Arsenal’s defensive frailties prove cause for concern despite progress under Unai Emery


On 53 minutes against Qarabag in the Europa League, teenager Emile Smith Rowe scored his first competitive goal for Arsenal. With Alex Iwobi drawing four defending Qarabag players out before releasing the ball, the 18-year-old slotted home Arsenal’s second of the night following a well-timed overlapping run. The goal proved Arsenal’s second string is also capable of quick transitions and counter-attacking goals.

However, just seconds earlier, on 52 minutes, Arsenal found themselves on the cusp of seeing their opener levelled out by Mahir Madatov. The 21-year-old three-time Azerbaijan Premier League winner only had Bernd Leno to beat with returning Sead Kolasinac not reading the game well enough to reach the ball first. His poor control meant he didn’t even have a crack at the goal. A slightly more technical striker would have guided Abdellah Zoubir’s lofted cross into the net with a slight nudge, but the Gunners were lucky on Thursday night.

Arsenal ended the night 3-0 winners at Baku Olympic Stadium, but the 49 seconds between the miss and goal highlighted Arsenal’s problems under new manager Unai Emery.

The 49 seconds wasn’t anecdotal evidence as well, for Arsenal conceded as many shots as they had: 12. Qarabag’s expected goals was just 1.14, as opposed to Arsenal’s 3.15, but the home side’s attack sliced through Arsenal’s defensive set-up far too often for a country whose local leagues sit 23 places below England’s in UEFA club coefficients. It’s easy to brush aside their being vulnerable at the back in a second-tier game, but playing on Thursday night were some of Arsenal’s best defensive players.

Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who also scored his first Arsenal goal in Baku, is arguably the best centre-back at Arsenal today. Nacho Monreal has been consistently good, while Rob Holding has held his own in the absence of Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi. Matteo Guendouzi has been deemed good enough to be a start and so has been Mohamed Elneny for some time now.

Perhaps, Arsenal’s number 31 was the weak link in defense but, in spite of that, the Arsenal manager did field a line-up that’s capable of never being rattled by a Qarabag attack. However, Arsenal needed Bernd Leno to make four big saves to keep their lead.

Their performance against Qarabag isn’t anecdotal proof, either.

Despite boasting big individual talents on their roster, on the organization front, Arsenal have left a lot to be desired this season. Arsenal’s conceding two goals against mediocre opponents like Vorskla and Cardiff City bears testimony to their frailty at the back.

Under the new manager, the players certainly have clear-cut well-defined roles as opposed to the fluid style made famous by their previous manager, but they have hardly improved defensively.

Sokratis, 30, admits Arsenal have a lot to work on despite the wins and clean sheets. “We know that some things aren’t going good and we have to work harder and we are in this way,” the Greek defender told Arsenal Media.

The Gunners have, indeed, relied more on their attackers’ clinical finishing than they have on their system but, when the the manager helps his personnel imbibe his ideology and implement it on the pitch, Arsenal will look much better while securing wins.

Going by how quickly Alex Iwobi and Petr Cech have adapted and how they’ve improved since the opening day 2-0 defeat to Manchester City, though, it won’t be long before Arsenal plays the Unai Emery way.

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