Thursday, December 7, 2023

Sympathy for the Devils

A shadow side’s 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest on Tuesday evening has naturally led many Arsenal fans to further question the status of certain first teamers. Arsenal’s defence has veered somewhere between catastrophe and calamity in the opening weeks of the season, so a new look back four featuring the returning Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney as well as a reinvigorated Calum Chambers have earned plenty of props.

Hector Bellerin also made his return from injury and immediately contributed with an assist. Bellerin provides an excellent example of absence making the heart grow fonder. Prior to his injury, Hector was a more divisive character and player than he is now as the overwhelming fans’ favourite to take the captain’s armband.

Rob Holding scored on Tuesday evening within seconds of fastening this now controversial piece of cloth to his arm. The subject of captaincy has become quite the talking point in recent weeks, with Unai Emery’s decision to effectively prorogue making a final call on his captaincy college of five. The delay looks more and more like a political rouse until the heat dies down on Granit Xhaka, who will, in all likelihood, be appointed to the position.

Calum Chambers strengthened his case for greater inclusion with three assists against Forest, adding to the goal he scored against Aston Villa last weekend. Meanwhile, the centre-half partnership of David Luiz and Sokratis has operated with all the élan of an exploding custard pie. Rob Holding’s return will need to be managed with kid gloves as he continues his rehabilitation.

Players in this stage of rehabilitation need to manage their minutes carefully- fatigue is one of the leading root causes of knee injuries and players are very vulnerable to recurrence. However, Calum Chambers is widely being touted as a more immediate replacement for either one of Sokratis or Luiz. However, Chambers has caught the eye with his offensive output and he did make a fairly routine error for the most recent goal Arsenal conceded against Aston Villa.

This is not to deny or downplay his recent contribution of course, but it’s more a reflection on the desire of the fan base to see certain players replaced by any means necessary. ‘The other guy’ is always viewed in a favourable light against this theatrical backdrop. Arsenal have kept consecutive clean sheets with Shkodran Mustafi at centre-half and his case for inclusion is not being made as strongly. Mustafi has been cast out in our hearts and minds (with some justification).

One also has to appreciate context; the early rounds of the League Cup and the Europa League group stages are competitions of far inferior intensity to the Premier League. Forest changed six players for the visit to the Emirates, while opening group stage matches always lack intensity because losing them lacks consequence.

What Arsenal’s victories over Forest and Frankfurt do expose is the level to which the club has a pleasing young core bubbling under the surface. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal all appear to have accepted Liverpool and Manchester City’s current duopoly. They are quietly building young cores to prepare for the transitions that the current top two will inevitably negotiate in a few years’ time.

Arsenal fans have recognised this at their own club and there is a sense of anticipation over the futures of Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Gabriel Martinelli and even Eddie Nketiah and William Saliba. Bellerin is not new, but he is still relatively young, as is Rob Holding, while Kieran Tierney also represents this new wave of the future.

It stands to reason we are all excited to see it manifest and the likes of Granit Xhaka, David Luiz, Sokratis et al cleared out to make way. However, there is a slight air of apples and oranges when comparing the contributions of the senior centre-half pairing when set against their junior counterparts. The plan is, undoubtedly, for Holding and Saliba to be the heirs apparent to the centre of Arsenal’s defence.

As well as playing toothless opposition, Arsenal’s second-string defence enjoyed greater midfield balance ahead of it on Tuesday evening. Lucas Torreira is not flawless but offers far more robust protection in the defensive third than Granit Xhaka. Mesut Özil played well in his natural number 10 role on Tuesday, much as he did against Watford. The position at the tip of the midfield has been a big problem for Emery during his reign.

A more balanced midfield unit with players in familiar roles led to a more assured unit ahead of the Gunners defence and the Forest game did not descend into the sort of end-to-end basketball encounter most Arsenal matches have become of late. Emery’s team collected seven yellow cards against Aston Villa on Sunday, which demonstrates how ragged and stressed the structure became.

I think there is quite a bit of mitigation for Luiz and Sokratis when one scratches the surface and analyses what is happening with the whole team. Firstly, there is a new spine with the likes of Ceballos, Willock and Pepe being introduced into the team. But it’s actually what’s happening on the extremities of the unit that has left them so exposed.

Emery has been denied his first choice full-backs in Bellerin and Tierney and the coach does not entirely trust the back-ups. He reverted to a back three at the end of last season in an attempt to ‘hide’ Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles’ defensive shortcomings. This season Emery has largely resisted this formation but has still sought to protect the full-backs.

Instead of playing with a dedicated double pivot ahead of the centre-halves, Emery has encouraged his central midfielders to bear slightly wide of the centre of the pitch. Adrian Clarke dissected this excellently in his Breakdown of the Aston Villa match, as time and again, Arsenal left a smoking crater in the centre of the pitch as the central midfielders were stretched across the diameter of the pitch.

With Aubameyang and Pepe sometimes used as wide players and with Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac behind them, the likes of Guendouzi, Torreira and Willock have been asked to edge to the exterior of the field, leaving Granit Xhaka alone in front of the defence. So the issue is not just the combination of Luiz and Sokratis, it’s the combination of Luiz, Sokratis and Xhaka with all other avenues of support funnelled out wide to protect the full-backs.

Maybe Emery’s anxiety over the wide areas will decrease when Bellerin and Tierney return and he can restore his favoured double pivot ahead of the centre-halves. Luiz has often been seen retreating towards his own goal when opponents’ attack and that is a due to the cavernous spaces Arsenal are leaving in the centre of the pitch.

I have always harboured concerns over the compatibility of Luiz and Sokratis, both of whom are impulsive defenders. However, I do think they are being enormously exposed by Unai Emery’s decision to send his midfield troops into the wide positions and leave his defenders with the fig-leaf of Granit Xhaka ahead of them. Luiz and Sokratis are not blameless for the team’s defensive troubles, but neither are they totally to blame. Nevertheless, the future is coming.

Follow me on twitter @Stillberto or like my page on Facebook @Stillberto

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