An analytical look at the Arsenal defence and what can be done

It is common knowledge that the Arsenal defence is a significant cause for concern and there is huge debate among the fans about how to resolve the issues that are haunting the team on an almost weekly basis.

JustArsenal contributor Joe Allyson has put together an in-depth article analysing the different areas in the defence which is both interesting and insightful.

Read and enjoy.

Tactical talk

Centre backs

Hey guys, to say I’m disappointed with the result against Tottenham is an understatement. I really can’t take what happened. That aside though, I’d like to say thank you for the response to my last article about the midfield.

Today, I want to look at the defence. Again, just like the midfield, which we explained using the 4-4-2 setup, we’ll do the defence and then look at how it relates to our beloved club.

In a flat-four backline, the two centre backs are designated number 4 and number 5, and it goes beyond just the numbers, they have different roles, and unlike most other positions, one’s nature matters a lot in choosing what position they play. Most number 4’s can’t play number 5, and the reverse is true.

Let’s dive in then.

Number 4. The man marker

Time immemorial, number 4 was considered the man marker, faster than his number 5, more aggressive and unrelenting. In possession, number 4’s job in some teams was to let the smart people play and mind his own business (Jaap Stam at United, Ramos at Madrid) in others, He was designated to carry the ball out (Ronald Koeman at Barcelona).

Out of possession, the first responsibility number 4 had, was to move wherever number 5 asked him to be. He was the first one in to make a tackle once an attacker evaded his number 8 and number 6 (refer to the midfield conundrum article for more on this). Despite the fact that 4 and 5 were typically on the same line, at the time of winning the ball back, the 4 was slightly ahead of the 5.

At set-pieces. Number 4 at set-pieces is supposed to find the biggest opponent player and make life as hard as possible for him, hence being called the man marker.

Physically, number 4 was meant to be a big, strong fast individual with unrelenting will to get the ball.

The man marker was is and probably always will be prone to serious errors in his defending mainly resulting from his natural desire to win the ball at all costs. In real life, we’ve seen what they do. Ramos, Carles Puyol, Pepe, Kos, they all sometimes look clueless.

Examples of the best number 4s I can name in the present game would be: Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Jerome Boateng, and Samuel Umtiti to mention but a few.

At our club, I’d name Sokratis, David Luiz, and in the recent past, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré etc.

Now let’s move on to number 5. The sweeper

The sweeper was meant to be the smarter one of the two defenders. Almost a coach on the playing surface. These players were sometimes (are sometimes) referred to as liberos.

In possession, the libero is charged with passing the ball out of defence. Much like his mirror in midfield, the deep 6 (regista version) he doesn’t necessarily have to find the smartest to pass. just the safest.

Without possession, Number 5 is meant to drop behind the other 3 defenders and watch the movement from the attackers, making calls as to whether to push up and press the ball, drop deep and wait to intercept, get tight and press the middle or spread out and kill the wings. You get it.

The libero is also supposed to have a good perception of his defenders in relation to the opponent’s attackers so they tend to know where to move in relation to how the game is flowing thus giving them the ability to cover holes before they even open up.

Let’s use a practical example that is still fresh in our minds. A long ball from the Spurs defence trying to beat the Arsenal high line. Whoever was the libero between David Luiz and Papa should have made the call for whether we were going for the ball or waiting for the second ball (From positioning, It looked like Luiz was the designated libero).

So the first mistake, Libero didn’t communicate with man marker. Yes, it was brilliant movement from Kane coming out from defence but also not making it into midfield. So he was neither the responsibility of number 6 nor number 4, but since 6 was challenging, The libero had to make the decision on whether the man marker should have joined in on the challenge.

The second mistake, the man marker has followed his natural instinct and gotten drawn to the ball. In this case, it is the job of the libero to assess the situation and prepare for eventualities. Number 6 is under the ball, number 4 is late so now he is the only one left, also he had a number 8 (Guendouzi) falling into the 6 role as it would correctly be. Luiz gets the decision wrong again here. He is still maintaining his position as Sokratis goes for the challenge (in which he was clearly disadvantaged)

At this point, the situation was irredeemable. Another error, which people seemed not to notice, a fraction of a second after Kane wins the header, Sokratis turns around to chase, and also seems to be interested in Lamela before he notices that Luiz is heading there. It looks like they have a brief moment where they are deciding who is taking who. I would blame that on the coach. The reason why there’s a man marker and libero in defence is to remove that extra need for communication. That delay seemed to come from an instruction from the coach on who should mark who. Thus, causing Papa to think he was making a mistake in chasing Eriksen.

Before I go into naming liberos in the game today, I’ll start with the greatest of all time. Franz Beckenbauer. He was amazing and famed for being the cleanest defender ever (left the pitch with his shorts clean always).

Liberos sometimes had a weakness for overthinking things a lot of the time (they still do) and hence many times they get caught flat-footed because they anticipated one thing and the opponent did something completely different, or overestimating the abilities of their teammates and being let down.

Now in today’s game, there are a really limited number of Liberos. Matts Hummels looks like the best I’ve watched among those still playing, Raphael Varane, Harry McGuire, Aymeric Laporte, I’m actually struggling to remember them.

Going back a few years, Adams was a good one, Rio Ferdinand is probably the best I watched extensively, Ricardo Carvalho, Per Mertesacker. I’ll just stop there.

Tactical application for Arsenal.

I’m not that old so I haven’t watched too much soccer. I started watching soccer in 2001 and really understanding what I was watching in 2002. I have learned one thing though concerning Arsenal; in all those years, we’ve only really had one libero that I watched with the ability to analyze his game, and that was Mertesacker. Beyond that, Arsene Wenger always made the mistake of playing two-man markers which always resulted in the kind of goals we saw yesterday. Gallas + Squillachi, Kos + Verm, Touré + Campbell, Touré + Djorou, all number 4 combinations.

Take a look back, and you’ll notice that the successful arsenal teams (of the drought era) have had a proper marker sweeper combo (Touré + Senderos 2005, Mert + Kos for the FA cup years). What we’ve struggled with, is finding a sweeper we can actually trust over an extensive period of time.

Way forward.

Let’s not act like the coaches did not know this. Wenger’s flirting with low-quality sweepers proves he knew what the issue was and also Emery’s trust for Holding proves the same thing.

Currently, Arsenal does have sweeper type players at its disposal. Chambers, Holding, Saliba (I admit it’s judgement from YouTube clips) I think we need to drop one of our man markers in favour of a libero without moving to a back 3.

On a final note, the lack of a libero is not a problem that only affects Arsenal. The kind of goal we conceded on Sunday, and the one scored by Salah the previous week are not only limited to us. Most defences that play two-man markers face those issues. Ramos + Pepe at Madrid gave away their fair share, Boateng + Dante is probably the biggest comedy show I’ve watched I’m sure if you put your mind to it you can find others.

Thanks for reading. Have fun in the comments…

Joe Allyson


  1. OT…We need new hope to me I have no confidence in Emery because his style of football is out dated..
    Emery is confusing our players,next week u might see pepe playing as number 10.
    Emery is confuse.wired coach!!!

  2. Great article

    Emery thought he could create a more solid defense like Liverpool’s by fielding three defensive-minded midfielders. Unfortunately Xhaka and Torreira were not as good as Henderson, Wijnaldum and Fabinho in one-on-one situations

    I don’t think VVD would survive if he plays at Arsenal and his defending stats show how he worked in the back

    Emery should not change the winning midfielders. We were more solid in the back when those young midfielders played and I’m looking forward to see that line-up again

    1. young player lack the experience and big game intensity

      its always a gamble…play the young ones or the older experienced seniors

      it can go either way

  3. we need intelligent players just like the old boys

    to do that, we need a good scout for players and negotiator for deals

    since Cammoli left in 2003 and Dein in 2007

    we have been unable to sign quality player and seal the deals…

    but since Raul came in, we have improve in the negotiation area with vast contacts

    things will come good but need time

  4. Great article ?

    Personally thinking our CB pairing this season should be Luiz and Holding.

    Whilst I don’t think Luiz is a long term solution he is much better carrying the ball forward than Sokratis and his ball distribution is damn good which will help with playing it out from the back.

    1. Holding in his 3 years has only ever averaged 10 league games a season. A lot of expectations are being placed on him based on very few good games he played. We seem to forget he’s got some blunders in him too. His Leicester handball in the box? Did we forget that? I suppose when you watch Sokratis, Mustafi and Luiz, anybody can look good. Am afraid though Holding just like Bellerin, will not be a solution to our horrendous defending.

      1. Are you looking for a defender with no errors in his career? It might be long. VVD conceded an own goal on his Liverpool debut so by your standards, he can’t fit into your arsenal expectations. Sadly

      2. I never said Holding would be our saviour QD or never make a mistake ?‍♂️
        Imo Luiz and Sokratis as a pairing won’t work as they are both too similar and I personally go for Luiz over Sok for his ball carrying and distributing skills.
        That leaves Holding as the next most rounded/experienced CB we have, Chambers is decent enough but imo Holding surpasses him right now and we haven’t seen enough of Mavro to make any kind of real judgement ?‍♂️

  5. Analysis can be over done.
    Leno’s parry was weak and Xhaka’s lunge was Sunday league.
    Player quality remains the key.
    Allison 70m. Edison 50m Leno 19m
    VVD 70m. Laporte 55m Socritis 19m.
    Fabinho 41m. Rodri 62m Torreira 22m- Xhaka 30m
    Simply put Klopp and Pep drive Mercedes .
    Emery drives a Hindustan Ambassador.
    It’s a miracle how Emery is keeping Arsenal on the same lap.

    1. Well said. Some sensible and well put truths too. Sheer player quality all round the team and squad is what determines the wheat from the chaff. Your motors analogy was a good one!

    2. put the price of the front three
      and compare to the liverpool trio to arsenals, does the price of players always translate to quality well not always, mustafi and xhaka are players bought in excess of 30 by then it was hella too much.

  6. Interesting article but like a similar one recently I think it’s confusing to mention shirt numbers in relation to positions. In the old days (I go back to the fifties) the 2-3-5 formation and the numbering (1 to 11) and positions were basically standard with the goalkeeper at #1, the right back was #2 and the left back was #3. Then came the central half at #5 with the right half #4 and left half #6. The centre forward #9, right winger #7, left winger #11, inside right #8 and inside left #10. The whole system changed in the 60s when Alf Ramsey played without wingers and 4-4-2 was born. Then the centre half pair were #5 and #6, the midfield four usually #4, 7, 8 and 11 with the two up front #9 and 10. Ok, I’ve strayed from the point but instead of using numbers these days to describe a formation or player position, just use positions, i.e. CB, DM etc or the actual players names.

  7. The reason sokratis and Luiz does not work is because they are both the same defender, attracted to the ball and like to take risk to win the ball. Their high number of cards is proof of that. The best example of a 4 and 5 combo in recent time is mertesaker and koscielny. One of the biggest reason for our defensive woes is that we never replaced mertesaker and only bought number 4 defenders. Playing with 2 ball chasing defenders may work well at the start but never in the long term. E.g koscielny and vermalean/mustafi/Gabriel.

      1. I personally like players playing the position number e.g rb 2 lb 3 which explains my stubbornness to have a 1-11 lineup in fifa but don’t really mind players choosing whatever they like.

  8. Great article. I think Holding was great during the unbeaten run last season. He plays well with Mustafi, which might be one reason Mustafi was not sold or loaned out. I think a big body is needed in the midfield and Chambers was good for Fulham there. Will need him there against the physical sides.

  9. I thought it a well argued article and well put, though I also think it far too rigid in its roles of the various positions. Football defending , nor all of football, is not as rigidly compartmentalised as the article seems to argue. By far the most important thing in ANY teams success is sheer player quality. Really top players can and do play in more than one, rigid style and football history has many fine examples of that truth. So to sum up the article, A GOOD TECHNICAL ONE from the authors point of view; that cannot sensible be denied, BUT I do not think it truly gets to the actual heart of what matters. What ALWAYS matters, far more than any other matter, is sheer talent and that means VERSATILITY too, of all the key players in particular. As a prime example of my own argument I give you none other than MESUT OZIL. Fans such as Phil,Ken and a few others constantly say he must only be used in a very narrowly defined role with the other players picked to play to his passing strengths. But a truly top player is far more versatile than this. That is surely true! What ultimately matters MOST is how consistently effective is ANY PLAYER, not how technically gifted is he. Regular effectiveness INCLUDES – and obviously so- the ability to stay regularly fit and available for selection. Sicknote players can never be truly regularly effective. THAT should be obvious to anyone but sadly is not!

    1. As true as it is that a top player should be versatile, the world has proven different. Lionel Messi is the best example. He’s been tried in multiple positions but doesn’t seem to flourish away from the right flank,but we’ve seen some truly versatile players like John O’shea who just wasn’t world class

      1. Joe It was surely implicit in my post that a versatile player also has to have real ability. Your choice of O’Shea, who is patently rubbish, does not in the least represent what I wrote. I meant someone like Milner of Liverpool. Versatile and good everywhere. We could all provide silly and wrong examples, like O’Shea, but how does THAT help? It merely misrepresents what I wrote.

        1. Jon, so where would you have played Tony Adams then, to prove that he was versatile as well as having real ability?

          He didn’t HAVE to play anywhere else did he, because he was made for that position, so what’s your point?

          You, and a few others,constantly cite MESUT OZIL as the butt of all that’s wrong…but let’s just THINK for a minute:

          During the length of his career, he has been played in the same role that saw him win numerous awards by the most succesful managers/coaches in the business, more than the likes of Milner for example.

          They didn’t devalue his contribution because of his body language, or the amount of running up and down the pitch, or his salary, or sicknotes, they valued his ability in the role that he excelled in.

          Now suddenly, you say that, because he doesn’t show the “versatility” that YOU believe makes a truly great player, those professionals have got it all wrong?

          It was like asking Cech to suddenly become a footballing goalkeeper after being completely the opposite during a career that made him one of the top keepers in the world by UE, but trying to make him a footballing keeper only made him look like a clown and the player and the team suffered.

          If someone is perfect at what they do, why try to change them?

          I hope my questions aren’t loaded by the way, whatever that means.

          1. Ken you well know my position on talking to you or to Phil about Ozil (also Wenger) so no more from me about him. I never said all players had to be versatile and obviously it will apply less to pure defenders, esp of the old fashioned (and rare in todays world) Adams mould. I also never suggested such a player, a legend remember, should be changed. Football was completely different back in Adams time from todays faster and generally more mobile games. (More mobile at top level). Your mention of Cech though illustrates my point perfectly. When he started out no keepers needed great feet. Now all top keepers do.

            Managers like Guardiola and Klopp have raised the bar of what real top teams NOW need! Key players, esp in creative positions need to be more versatile NOW. BUT THEY ALL NEED DESIRE!

          2. So Jon, if a player excels in ANY position, why does he have to be versatile?

            What you are saying in your post timed at 12.38 is, quote,
            “what always matters is sheer talent and that means VERSATILTY to” (your capital letters).

            I really don’t understand what it is you want from a top player with sheer talent – does he have to be versatile or not?

            Again I quote ” what matters most is how consistently effective is ANY PLAYER, not how technically gifted he is”.

            One quote contradicts the other…does a player of talent need to be constantly effective (a given) but also prove he is versatile to be talented?

            As for Cech, my point was quite simple.
            Why try to change a talented and constantly effective player into a nervous wreck just to show if he is versatile or not?

            He obviously wasn’t, so what was the point? He was still a talented and constantly effective player, full of desire.

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