National level. All these German, Spanish, French, and other countries players coming over here and stopping English players getting game time in the BPL.
    isn’t it odd that these players from the Spanish and German and of course the French national team can sparkle at International level, but also sparkle at BPL level, while these top level English players like OX and Danny can only do it at what you seem to think is the higher level International game.
    Odd too that Kane’s stats in CL can be used to show he is not as good as Welbeck, but same stats can not be used to show Sterling has outperformed OX.

    Simple question, in your view is it only International football than can be called top level, or it and one or two leagues, say Spain & Germany, or is there more, please enlighten us.


  5. so fins despite all the stats to prove otherwise, in your view cos ox has 4 international goals compared to sterlings 2, the debate on who is the better player is over. Or is it that OX has failed to get a regular place as a wide midfielder, or midfielder at all, and is not seen as a wingback, while Sterling is still classed as an attacker that makes the comparison worthless. Cos it sure as hell can’t be on Ox’s actual progression. He has still it all to do. Will he even start ahead of Bellerin in our strongest 11(my view is he might, but I would not bet on it), if not, what chance has he of being in our strongest team. Do you think he gets in our best 11 and if so where, and at whose expense.


  6. Alvy. Your 3.35. Despite a few errors, well worth the watch. I gave up on Arsefan TV about a year back…too much Claude!, but maybe worth a relook?


  7. finsbury
    August 16, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    < Sterling has been not much more then an agent's mule since he was a young teenager. It is known! (GoT reference for you all there!)

    The hope with the Ox was that coming from a football family and that he'd prioritise a football career over early retirement (please refer to Sterling).

    so much for that hope, his agent has been feeding transfer stories to the media all summer, Liverpool this, Liverpool that, now its Chelsea this and Chelsea that, of course not about money, despite turning down £100k a week offer from AFC, no its all dressed up in game time, position, whatever,
    and lets not ignore that if OX leaves AFC within the next year he will have had same number of clubs as Sterling, he already has same number of Senior clubs, but hey perception is the key, after all they have harvested the image that he is from a football family and puts football before money, unlike Sterling who has had the Sun and the Mail portray him as a money grabber, mainly cos he had the nerve to leave Liverpool, how dare he, how very dare he leave media darlings Liverpool, and him a young English blackman.


  8. Mirror reporting that Valencia are set to sign Gabriel for £10M

    reports in France suggest Marseille will sign Debuchy on a free transfer.


  9. gf60-I personally dont think they have too much to say. I was shocked though that sometimes they are getting up to half a millions clicks if one of them gets-a-ranting. Rather read your match review and thoughts on AFC and the guys on here than them thar lot.
    I like Robbie though, but not too many of the pundits of those on his show. I think it seems stuck in the same old rut, even if we win, theres still something to grrrrr about.
    Trouble is if you are bored, its a place to gravitate to!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Yes Eds we all noticed some time ago that the best players in the PL came from the best leagues.


  11. hunter was kind enough to spell this all out previously.


  12. I’m just off to place a bet on England winning the WC in Russia (I won’t mention the German Lino!)


  13. Does anyone feel up to doing the match preview?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Xavi tosses a jealous, covetous eye on Seri:

    I’m not used to seeing such talent in midfield any more. The short game, long game, tactical intelligence, long-range shooting, personality, organisation of the play… Madre mia!
    “He would do so well at Barca. He can play anywhere in the middle. He is fantastic. He has what they call the Barca DNA. No doubt.”

    Read more at https://www.fourfourtwo.com/us/news/he-would-do-so-well-barca-xavi-wants-seri-camp-nou#XiUt0UCexMsuYl03.99

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Napoli Nice time then Shotta (think Napoli are a good watch these days so no hardship)

    Sure I read Nice coach is good friends with Wenger, and coincidentally was Xhaka’s Gladbach coach- maybe that could be helpful if we’re after him.

    Anyway, I’ve no idea, or even what seems a good guess, what plans we have for next few weeks or whether we need to sell first to do anything else. We don’t have long to wait to see.

    We have brought in four players in recent years- Ozil, Sanchez, Xhaka, Lacazette- who I’d watched a bit of a lot, wanted at the club and ,with decreasing pessimism, had either disbelieved or doubted we’d ever sign.

    Course, nowt to do with the improved finances that we were able to win battles for those players again!


  16. Lol Shotts, Mbappe, Lemar, Seri, I hope their agents are willing to talk with AFC, I hope their agents are the kind of agents AFC are willing to talk to!

    Unlike as was unfortunately misunderstood above to lampoon a modern parasite I mean agent is not a personal attack on an above average or even top level (like the kids from the French league listed above) footballer.


  17. Seriously had a mixed game. Uninvolved at the start but more involved as the half wore on. In general Nice was over run by Napoli and had little possession.


  18. Seriously = Seri.


  19. Great support at Parkhead – very impressive


  20. Match preview sorted, Thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Seri did not have the best of games but I loved his cool under pressure.


  22. Arsènic™‏ @MrArsenicTM

    #AFC spokesman on Gabriel imminent transfer to Valencia: “Nothing from us at this time..”


  23. I said it before but there issomething missing from Barca


  24. Earlier today I was wondering why Wenger had done a presser for Saturday’s fixture v Stoke. I could understand last weeks presser being on Wednesday what with the LCFC game being on Friday, but I did not understand why it would be a Wednesday again this week.
    Well seeing all the bullshit fake headlines in the English soccer press tomorrow, big headlines suggesting Wenger said certain things, that destabilize AFC and unsettle its players and of course the fan base, it dawned on me that this is the reason why Arsenal have moved the managers press call to a Wednesday..
    Very simply put it is so that the players don’t wake up on the day before or on the day of the game to be met with these sensational fake headlines and fake stories. Doing a press call on Wednesday, means that by time the game comes round the media have moved on to some other fake sensational headline or story, and our players will have several training sessions together to see there is no truth in the media stories.

    Liked by 3 people

  25. Will be sorry to see Gab go, he seemed more at home in the three , we need to be careful in that area, Holding brilliant but young, Kos brilliant but the Achilles heel, Per can certainly do it on his day still, as we saw with the Per Final, Chambers reportedly off, despite looking a decent player, Mustaphi back from injury. Monreal can fit in I guess


  26. well Mandy if we are letting Gabriel go and selling Chambers too, then we are certainly taking a risk number wise, mustafi, per, kos and young holding and it seems Monreal is now seen as a CB, that is 5 for 3 slots, and we must consider that per has said himself that he can not play 3 games in a week, kos has injury concerns, his achilles, age wise too, Per 33, Kos 32, and nacho 31, it adds to the risks too.

    it would seem odd to weaken our squad that much, unless of course we are bringing in another CB, maybe talk of interest in VVD is true.


  27. Arsene Wenger was asked about Alexis, Mesut Ozil, holding stars to their contracts and whether player power truly exists when he faced the media on Wednesday.

    This is what he had to say:

    on whether it’s his decision on Alexis…
    It’s my decision, but after the board has to of course agree with me. And if they don’t agree we have to consider it as well, and I will accept it. But the board is behind me on that.

    on the clubs having to make a financial sacrifice in this situation…
    It is a financial sacrifice. It is a sacrifice that you have to calculate how much it costs. If you let the player go and you buy somebody you spend maybe more than you lose. And as well if you extend the contracts it costs you maybe more than you lose when you keep the player. So you have to consider the length of the contract as well that the players want. So all that is in consideration, the financial sacrifice is not as heavy as it looks.

    on whether it’s an impossible equation to calculate…
    You cannot. Anyway, you can have an estimation of what it costs if you lose the player, what it costs if you extend the player, and all that. What it costs if you buy a new player. You can do that, approximately. After that, the ratio between what the player will cost, what he brings back, this has gone. How can you quantify today what Neymar costs? Will he bring €300million back? It’s impossible to say. There is a part that is rational, and the other part is completely irrational: it is passion, ego, pride, you can call that how you want. How much is that worth financially? Maybe that’s down to every club.

    on focusing on football rather than finances…
    Of course. I am a football manager, I want Alexis to stay, and that’s it. After that, all the financial implications, for me, are less important. But at the end of the day you have to afford it as well, you must afford it. I want him to stay, I want him to extend his contract. But as well you have to be able to afford to pay him.

    on football breaking the rules of economics…
    There is a part that is not rational, that is called success. How much are you ready to pay for success? But on the other hand, you face a reality as well. At the end of the month, you have to face the fact that you have to pay your players and everybody at the club.

    on not strengthening title rivals…
    Look, every club has a different policy and you have to respect that. You analyse the age and the money you get, and I don’t say I never do it because I did it as well with Robin van Persie at the time when he was at the end of his contract and Man Utd paid good money. It’s not ideal because you strengthen your opponent and you weaken your team.

    on whether he regrets selling Van Persie…
    I just say I do not say never, because every situation is different and sometimes you are in a position where you have as well to consider the financial aspect of the situation. He had a good season, Van Persie. Did he make Man Utd win that year? I don’t know, it’s difficult to assess that.

    on whether he is more more optimistic on Ozil signing a new deal than Alexis…
    I am optimistic on both. Both players are happy at the club. So that, for me, after you have to meet their needs. Their needs are their desire for success and their needs are as well financial. I think if we can meet their needs on the pitch, there is more chance to extend their contracts.

    on whether player power exists when clubs own the contracts…
    Every club is different on that. I believe that the player power is there, but the clubs have as well resources to make their contracts respected. I think sometimes the media go a bit more in favour of the players maybe. So that makes sometimes the situation a bit more uncomfortable for the clubs. But overall, I think the powers are quite well balanced. You have a contract, the player has to respect the contract. You cannot really say it is player power.

    on whether he is 100 per cent sure the Ox, Alexis and Ozil will stay…
    One hundred per cent never exists, because never in our job never exists. But today, yes. And I think all the three will stay. I will fight for them to stay.

    Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to http://www.arsenal.com as the source.

    Read more at https://www.arsenal.com/news/it-sacrifice-you-have-calculate#8mbCAhvkPFRMivjW.99

    Read more at https://www.arsenal.com/news/it-sacrifice-you-have-calculate#KRcExLtfg7ED03v8.99


  28. Seleção Brasileira‏ @BrazilStat 11m11 minutes ago

    Barcelona general manager Pep Segura has told TV 3 on air:

    “We are close to complete the signings of Coutinho and Dembelé.”


  29. seemingly Mathieu Debuchy’s agents in talks with Marseille over a £1M transfer from Arsenal.


  30. Do any of you know the contract situation with Iwobi? Length of contract, expirey date, rough wages. No particular reason for asking other than a feeling he might be a useful example when considering the whole contract issue.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. “but my man of the match has to be the Ox”

    I saw the same football match as Don.

    What then are we to make of the pontificating podcastateers who have been continuously degrading the observable performances of this football player upon the football pitch? Have they never watched a game of football, have they never made the comparitive study of comaparing a 20 year old Ox playing LW for England in tournament football with a 20 year old Sterling playing the same role (one performed, against France i think, the other did not…) or:

    Are they on commission from his agent?


  32. < Don over at Untold.


  33. Fins the way you big up ox it sounds like you are on commission from his agent, the lad is still only potential, flashes of what he can do, but he has to add consistency and end product for him to be the player you seem to think he already is.

    Ox is eye catching as he is pace and power, those little attacking bursts, those powerful long range shots, those swerving crosses, all get people on the edge of their seat, and so he gets lots of votes for man of the match, but when you look at the detail you see for example v LCFC that he had 6 of those long range power shots, 4 of which where off target, the other did not trouble the keeper with a save as they where blocked by defenders. His swerving crosses looked great but actually never found a team mate – of course if we want to big him up we can say it was the fault of his team mates not to get on the end of them, and not ox for missing his team mate with the cross. Ox’s power and pace play gets overstated in the same way people rate Welbeck way above Giroud cos he our French man does not have the speed or dash about him that Danny does.


  34. Eds,
    I’m not the one picking (trusting) this footballer to play any position ahead of the back five (back four plus keeper), he’s played everywhere but CF. Whereas Guardiola does not appear to trust Sterling to start in his most familiar positions.

    I’m sorry that mine and others’ observations that Chambo now that he’s recovered from that big injury (didn’t look like his technique could recover at one stage) is one of the better young english footballers is upsetting you, but it’s been a fun conversation for me and others this past year (the ‘debate’ is now over).


  35. anyone else get an e-mail form Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote, he assures me that he is a big Arsenal fan and he just needs our help to become owner of Arsenal and sack Arsene Wenger.
    You see he is keen to buy Arsenal and spend spend spend spend what ever it will take to make us the best team in the world.
    Only problem is he has a cash flow problem at the moment, and will not have the funds needed till another one of his projects – an oil refinery – gets up and running in a few years time and then he will have more money than sense.
    So he just needs all our Bank Details and we will be repaid with Arsenal success like never before.
    Anyone interested just contact me and I will forward details of where and when you can send your bank details to.
    It looks great, almost too good to be true.


  36. < heh: RB too!


  37. Ah and the same man picking him has picked Theo and iwobi and coquelin, and Elneny ahead of Ox in the mans more favored position, and the same man has not trusted Ox to deliver enough attacking wise that he has had to now try and convert him into a wingback. Lets not forget that the same man picking him all over the place is not looking to pay Ox the wages the lad is seeking. Ox the jack of all trades and the master of none.
    You see fins its works both ways.


  38. Eds
    I’m guessing Raila sent a similar email to the comical director at Utd (who once bought three LBs for £100M in the same window!!!!)


  39. What works both ways? You’ve lost me there mate.

    The whole doesn’t have a set position meme for modern footballers is garbled gibberish in the modern game outside of the CB and Gk positions!


  40. To repeat:

    The Ox’s manager clearly trusts the footballer
    Sterling’s doesn’t appear to be too convinced.

    (that’s not an opinion but a well supported observation)


  41. I enjoyed the CB/LB/LWB setting up that equalising second goal when he was the farthest player forward…but does the player have a set position?



  42. An opinion that many share is that the Ox was AFCs best footballer (yep it is a team sport) last friday night, which is why he’s been called AFCs MOTM by many.



  43. as I explained ox gets lots of motm votes as he is an exciting player, his bursts of pace and power are very eye catching, I seen many say Danny Welbeck was our man of the match, again when asked why I got replies that his speed and running was spectacular,

    if you check out man of the match voting on most sights, even on Arsenal.com certain players get loads of votes regardless of performance, Alexis, Ox, Danny and Hector are usually high up the list, where as Ramsey and Ozil seldom get the gong.

    You say that Ox was your man of the match last Friday, can you explain why you came to that conclusion, what did he actually do that really impacted the result. I have no axe to grind in regard the ox, I’m just curious as to what you and others seen from the ox that made him your man of the match.
    As I seen an “almost” performance from him, he almost completed a great dribble, almost set up a chance with an enticing cross, almost powered a shot on target etc etc etc. Eye catching but end product missing.
    If you were building a player Ox has so many of the attributes you would want in the player, good size, great pace, great power, burst of speed, good stamina, and oh my if he ever does learn to put it all together we will have a great on our hands.


  44. No need for me to say anything Eds, Ox’s stats from the football match tell us the story.



  45. Speaking for myself I think people being critical of players who have had to recover from injury and who have performed when fit is such an unreasonable opinion that I think it’s fair to say that such critics need to pull themselves together!
    Especially when the comparitive performances of the players being compared above when they played the same position for the same team (when at the same age i.e. Not at the same time but it’s still the most logical method of measure, who could argue against?) are equally helpful and telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  46. If Chamberlain truly does need to pull himself together when compared to his English peers then the teams from Blighty are fooked!

    Watching the young Madrid players that might be a fair comment!

    Sorry Shotts but Isco is the heartbeat of the Madrid squad going forwards, the missed out on Cazorla but they’ve made sure they’ve got a top top home grown AM going forwards. Or two.


  47. I blame the uber blaggers and bullshitting podcastateers.

    Bellerin performed better then the Ox at WB on Friday? Which is why he got switched to LB?


    What is wrong with these people?

    Bellerin and Holding were not combining and covering for each other as well as the left sided peer. Bellerin couldn’t work out that lcfc were targeting his CB. Which is why two goals and a close header came from chances made down the right in the first half alone.

    Seriously. Why do these ernest commentators bother watching the bleedin’ football? Unbelievable.


  48. thats a cop out.

    ox stats
    Goals 0
    Assists 0
    Passes 51
    Completed Passing % 78.4
    Dribbles 8 – leading to his six shots, 4 off target, 2 blocked (so keeper not trouble), lost possession once too. So of his 8 dribbles he laid the ball off to a team mate once.
    Crosses 1
    Bad control 1
    Tackles 3
    Interceptions 3
    fouls 1
    fouls won 1
    Clearances 4
    through balls 0
    longs balls 6

    is there some other stats that show he was worthy of man of the match


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