LONDON -- If the old adage that defense wins championships is proven anywhere, it is in the Champions League. Certainly the odd Real Madrid of 2022 muddy the waters but the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and even Bayern Munich have lifted Europe's greatest prize off the back of more than their fair share of clean sheets.
It might feel too soon to label Arsenal as potential Champions League contenders, although in a year where Manchester City seem to be so far ahead of the field, there is always the possibility of something curious happening. Mikel Arteta's side might be on paper ingenues to this competition but they have not looked it for much of the group stage, particularly in two arms' length wins over seasoned European opposition in Sevilla.
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Having shut out the perennial Europa League winners for the best part of an hour in Spain last month, Arsenal looked even more assertive in welcoming the Andalusians, who had rotated with an eye on their derby with Real Betis on Sunday. It took until the 97th minute for Sevilla to even register a shot on David Raya's goal, a tame Mariano Diaz effort easily held by the Arsenal goalkeeper.
With that near total shooting shutout to their name, it is perhaps no wonder that Mikel Arteta's side have the competition's second best defensive record in terms of expected goals (xG) conceded. Only Manchester City at 1.68 have given up fewer than Arsenal's 2.08. That in and of itself might be too small a sample size to draw meaningful conclusions but these numbers are merely following the trend of the Premier League, where last season's second place side have made a profound improvement in defending their own goal. Through 11 matches, they have allowed just 9.05 xG. Again, that tally is only bettered by City.
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Arsenal seem to be getting better at the back too. This display of solidity came hot on the heels of a clash with Newcastle in which the baffling string of shots that concluded with Anthony Gordon bundling the ball in constituted the only time one of England's most ferocious attacks really tested the Gunners' backline. Since the start of September, that game is one of just three in league and Europe where more than an expected goal was conceded (almost all of which came from the winner) and neither Tottenham nor Chelsea got past 1.5 xG.
Now that Arteta's anger has cooled after events at St. James' Park, he is left to toast a pair of resilient displays by his defenders.
"It was a really convincing win, generating a lot and not conceding anything," said Arteta. "It was a big step for us.
"It's two games; against Newcastle we conceded one shot [sic - Arsenal conceded nine shots on Saturday] and today as well, so that gives a lot of strong foundations to the team. I think attacking-wise, we were a real threat, our wingers were a real threat today, so I'm really happy."
Of course, no defense is entirely impenetrable but it helps Arsenal that they have as good an insurance policy as any in Europe. There was perhaps only one occasion where Sevilla really broke through the Emirates' defensive wall on Wednesday night, Adria Pedrosa charging through into space that emerged down the left flank. Raya's goal loomed large but the Spaniard would never make it that far. William Saliba had engaged the afterburners. In a few strides the gap had gone and Arsenal's most vital player was regaining possession with a sweep of his right leg.
In that instant, the awesome presence of Virgil van Dijk at the peak of his powers came to mind. The Liverpool center back delivered those sorts of moments on a routine basis for years, propelling Jurgen Klopp's side into title contention overnight. If it seems premature to compare those two, one thing is certainly becoming more apparent by the game: Arsenal's push for top spot last season would have lasted longer if they had not lost Saliba to injury.
With such a solid foundation behind them it was perhaps no wonder that Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka ran riot against Sevilla. In 35 minutes, the latter would find himself on the receiving end of five fouls, as many as the entire Paris Saint-Germain team against AC Milan the previous night, and on occasion it was almost impressive that Saka's defenders got near enough to him to clip him at all.
Though Saka and Martinelli got to the byline with abandon, what happened when they did so rather pointed to the issue simmering away for this side. Those two ended up with more completed take-ons than the 11 shots Arsenal registered. Too many darts to the byline were wasted, on occasion by poor delivery but also due to the fact that Leandro Trossard and Kai Havertz, promising though both were, did not put great pressure on the penalty area.
Arsenal might have had more than enough to down Sevilla but it is not the same blistering pressure that this team was applying to opposition goals last season. The absence of Gabriel Jesus and Martin Odegaard doubtless contributed tonight, but whether they are there or not, the dominant attacking games seem more infrequent.
"I don't know where that perfect balance is," Arteta acknowledged. "It's what we have, you look at Gabby Jesus, I think he's only played one Premier League game for us and he played three games in the Champions League and scored four goals. It is what it is, but having Leo here who is so reliable and gives you something very different to Eddie and him is a joy to have, and I'm really happy with him."
That perfect balance might not exist for a young team like Arsenal just yet. If last year was all about unleashing their bright young things in attack, this term might just be Arteta course correcting (perhaps too much) and forging a defensive unit that can starve an opponent. In the process, he may have found a team that is a better bet to make a big impact in Europe than the Premier League.