Despite their old reputation as being rather flaky fragile artists, the foundation of this Arsenal side, and of their three-front challenge this season, is the best defence in England.
Arsenal kept their 11th league clean sheet of the season on Sunday, with the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace which moved them back to the top of the Premier League. No-one has more than them – West Ham also have 11 – and it is the clear sign of a settled serious side.
Wojciech Szczesny, naturally, has been a huge part of that. Since Wenger dropped him nearly a year ago, he has been exceptional, cutting out the errors that had leaked into his game last season. The young goalkeeper is delighted with how few goals Arsenal are conceding.
“Our defensive record, especially at home has been fantastic,” Szczesny said on Sunday night. “We know if we keep clean sheets we have got every chance of winning the game so that’s been the case. I think it is 11 games at home we have kept 10 clean sheets. You can see it’s massive for us.”
This improvement has grown out of last season. Last March, Arsene Wenger realised that his best centre-back pairing was Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker, leaving captain Thomas Vermaelen on the bench. Those two have been exceptional this season, as individuals and as a pair. Mertesacker has started 32 of Arsenal’s 38 games this season, Koscielny 31.
“It is hard to tell, but we have been together for much longer,” Szczesny explained of their improved form. “We understand each other’s game now. We have had a more settled back four. Sometimes we rotate the full-backs, but in general we stay with the same defence. We understand each other’s games, we read the game of each other, it’s a very good understanding we have.”
Arsenal have started with Bacary Sagna and Nacho Monreal either side of Koscielny and Mertesacker in their last five league games, in which they have conceded just three goals. All season, they average 0.88 goals conceded per league game, their best record for six years.
“We realise if you want to win the championship then you have to be solid defensively and that is the most important thing,” said Szczesny. “We know that clean sheets gives you the best platform to go and win games. If we can keep a few more until the end of the season then we can get our rewards.”
Arsenal’s next test is at Liverpool on Saturday. Arsenal are the only team to stop a Liverpool team containing Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez from scoring in the league this season, beating them 2-0 in November, but Szczesny knows how difficult it will be.
“They have been fantastic, their goal-scoring record speaks for itself, they're great players. We managed to keep a clean sheet against them at home and we'll try to do exactly the same thing away from home and hope for a result.”
Arsenal will be able to call again on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who scored twice against Palace on Sunday. “It is fantastic to see him back after a long-term injury,” Szczesny said. “He can go past players, he can score and if he keeps producing performances like this he will be very important for us.”
- More about: