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Arsenal’s defensive masterclass emerges as key to ending two-decade title drought

Arsenal tightened the noose on Premier League pacesetters Liverpool with a commanding 4-1 home win against Newcastle United on Saturday, reducing the gap to only two points. 

It was another brilliant collective performance from Mikel Arteta’s side, especially in the first half, where they prevented the Magpies from taking a single shot towards David Raya’s goal. 

Though the Gunners former player Joe Willock denied them another clean sheet, they’re still the division’s best defensive side in 2023/24 with ten shutouts from 26 matches. 

Following a flawless six-game league start to the new calendar year for the first time in the club’s history, everyone is talking about Arsenal’s free-firing frontline.

Netting a mind-blowing 25 goals in six games rightfully took the spotlight away from Arteta’s rock-solid backline, highlighting his attackers as the team’s most prominent feature. 

But after careful analysis, it’s fair to say that Arsenal’s pursuit of their first Premier League title since Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ owes much to the high-performing centre-back pairing William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes. 

Dream defensive partnership

It took Arteta a while to escape the shackles of Pep Guardiola’s tutoring and start paying attention to the defensive aspect of the game, which plagued his lofty ambitions in recent campaigns.

This year, however, all pieces have fallen into place. 

Salilba and Gabriel have forged a defensive wall in front of Raya’s goal, providing a backbone for Arsenal’s impressive Premier League season. 

When the pair is on the field, it’s almost a guaranteed success for the Gunners, as evidenced by their 73% win ratio in top-flight matches when they start together. 

To put the duo’s significance to Arteta’s tactics in perspective, Arsenal’s win percentage plummets to 53.3% when the partnership dissolves for whichever reason.

Moreover, the London giants have only conceded 0.9 goals per game with their formidable centre-half tandem in the starting XI against an average of 1.4 per match when one of them is missing. 

It’s not just statistics

Arteta’s insistence on possession and patient build-up sees Arsenal average the third-most possession in the Premier League, which often requires the central defenders to participate heavily. 

Luckily for the Spaniard, both his defensive stars are technically gifted and boast tactical prowess suited for Premier League challenges, not to mention their intimidating physical stature. 

While Gabriel is left-footed, Saliba uses his right foot better, making it a perfect combo. The two complement each other in almost every aspect. 

Saliba’s blistering pace and athleticism allow him to defend space without engaging much in physical contact, while he’s also an exceptional passer.

On the other hand, Gabriel prefers close contests, leveraging his impressive body posture to win duels on the ground and in the air with an almost identical success rate. 

It’s not less important to mention that they’re no idle aerial threat in set-piece situations. Between the two of them, they have six goals and one assist, more than any other centre-back pairing in the Premier League.

Stats back Arsenal for long-awaited success

Clean sheets are often decent indicators of a team’s defensive quality, but in some cases, they could be deceptive. In Arsenal’s case, though, they merely reflect the team’s outstanding defensive work. 

In part thanks to their extravagant defensive numbers, the Gunners have been able to win 17 out of 20 Premier League fixtures in which they’ve opened the scoring in 2023/24 (D2, L1). 

And unlike their fellow title rivals, the Londoners usually rely on their compactness at the back in high-profile match-ups despite boasting a star-studded frontline. 

To substantiate this theory, Arsenal have conceded only 13 goals in as many encounters against current top-half sides. 

In comparison, leaders Liverpool have capitulated 15 times in 12 such assignments, while perennial champions Manchester City lament 15 goals conceded from ten. 

One would argue Arteta has resorted to a more conservative approach after his title quest collapsed down the final stretch of last season.

However, these adjustments have turned the Gunners into a force to be reckoned with, significantly increasing their chances of ending a two-decade title drought. 

On the evidence of Man City’s three-year reign in the Premier League, the defensive record is perhaps more important than attacking numbers, no matter how resounding they could look.

In all four previous top-flight campaigns, including Liverpool’s triumphant 2019/20 season, the division’s best defence climbed to the podium, suggesting this could be Arsenal’s time to celebrate.

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