New season, same Arsenal. The Gunners have added a defender in Sead Kolasinac and had an entire summer to straighten things out on the training pitch, but four goals conceded in the opening two games suggests the defense is as porous as ever. Here are five steps Arsene Wenger and his side can take to patch up the leaky backline.
1. Play defenders in the correct positions
Sounds obvious, right?
Wrong. Arsene Wenger’s latest defensive stunt is the refusal to play center-backs, instead puzzlingly choosing to start left-backs Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac at center-back for Arsenal’s first two Premier League fixtures.
It’s not as if the squad has been ravaged by injury. Per Mertesacker, the club captain, was fit to play against Stoke last weekend yet remained on the bench. Rob Holding was dropped from the squad altogether after a shaky opening day performance against Leicester, as was Calum Chambers, who appears to be out of favor despite an impressive loan spell with Middlesborough last season.
There’s usually some sort of rhyme or reason to Arsene Wenger’s team selections, but it’s difficult to understand the manager’s thinking when he plays a back five that consists of four players out of position. Nacho Monreal works quite well as the left center-back in a back three, but is evidently uncomfortable as the centermost one. Sead Kolasinac, the left-back in the 2016-17 Bundesliga Team of the Season, was presumably signed to play in that position—so why play him at center-back while Hector Bellerin, a right-back, plays at left wing-back?
At the moment, the defense feels topsy-turvy when it doesn’t have to be. The first step to fixing Arsenal’s leaky backline is really quite simple.
2. Give Per Mertesacker a chance
Arsenal’s defense is crying out for leadership and organization—two qualities that Per Mertesacker embodies. Now in his final season as a professional footballer before taking on a role as Arsenal’s academy manager next year, he deserves the chance to be a part of the first team setup once again.
Although he’s 32, Mertesacker’s game has never relied on pace—if anything, age adds to his expertise in reading the game and marshaling fellow teammates. His performance for the ages in the FA Cup final against Chelsea reaffirmed the German’s quality. Not only was Mertesacker stellar, but Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal fed off of his experience and solidity, resulting in one of Arsenal’s best defensive displays in recent memory.
The success of the 3-4-2-1 formation relies on the centermost center-back’s capability. If Arsene Wenger allows his club captain to anchor the back three, he might find the rest of the defense steadier as a result.
3. Find a balanced midfield partnership
The sole goal that Arsenal conceded against Stoke last weekend was as much the fault of the defense as it was the midfield. With Aaron Ramsey the furthest man forward, Granit Xhaka carelessly lost the ball before failing in an attempt to win it back, leaving Arsenal’s backline completely exposed.
The defense should have dealt with the ensuing attack, but they wouldn’t have been in such a scenario in the first place if there was a stable midfield in front of them. The partnership between Xhaka and Ramsey has a lot of promise, but it also contains some inherent flaws. While Ramsey’s forays forward are the best aspect of his game, they often leave Xhaka in situations he isn’t comfortable dealing with, putting even more pressure on the defense.
Arsene Wenger needs to either coach Xhaka and Ramsey to have more balance and understanding in their partnership, or look elsewhere bring stability to his midfield—whether it be internal or external.
4. Hire a new defensive coach
Individual errors have played a big part in the Gunners’ recent defensive shortcomings, but the system they’re set up in certainly doesn’t help. Arsenal’s backline looks like a group of strangers figuring things out as they go rather than a cohesive unit, and much of that is a result of the coaching and work done on the training ground.
When Steve Bould was appointed as Arsene Wenger’s assistant manager in 2012, fans expected the former Arsenal stalwart to inject some of his own toughness and strength into the defense. The side’s defending has improved in spells here and there, but the “Bould effect” has not been what was initially imagined.
Arsenal could use another coach to bring fresh ideas and improved organization to a backline evidently lacking guidance.
5. Sign a center-back
It may sound like a simple solution, but Arsenal are in a precarious situation with their current center-backs. Per Mertesacker is in his final year while Laurent Koscielny and his dodgy achilles’ are 32 next month, leaving Rob Holding, Shkodran Mustafi, and Calum Chambers as the club’s remaining central defenders.
On paper, Arsenal have plenty of center-backs. The reality, however, is that there will be a massive gap to fill once the club’s senior defenders begin to age. Are Holding (21), Mustafi (25), and Chambers (22) prepared to fill that gap? Perhaps one day, but in the meantime Arsenal could use a player with sufficient experience and defensive nous—say, Virgil Van Dijk—to be the lynchpin of the backline in the not-so-distant future.
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