Arsenal Set Piece Problems: But is it just an attacking issue?


Manchester United v Arsenal - Premier League

Much has been made in light of Arsene Wenger’s recent comments regarding the need to practice attacking set pieces, with Arsenal consistently having one of the lowest goal conversions from set pieces in the Premier League, just the 13 goals scored from a set piece in the previous 3 seasons. To put that in to some perspective, Manchester City scored 13 goals from corners last season alone, there is clearly a problem that needs some attention in that department.

set piece

However during Arsene Wenger’s tenure at the club there has always been a stereotype attached to Arsenal that they can be got at, by roughing them up and that they are vulnerable from a set piece. As an Arsenal fan nothing drives me crazier than people attaching outdated stereotypes to my football club, especially when they do not apply any more. Last season Arsenal conceded 7 goals from corners and 1 indirect free kick in all competitions. Considering Arsenal played well over 50 games last season I think it’s pretty safe to say that Arsenal are no longer a team that struggles with defending set pieces.  Or is it?

4 goals conceded from set pieces last season worryingly for Arsenal fans came during those crushing away defeats to ‘big teams’. The first 2 corners Arsenal conceded from last season came in the League and Cup games away at West Brom, Claudio Yacob and Saido Behrahino putting Arsenal’s defence to the sword from corners. Next up was the Robin Van Persie header to win Manchester United all 3 points at Old Trafford, that header started a growing trend to follow Arsenal around the country in the ‘big games’ Next up was Aguero’s opener as he capitalised on a lack of concentration from Laurent Koscielny to put City 1-0 up in their 6-3 demolition job. The North of England continued to be an unpleasant place to visit for the gunners as Liverpool scored 2 quick goals from Set pieces, Martin Skrtel finishing from a corner and an indirect free kick inside the first 10 minutes as Liverpool romped to a 5-1 victory. It didn’t stop there however, 2 goals in the opening 8 minutes against Hull in the FA Cup final at Wembley put Arsenal 2-0 down and jeopardised the ending of their 9 year trophy drought. Thankfully a set piece of their own helped Arsenal to a 3-2 victory in that game.

So whilst the stereotype that has surrounded Arsenal over the years where smaller clubs could perhaps capitalise on weaknesses from set pieces against Arsenal may not be true, there definitely does seem to be an issue against the big sides or in big matches.

The first issue we can see with these goals is the timing. 7 of the 8 goals Arsenal conceded from corners and indirect free kicks last season came in the first half, 6 of them coming in the opening 30 minutes, 5 of them in the opening 15 minutes. 7 of the 8 goals conceded from set pieces were actually the first goals of the game, obviously putting Arsenal 1-0 behind. Surely being away from home the last thing you want to do is concede early goals from set pieces. Could this be a preparation issue?

Arsenal last season were not traditionally fast starters, throughout the season they dominated the so called ‘smaller’ teams with possession scoring lots of second half goals as they attempted to barge down the doors of stubborn opposition defences, but often having quite weak first halves as they lacked penetration and intensity in their game. However because Arsenal were winning many of these games not much was made of this. Against higher calibre opposition you are not going to be so lucky. If you start slow you will be punished as we saw in games against Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.

Not much seems to have changed this year either, Manchester City’s equaliser at the Emirates came from a set piece that Arsenal failed to defend competently, as well as Crystal Palace’s opener on the first game of the season from Brede Hangeland, that goal also came from a corner. Incidentally that was the first goal Arsenal had conceded from a set piece at home over the last 1 and a bit seasons, all 8 conceded came away from home last season, which of course is where we saw Arsenal really struggle. Arsene Wenger admitted more practice is needed in the attacking department of set pieces, but maybe for the big games more attention needs to be given to the defending of set pieces. Just because you get it right against the smaller teams, doesn’t mean the bigger teams can’t still punish you.

Could there be an element of complacency that has developed at Arsenal where they feel an issue has been fixed and thus dedicate less time to it. Much has been made of Wenger’s lack of personal instructions to players, could this also be applied to the defending of set plays? Do Arsenal need specific instructions in these big games on who to mark, who’s going to defend what area etc? Isit a tactical issue, should Arsenal switch to a man to man marking scheme against the bigger sides? But surely if zonal marking can work against everyone else why shouldn’t it work against the top teams.

With not much to choose between the top sides in terms of personnel, the differences in the big games normally come down to individual errors, set pieces and tactical set ups. In the games against the bigger teams we saw an abundance of individual errors in these games, especially in the mauling’s from City, Liverpool and Chelsea, as well as serious question marks raised over the tactical set up of Arsene Wenger’s team. We often hear about the ‘fine margins’ associated with the elite level of the game, and some belittle the use of set pieces. However it’s become apparent that Arsenal has been left behind in this aspect of the game both defensively and offensively, some may say Arsenal has been left behind in quite a few aspects of the game. With Arsenal facing their toughest challenge of the season so far against Chelsea on Sunday, a team who have plenty of aerial strength and fantastic deliverers of the ball, Arsenal will need to be focused from the first minute to avoid another embarrassing defeat.

By @Lewbob91

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