The last few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster for Arsenal fans. Arsene Wenger is finally leaving. Depending on which side of the “#WengerOut” debate you are on, that could either make you feel wretched or relieved. Regardless of what people might think of Arsene Wenger, there is one particular problem that Arsenal just does not seem to solve. This season, that problem has reached new heights. We are, of course, talking about Arsenal’s Defence.
There was a time when Arsenal boasted one of the meanest defences in the league. The likes of Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, and Kolo Toure were absolute rocks at the centre of defence, while fullbacks like Ashley Cole and Lauren were always live wires. Between the sticks, keepers like David Seaman and Jens Lehmann never made it easy for attackers to score. One can only imagine where it went wrong for them that now they have a defence that has conceded 57 goals in 38 games this season. That is 7 more than last season and 15 more than the season before that.
A defence boasting arguably the best Premier League keeper of the past 10-15 years, the best Left Back in the Bundesliga last year, a Confederation Cup winner, and one of the best Premier League defenders of the past should not be performing like this. Arsenal started this year with a back three consisting of two Wing Backs, and over the season have reverted to an orthodox back four.
When fully fit, an Arsenal would field Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, and Kolasinac as the back five. On paper, it is a good backline to challenge for the top 4. But, on the field, they have been anything but good. Inconsistent performances from the defence have hampered Arsenal’s progress this year.
Hector Bellerin was the talk of the town when he burst onto the scene in 2014-15. His pace, crosses, and the odd goal made him a hot prospect for the future. This season though, his numbers have fallen behind his peers. Whilst he may have played more minutes than the Right Backs of the teams around Arsenal, his defensive score by Squawka is negative. He was a player that was being vetted as a long-term replacement to Dani Alves, and also being considered by Man City. On the basis of his performances this year, he seems too comfortable at Arsenal. He needs to be managed by a tough defensive coach like Simeone or Allegri, who could rectify the technical faults in his game and improve his positional play.
Shkodran Mustafi is another defender who has been very inconsistent this year. He has shown glimpses of what he can do like when he schooled Morata at Stamford Bridge. That performance seems very long ago. Many a time, he has left his position to make a tackle whilst leaving space only for an aging Laurent Koscielny to cover. He has the potential to be a good defender, but some critical errors in his game need to be sorted out.
Laurent Koscielny, another one of those Arsene Wenger players. Bought from France as a youngster and grown over the years to become a prominent player in the side. For many years, he has been the linchpin of the Arsenal defence, but this season, his age has shown. At 33, Koscielny isn’t getting any younger. The fact that he has a recurring Achilles problem which requires daily treatment does not help. He cannot play more than a game a week and he is starting to make errors which lead to goals. Most notably in the Europa League first leg semi-final, which resulted in Athletico getting an away goal. It’s no secret that his abilities are declining as a defender. A move for a defender has almost been forced on Arsenal considering Koscielny’s six-month injury layoff.
Now we come to the only positive in the defence. Nacho Monreal. He has been one of Arsenal’s most consistent performers this season. While contributing with the occasional goal, his defensive work has been the only positive in a defence that has at best, been below par. He has even been a makeshift Centre Back in the back five. After reverting to a back four, he still kept his place as a Left Back ahead of Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Although he has been good this season, he is not a long term solution to Arsenal’s problems.
Sead Kolasinac has had a very stop-start first season at Arsenal. The tough Wing Back from Schalke was the best Left Back in the Bundesliga last year, and in the first match vs Leicester, he looked every bit what Arsenal needed in a defender. An aggressive tough-tackling defender. His confidence would have taken a hit as he was suddenly dropped from the side for the Liverpool game. Since then, inconsistent performances and poor positional play have hampered his progress at the club. Although he did contribute with a few belters in different competitions, he needs better guidance defensively. Going forward, we have seen what he can do with some goals and effective crosses. Even Maitland-Niles has surpassed him this season.
Finally, we come to the goalkeeper. There is no doubt that Petr Cech has been nothing short of brilliant during his time in the Premier League, but at 35, soon to be 36, one has to question his ability to play at the highest levels. High profile errors like the one vs Swansea shows that he is not the goalkeeper he used to be. Arsenal needs a new keeper. It’s as simple as that. There are keepers like Jan Oblak, Jack Butland, and Bernd Leno, who could be a constant between the sticks for years to come.
It is good to see younger players like Holding, Mavropanos, and Maitland-Niles get a few games at the highest level. Callum Chambers is now of the age at which he needs to step up. He has been at the club for four years but does not seem to have grown into the commanding defender the club wanted him to be. Per Mertesacker retires this season. This will leave Arsenal desperately needing an experienced, fit Centre Back next season. Ospina has looked handy as a keeper this year but by no means has he justified a starting spot for the club.
If Arsenal chooses to appoint someone like Simeone or Allegri or even Conte, that could completely change the style of play for Arsenal. They would be solid defensively, and adjust their game more to the qualities of their opposition. The signings would reflect that. If Arsenal chooses someone like an Arteta, they might get a similar style of play to Arsene Wenger which could leave them vulnerable at the back.
Regardless of the type of manager, Arsenal’s defence requires a lot of fixes. They need to transition from the likes of Mertesacker and Koscielny, to more aggressive, tougher defenders. A criticism of the defence as a whole is that they are not as tough or aggressive as the others. The Kolasinac signing should serve as a catalyst to sign more aggressive defenders.