The immediate future of Calum Chambers has been subject to plenty of discussion over the last few weeks. The 21 year old struggled for minutes this season, starting only 2 Premier League games. He made 12 appearances overall in the league, compared to 22 in 2014-15. He acquitted himself well in his debut season until Swansea’s Jefferson Montero gave him something of a mauling in a 2-1 defeat in Wales in November 2014.
It’s clear that Chambers doesn’t quite have the pace on the turn to be a right back in the long term. But the reasons for his reduced role in 2015-16 are slightly more nuanced. At the outset of his debut season, Per Mertesacker was rushed back into action following his World Cup heroics with Germany. Laurent Koscielny was troubled by an achilles tendon strain. Prior to the signing of Gabriel in January 2015, Chambers was the first deputy at centre half.
This season, quite simply, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gabriel have been able to share the centre half burden with few fitness concerns, limiting Calum’s match time. There has been talk of a loan, possibly back to his previous club Southampton, and a temporary deal elsewhere would constitute a sensible move for player and club at this point. I am convinced that Chambers would have been loaned out in January were it not for Mathieu Debuchy’s forced exit.
The Frenchman’s desire to leave meant that the Gunners had to keep Chambers around as right-back cover. Not only did this scupper any chance of a loan deal for the Hampshire born defender, but it meant that his limited appearances were at right-back, a role he will surely not fulfil in the long term. The minutes spent playing at full-back during Arsenal’s FA Cup run will have been of limited value, despite a special curling effort against Burnley in the 4th round.
Chambers was especially unlucky not to see more game time in defensive midfield last season. He played three matches in that position- all at home- against Bournemouth, Sunderland and Newcastle. He played well in each match, albeit in a gentle run of fixtures for a defensive midfielder. Theoretically at least, Chambers’ distribution made him a suitable partner for Ramsey in the engine room, but the manager was obviously not convinced enough to dispense with the malfunctioning Ramsey-Flamini pivot. This suggests that the manager does not see Calum as a viable option in that role in the long term.
Chambers played well in his rare outings this season. After a precarious first 45 minutes against Liverpool last August, he emerged from the tunnel at half-time a different player and put in an assured second half display. This suggests that the young man possesses impressive mental reserves. When Laurent Koscielny hobbled off at half-time against Leicester in February, many feared that a partnership of Mertesacker and Chambers would provide easy pray for the quicksilver Jamie Vardy.
But Chambers applied himself intelligently, engaging Vardy on a one on one basis and using his tidy feet to manoeuvre away from trouble, while Mertesacker stood off and swept up. That said, their task was aided by a red card for Danny Simpson, which necessitated the withdrawal of Mahrez and Okazaki, Vardy’s support network. The Southampton academy graduate might have found appearances easier to come by at centre half had it not been for Arsene’s attempts to phase Per Mertesacker out of the starting line-up.
During the second half of the season, the manager tried to create a new first choice partnership between Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel. Wenger needed to give the pair time to develop chemistry and minutes were simply too precious to be able to rotate Chambers in, even occasionally. That said, Wenger rarely rotates his centre half pairings. The Koscielny and Gabriel axis has produced mixed results. There is the inescapable impression that the two are too similar to complement one another in the way that Mertesacker and Koscielny managed.
The recent signings of Gabriel, Elneny and Xhaka, the introductions of Francis Coquelin, Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi and the use of Danny Welbeck as a number 9 all hint at a subtle shift in emphasis. The team’s water supply has been spiked and suddenly, Arsenal is a team full of ‘front footed’ players that are either aggressive in interceptions or adept at pressing opponents. Gabriel and Koscielny share those proactive qualities and other additions made to the team in the last 12-18 months imply that Arsene wants Arsenal to become a team that squeezes space high up the pitch.
If the manager sees this experiment through, that could have ramifications for Chambers’ future. Calum is a centre half more in the mould of Per Mertesacker. But with Arteta and Mertesacker no longer providing Arsenal’s stylistic chain of command from the back, they could become a different team to the one Chambers signed for. Initially, it looked as though Gabriel and Chambers were intended to mimic the qualities of Koscielny and Mertesacker respectively.
Chambers seems the obvious heir apparent to Per. He is comfortable with the ball and economical in possession. Like Per, he prefers to defend deep and maintain shape. However, if Arsene favours an entirely front footed partnership in Gabriel and Koscielny, Chambers’ chances could remain limited for the foreseeable future. His passing out from the back is superior to Koscielny and particularly Gabriel, which remains an ace tucked neatly into his sleeve.
Passing out from the back is important to Arsenal and Chambers is better equipped to do that than Gabriel or even Koscielny. A year or so ago, Gabriel and Chambers looked like a succession plan for the Mertescielny combination, as the principal pair drifted into their 30s. Now it looks more like a turf war between the Englishman and the Brazilian, which might explain why rumours of a new centre half for Arsenal are gathering apace.
It is a complex situation for Arsene. He’s had his fingers burned with promising young centre halves in the past, as the likes of Upson, Djourou and Senderos have not progressed as suspected. However, all of those players looked much better when given a run of consecutive matches. Sporadic appearances will not help Chambers realise his full potential, assuming that Wenger does see him as a centre half. He will need to play regularly and he is unlikely to get that at the club for the foreseeable future unless there is an injury crisis. And when does that ever happen at Arsenal?
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