Pitchside

Arsenal’s defence is great against the good – but awful against the best

Pitchside

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Nineteen goals conceded in 28 Premier League matches is an unbelievable record; one for which Arsenal's assistant manager and defensive coach Steve Bould deserves a great deal of credit.

Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have been nigh on impenetrable at the back for the most part this season, proving the almost perfect combination of strength, pace, anticipation and composure at the back.

The Gunners have not, however, only played 28 games this season. They have played 31; three have been omitted from that record, and they are an important trio.

In matches away from home against the three teams vying alongside - or, more aptly, above - them for the title, Arsenal's previously steadfast defence has been undone a total of 17 (seventeen!) times.

Before Tuesday's 2-2 draw with Swansea they had shipped the same number of goals in those three clashes as they had in all of their other Premier League matches combined this season.

So what happens against the bigger teams, and should Arsenal be worried ahead of this weekend's meeting with Manchester City?

Despite Arsene Wenger's vast experience of six-pointers in the title race, there has been worrying naivety to the way the Gunners have set out in their biggest games this season.

Opponents have clearly begun games aiming to harry the Gunners high up the pitch and that has had a real impact. In the opening 20 minutes of their three games away from home at City, Liverpool and Chelsea this season, they have conceded eight goals.

They haven't conceded in that time-frame in any other Premier League game this season and have only done so once in their other 44 competitive games in 2013/14 (at Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League).

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Arsenal have tended to start matches slowly this season - 11 of their 31 league games have been goalless at half-time - and while that works against better teams who struggle to break the Gunners down, the fast-starting, free-scoring, title-challenging teams have been able to tear them apart.

In fairness to Arsenal, they haven't been helped by injuries once again this season.

Koscielny had to be withdrawn at both City and Chelsea before the start of the second half, and crucially, he will miss this weekend's clash. Thomas Vermaelen comes in again, but his and Mertesacker's is a far inferior partnership.

After a hugely impressive debut season in England the Belgian went off the boil, and he is barely even deemed good enough to be used as a back up these days. Despite being on the pitch only 44.1% of the time over the past two Premier League seasons, Vermaelen has committed more errors leading to a goal than any other Arsenal outfielder (three).

Eight of the 10 errors leading to goals that the Gunners have made this season have come in those three games away to the current top three, so Vermaelen could well be a weak spot this weekend.

The Gunners are on home soil on Saturday, however, so they should feel positive about avoiding another capitulation - and more importantly, they could even go on to catch their opponents if they were to win.

At the same time, over their shoulder, Everton are hot on their trail, fighting for fourth place.

Arsenal simply cannot afford another heavy, confidence-sapping defeat but, having won only three of their last nine Premier League matches, at present things are not going their way.

By Alistair Tweedale - on Twitter @alitweedale

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.

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