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Lies and Statistics: Arsenal’s dominant defenders

Arsenal has one of the worst defenses in the league…

….Arsenal has the best starting defenders in Europe

Arsenal’s defense lets them down in big games… 

…Arsenal’s starting defense was undefeated against top 8 sides last year

Arsenal ships too many goals…

…Arsenal’s preferred defensive unit conceded the fewest goals per game in recent Premier League history

The negative generalizations listed above probably sound pretty damn familiar to Arsenal fans. Every time we turn on TalkSport or ESPN FC Press Pass, some recently retired player is offering up his considered and entirely unsupported analysis of  Arsenal’s supposedly leaky defense. Worse yet, this analysis is usually offered up as incontrovertible fact.  However, what would you say if we told you that the positive statements regarding the strength of Arsenal’s starting defensive are just as supportable – if not more so – than the negative generalizations we hear so much? Okay, so let’s say you weren’t allowed to swear. What would you say then?

We say that too few among us actually take the time to challenge some of the most widely help “truths” and generalizations in the European game. This series is dedicated to challenging these widely held truths. Today, we challenge the nearly universal opinion that Arsenal, based on the form of 2011-12, are a poor defensive club and require significant upgrade in order to challenge for silverware. First, a quick review:

Heading into the season last, Arsene Wenger was vocally – confident in the group of defenders he’d assembled. He turned away offers for starting-quality English internationals, citing –too much derision – his feeling that he already had an excellent starting unit. In fact, just to be on the safe side, Wenger had acquired a 26-year-old full German national center back in Per Mertersacker and the Brazil international starting left back as cover for his starting four.

Wenger, as usual, was correct in his assessment. Arsenal did possess the best group of starting defenders in the Premier League, at least when healthy. However, the Gunners were struck by a plague biblical in its intensity, and the best laid plans were laid bare as Arsenal lost its top four full-backs for much of the season, while simultaneously battling injuries to Belgian star Thomas Vermaelen and new German backup Mertersacker.

Towards the end of the season, the injured players returned. For a sizeable sample size, Gunners fans were able to appreciate the back four that Wenger had trumpeted back in August. And the Arsenal defense was not only good, it was dominant.

We ask the following: Is Arsenal’s preferred back-line, if reasonably healthy, good enough to challenge for a title? The answer, based on a significant sample size from last year’s season, is a resounding yes. In fact, despite what we are constantly told, Arsenal’s defense was downright dominant when healthy, and in those games against top competition in which Arsenal featured its preferred defenders, the Gunners were the strongest team in the league, period.

Still in disbelief? Fair enough. Let’s take look at how Arsenal performed on the whole last year in games that featured their preferred starting backline of Bacary Sagna, Laurent Kocielny, Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs. Let’s also consider games in which Arsenal subbed in a backup for either of the two preferred central defenders.

Judging strictly by average goals allowed per game, here is how Arsenal’s starting defense (+/- one CB) compares to the last five Premier League Champions:

2011-12 Arsenal starting def (vs Top 8; 7 games)                .56 GAA

2008-09 Manchester United                                                        .63 GAA

2011-12 Arsenal starting def          (14 games)                         .71 GAA

2011-12 Manchester City                                                               .76 GAA

2009-10 Chelsea                                                                               .84 GAA

2010-11 Manchester United                                                        .97 GAA

(In addition, please evaluate the attached graphic representation of the Arsenal schedule, in which we removed all games that do not fit the criteria of this argument. The starting defenders are listed by first initial of last name next to the corresponding result.)

Arsenal dominated the 14 games that featured their preferred starting defenders.

Arsenal played 14 league games that met our criteria. Seven of the 14 games took place against competition that finished in the top eight and qualified for European competition. In this data set, Arsenal’s defense and the team as a whole played at a consistent title-winning level. 

The Gunners allowed just .71 goals per game and lost just one of the 14 contests. Arsenal shut out Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton (twice). Further, the Gunners defense dominated the eventual Champions Manchester City , blanking the title-winners 1-0 as Laurent Koscielny marked Sergio Aguero completely out of the game and the rest of the Gunners backline frustrated Mario Balotelli into a red card ejection.

More specifically, Arsenal’s first choice defense played at an even higher level when faced with the best competition. In seven games versus top eight competitors, Arsenal was undefeated and took an average of 2.5 points per contest as the Gunners defense allowed a miniscule .56 goals against ratio.

Based on the data in question, the following statements are supportable and accurate within the context of this argument:

  • Arsenal’s preferred starting back-line was the stingiest defense in the Premier League last year.
  • Even when missing one of two preferred central defenders, the Arsenal back-line remained the toughest in the league.
  • Arsenal’s starting back-line were undefeated against Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Newcastle.
  • Arsenal were undefeated and took an average of 2.4 points per game in seven contests against the top 8 when the preferred back-line started.
  • Arsenal played 14 games in which both full-backs and at least one of two preferred central defenders started. The Gunners lost just once, allowed .71 goals per game, and took an average of 2.1 points per game off opponents.
  • Arsenal’s preferred starting back-line gave up fewer goals per game than that of the Premier League Champions in all but one of the last five seasons.
  • Arsenal shutout Chelsea, Manchester City, Newcastle, and Everton in games that featured the Gunners’ first choice (+/- 1) defenders.

So now that we’ve seen results from the 14 occasions in which most of Arsenal’s first choice defenders were available, that brings us to the most pressing question: So what? And also:  What would that famous Gooner Billy Beane say about Arsenal’s defensive preparations headed into the 2012-13 season? We’re glad you asked.

In Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ celebrated study of the use of data and market theory in the sports realm, Lewis uses case studies provided by Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane to illustrates many of the previously unrecognized truths in sports management. At its core, Moneyball is about the science of assembling a winning team via the most efficient use of available resources.

One of the accepted operating conditions in the sports environment, according to Lewis, is that no matter how well you plan, the team’s ultimate goals cannot be accomplished without a large helping of luck. Inevitably, in a competitive market, the team that ends up winning is also a team that experiences a large portion of luck. Many times, this luck relates to the health of its players.

In an environment with limited resources, managers like Beane and Wenger make value choices on how to distribute funds throughout a squad. Typically, a manager tries to assemble the strongest starting unit possible, and then distributes quality backups throughout the rest of the roster as funds are available.

Regardless of how rich a club may be every manager lives in fear of a plague of injuries. Considering they won the title in the last-minute of the last day of the season, how do we think Manchester City would’ve done if they had been without starting center backs Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott for over half of the season? I think it’s fair to say they wouldn’t have won the championship. Manchester United, on the other hand, lost their best defender early in the season. If Vidic had stayed healthy, would that have been enough to keep the title in Red? Perhaps.

At the end of the day, we’re left with little more than hypotheticals and what-ifs. However, if you take nothing else from this column, steal these statistics next time some Talksport @!£hole screams unsupported Arsenal generalizations. Enjoy the incredulous reaction when you state your claim about Arsenal’s superiority. It may be just another generalization, but at least these generalizations are loosely based in fact. Which, these days, is as close to “truth” as we often get.

1886AFC.com | Twitter: @hul10 | Reporter, editor, political consultant | Arsenal and Seattle Sounders supporter.
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