WHY ARE ARSENAL SO SHIT AT DEFENDING?! It’s a question that has plagued the club for the last decade and more. Much of the blame was laid at the door of Arsene Wenger, for playing an ‘open’ style that exposed his defenders. He also stood accused of not prioritising the area for investment in the transfer market, preferring to truss up his shop window with premium attackers, whilst dipping into the bargain basement for defenders and defensive midfielders.
Even the Invincibles defence (more on whom anon) was assembled on something of a shoestring. Sol Campbell was signed on a free transfer (if you put aside the not insignificant spectre of his wage packet). Ashley Cole came from the academy, Kolo Toure cost a curly wurly and a packet of lovehearts and Lauren was signed as a midfielder.
Now, of course. Arsenal have a new manager and, this summer, signed a new goalkeeper, a new defensive midfielder and a new centre half in Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Arsenal now typically play with a double pivot of Xhaka and Torreira in front of the defence. Yet the question remains, WHY ARE ARSENAL SO SHIT AT DEFENDING?
The most obvious answer is that Arsenal lack individual quality in defence. Shkodran Mustafi is a bit like one of those guys that eats fire. It looks great when it comes off, but if it doesn’t, there are serious consequences and too often, he leaves his team with a severely singed oesophagus. Sokratis is a decent defender and popular with Gunners fans for his doctorate in the art of shithousing, but is still liable to the odd custard pie in the face.
Bernd Leno has yet to fully convince in goal, had he been playing in a Szczesny or Ospina mask or maybe Petr Cech’s helmet, I think he might have copped more flack for some of the goals he has conceded thus far. Arsenal’s issues in this area have been exacerbated by injuries. The cruciate ligament rupture suffered by Rob Holding does seem to have taken its toll in recent weeks.
Holding was showing signs of being a good fit for Emery’s system even if he wasn’t quite morphing into a modern Maldini. The full-back areas have also caused consternation for Emery of late. Bellerin’s injury would be enough of a blow in itself if his replacement weren’t an ageing Stephan Lichtsteiner, who is adjusting to a new team, in a new country, at the age of 35 whilst playing in different positions in a shifting defensive framework. It’s not easy for him.
Nacho Monreal’s hamstrings have been as brittle as biscuits since the World Cup, Sead Kolasinac is a great attacking asset but has the defensive instincts of a cat wandering carelessly across the fast lane of the M1. The differing attributes of the back up full backs has caused a systemic issue too. Bellerin is a full-back who plays a bit like a winger and Lichtsteiner is a full-back that plays like a centre half.
Monreal is a full-back who, these days, fits in just as seamlessly at centre back. Sead Kolasinac is more in the, shall we say, Andre Santos mould when it comes to defending. When Arsenal have to swap one of their full-backs, it fundamentally changes the way they operate. Lately, the squad has hit a kind of injury Bermuda Triangle, where the situation forces Emery to rush players back from injury early, who are subsequently injured again as a result.
Monreal, Mustafi and Koscielny have all suffered recurrent injuries over the last month or so. This, coupled with Lucas Torreira’s descent into fatigue, has disrupted the back line. But Arsenal’s defensive issues are not merely a question of individual quality, but one of profile. Emery likes to play with a high line and asks his full-backs to cover a lot of ground in supplementing the attack.
In essence, we have quickly increased the physical stress on our defenders- which might explain why they are so often injured (not in all cases, obviously). A quick peak of the age profile of the defence shows that we’re not exactly operating with athletes at their physical peak. Lichtsteiner is 35, Koscielny 33 and recovering from a serious injury, Monreal 33 next month, Sokratis is 30. At least the latter is quick across the ground, but the others are visibly slowing, yet are being asked to cover more ground.
The more athletic players in the back line have had better seasons, in general. Sokratis is, as I said earlier, quick enough across the ground when he has the bit between his teeth. Bellerin’s form has improved and he has become an integral part of the attack (though his defending still needs some work). Rob Holding had the agility to cover ground behind him. Mustafi is no slouch, but chooses to expend most of his athletic qualities sliding on his arse.
Even Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Carl Jenkinson (the latter, albeit, against poor opposition) have looked relatively comfortable in Emery’s defence because they can, in the words of Harry Redknapp, fackin run araaaand a bit. Lichtsteiner’s error for Brighton’s equaliser on Boxing Day bore the hallmarks of panic. He saw a ball looping over his head and a big old green space behind him and didn’t feel confident enough to win the foot race, so he decided to try and hastily head the ball backwards as hard and far as he could manage.
Understandably, Arsenal fans have pointed towards Jurgen Klopp’s incremental rebuild at Anfield as a path Emery’s side should look to tread. Many of us (myself included) have looked at their £130m spend on Virgil van Dijk and Alisson as instructive. Klopp’s sides tend to expose their defenders due to their high pressing style, so they need elite individuals to be able to cope with the exposure.
But what van Dijk and Alisson also give Liverpool is elasticity, for want of a better word. Alisson is not shy to come off his line, while van Dijk eats up ground like Pacman. Whilst a £100m+ injection of talent into Arsenal’s defence would be just lovely, a genuine injection of athleticism would be pretty nice too and I think this could, theoretically, be achieved without breaking the bank.
Arsenal don’t need experience at the back as a priority, they have plenty. They need legs, which is why I think they could take a risk on a youngish, athletic defender with a big potential upside (so, not Gary Cahill, basically). A 27 year old Laurent Koscielny or a prime Kolo Toure would go a long way to improving the current defence. Rob Holding improved Arsenal’s defence a little bit and he didn’t even cost £55m….
So while buying a ready-made, world-class centre half would be jolly nice, given the club’s current financial position and the fact that they are pretty busy on Thursday nights these days, that seems to be a forlorn hope. But Emery needs a certain profile of defender that he can work with, as he did with Rob Holding. Mobility is as much an issue as quality.
The Invincibles defence is a case in point. Lauren, Kolo Toure, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole were all athletic types, with excellent decision making in 1 on 1 situations and an ability to cover ground. Toure and Lauren were not elite defenders in their own right, good, but not elite. But the unit was complementary because their sound judgement was combined with suppleness.
Breaking the bank would be the swiftest and most desirable panacea to Arsenal’s defensive issues, but the club is not currently in a position to do that. But on the upside, I think the team could improve in this area simply by buying a different type of defender. With so many players in their 30s, a high turnover of personnel in the defence is on the cards in the immediate future in any case, how Mislintat, Sanllehi and Emery manage this churn will be key.