Tag Archives: defence

Missing Personnel – Do We Finally Have Squad Depth?

Our summer transfer activity rightfully created a buzz for this season.

After having our optimism dampened by continuous articles surrounding our meagre budget, the players captured by the club – with some help by our impressive backroom team – were enough to lift the spirits and the hope around our fanbase.

Not easy to do after the way last season ended.

The season has now been underway for a fair amount of time, and results have been decent, but not mindblowing, but it’s easy to forget that we are still operating at less than full capacity.

None of our rivals have our problem. The majority of their key players are in the team and slowly wearing away their ring rust. Us? We’ve missed an entire defence.

The backline is conspicuously our weak link. Our midfield can adapt with the personnel to combat different threats, and our frontline is amongst the most potent in the league.

Our four (or five dependant on the approach taken by Unai Emery) has been in dire need of reinforcements and is operating without definite first choice personnel.

With Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney all absent through injury, we have no doubt been hampered – and who else could claim otherwise? Even the likes of Man City would find room for at least Hector Bellerin. Pep is well known for his love of a roving wing-back – and Bellerin certainly fits that bill.

Holding and Bellerin

The players who have come in to fill the void have done admirably. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has shown he is a worthy member of our squad who has plenty in his locker. The combination of Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac have both played at left-back but with Monreal now at Real Socidead, it leaves the attacking Kolasinac as our only recognised left-sided player – meaning Tierney’s return can’t come soon enough.

Then there is our centre-back predicament. Our club captain Koscielny has now left the club, we have future prospect William Saliba back at St Etienne and we couldn’t manage to sell Shkodran Mustafi for love nor money.

It has left us with the granite-tough Sokratis, the returning from loan Chambers and new boy David Luiz.

This isn’t the worst talent pool we have had to pick from in recent years, but when you recall how Holding was performing before his long-term injury struck him down – and how quickly he had adapted to Emery’s tactical changes – it shows that not only will he most likely find himself straight back in the team when he finds his feet – but how badly we miss him.

Could other teams cope with missing three of their first choice defenders?

Could Liverpool manage without Virgil Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold?

What about City and Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker and Zinchenko?

One at a time, maybe two at most, but all three?

We have been unable to push forward with our plans at the speed we should be. Unai Emery must be commended with coping without this talented trio and keeping us competitive and at the fighting end. It would be easy to stumble and drop points like it was going out of fashion, but it is noticeable that we have not needed to point at our missing players. We’ve simply got on with things and earned results when we’ve needed to.

Of course, our attack has bailed us out at times, but isn’t it testament to our squad depth that we are where we are, without three of our first choice defenders?

For the first time in countless seasons, we now have the substance in our squad pool to contend with the numerous injuries that befall an Arsenal squad. We now have ample cover and players who are malleable enough to mould themselves how Emery requires them.

It will take a few months until we see the best of Holding, Bellerin and Tierney. When they are fit though, we have a first eleven to challenge for honours.

I mean, just look at how well we’ve done without them…

David Luiz – An Improvement?

A lot of conversation has taken place in the wake of our active transfer window – and most of that has surrounded our defence.

David Luiz, William Saliba and Kieran Tierney were the defensive additions this summer, but do they constitute what we needed to revitalise our last line of resistance?

Mark Lawrenson recently commented on our purchases and how our backline will cope this coming season. He proffered that while David Luiz is an excellent footballer, he is not an excellent defender.

Harsh criticism? Perhaps, but a lot of experts have spoken about Luiz’s struggles with lining up in a back four and his decent showings in a back three.

The Brazilian is known for his superior technique and ball control, so much so that he has often been utilised in midfield as a sentry figure and one who can distribute the ball.

With William Saliba on loan for the season and very much a figure for the future, we currently have Rob Holding, Sokratis, Calum Chambers, Dinos Mavropanos and Zech Medley as our central defensive units. Do any of them have the missing attributes we have been searching for since Sol Campbell departed the club?

Being Arsenal, our defenders will always be held up to a higher level of scrutiny. We have the highest set of standards because we had what was probably the best defence ever seen in the modern generation. Dixon, Adams, Bould, Keown and Winterburn are part of the fabric of our club and the benchmark.

Since they retired, only Campbell and Toure for a short time have come close to that level. What is the level though?

What is it we need – and do our current crop have it?

The two characteristics we are perceived to lack are consistency and leadership. The consistency can be bred over time and can be achieved with a settled backline. So that is very much up in the air. Plus, we have defenders who have shown they can perform over a stretch of games. Sokratis last season hardly put a foot wrong. Rob Holding before his injury was a revelation.

Then there is the leadership quandary. A leader can be someone who leads by example. Laurent Koscielny was one of these. Then you have leaders who rangle their troops together vocally and by the way they deal with adversity. A stout heart and a puffed out chest.

Do we have that?

Sokratis seems an obvious choice on that front, but Luiz has always been a candidate at every club he has been at. Perhaps giving him the armband is a bit much, but can he show the younger players the right way? Can he bring the best out of his teammates? That would be a yes.

Luiz was a regular for the majority of his times at Chelsea and at PSG. That doesn’t happen by accident. While his best years may be behind him, the short term acquisition gives us a body that can cover us more than adequately.

David Luiz signs

Harking back to the titans of the past is a fruitless exercise, aside from the sweet pangs of nostalgia. A lot of our defence can be our approach to the game, and a more adaptable midfield who can track back and press attacks – so Guendouzi, Ceballos, Xhaka and Willock have a lot of pressure on their shoulders too.

For now, we can look upon our signings positively, and our squad seems well stocked in all regions. Players like Luiz will help us far more than the experts seem to think he will, and his struggles in a back four have been exacerbated a tad.

The bottom line is that will he improve on Mustafi? That is a definite yes!

Square Pegs In Round Holes – Xhaka at LB?

Injury fiasco’s are commonplace for football clubs.

Especially if you’re an Arsenal fan.

We know exactly what it takes when ailments, suspensions and plain bad luck conspire to rob you of a recognised position. In the past five or six seasons, we have seen players shoehorned into a slot that is a stranger to them. We’ve seen Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal use their defensive nous at centre-back. We have also had Mohamed Elneny play in the centre of defence, as well as Bacary Sagna.

As you can see, it has been in defence that we have mainly suffered. Of course, we have had our fair share of crises in midfield and attack, but when it comes to contorting a player so they fit into an alien position? It is always in the backline.

It has happened again this season, as we have been blighted by injury at full-back.

So much so, that Granit Xhaka has been chosen to play at left-back on more than one occasion.

GettyImages-1058118452-696x490

What is it though, that made Unai Emery choose our Swiss midfielder to play in the role?

Perhaps the answer can be found with the aforementioned previous instances.

When Sagna, Elneny, Debuchy and Monreal were chosen by Wenger to fulfill a role in the heart of defence, it was because they were well versed in the defensive script. Debuchy had a fantastic aerial ability for a player of average height. Monreal is a classy player who can adapt to most roles, Sagna was strong in the tackle, and Elneny?

The Egyptian is a solid player, one who will always give his all and never let the side down. He is also decent in the air and at winning the ball. A switch to the centre of defence is a natural move for Elneny given his playing style.

But Xhaka playing at full-back? Especially when our team methods involve a heavy amount of metronome-like activity from the left and right-backs?

Xhaka isn’t blessed with the ability to track runners. The Swiss man though, has an excellent tank on him, and can win the ball if given the opportunity. Since Emery arrived, Xhaka has been transformed too.

Xhaka has confessed that the arrival of Lucas Torreira has allowed him to play his natural game, which links up defence and attack with a swift ball. Does that translate to left-back though?

A certain amount of Unai’s decision to make Xhaka the left-back comes down to the commitment that Xhaka gives. He takes his role as part-Skipper seriously, and his desire to win is clear for all to see.

The proof is in the pudding though. How did Xhaka perform in his unfamiliar role?

He didn’t let anyone down and was solid, if unspectacular. There was no bombing forward a la Monreal and Kolasinac, although he did get forward at times. He put defending first and foremost, and there were precious few opportunities from the left flank that Xhaka gave away.

The decision still causes a few head scratches. Alex Iwobi (yes, Iwobi. The boy tracks back,) Zach Medley, Carl Jenkinson, Elneny. Just a few names that would have appeared a little higher in a list of prospective left-backs. Yet Xhaka was named and he did a decent job.

It just shows that the coach knows more than we do!

Hector On The Rise

Hector Bellerin is far more effective than people give him credit for.

The Spaniard wasn’t the only one to fail to reach their best last season, as the wheels came off in what was Wenger’s final season.

Yet, the defender was labelled as a poor defender, a liability. Bellerin had hit the wall, he wouldn’t progress further.

This season, under new boss Unai Emery, Bellerin has risen to the occasion and played out of his skin thus far, in both defence and attack. Despite this, Bellerin has still had his critics, throwing the same barbs as before.

What isn’t highlighted, is that Bellerin is doing the work of two men, and performing near-miracles on the right hand side.

Unai Emery seems to prefer a 4-2-3-1, but has shown he can vary his approach. His favoured formation though, is leaving Bellerin wide open to salvo’s from the opposition, yet the Spanish defender is on the money and giving everything to keep the leaks to a bare minimum.

With the new regime, we are obviously suffering some teething problems at the back. Playing out from deep, in the face of an effective press, will require more practice and time. The new instructions and pairings are gelling together slowly but surely.

So a drought of clean sheets is to be expected. However, if it wasn’t for the engine of Bellerin and his vastly improving defensive skills, we would have conceded far more – and scored a fair amount less too.

GettyImages-1047072226-910x606

Our manbun-sporting defender has been a huge asset in our attack, linking up at nearly every opportunity with our attacking quartet. He is grabbing assists and more often than not, testing the opposition keeper every game.

If you check social media or newspaper ratings though, you could be forgiven for thinking you watched the wrong player. A raft of 5’s and 6’s, labelled weak in defence, Bellerin apparently can’t escape the mediocre tag even when he’s playing well.

There is a lot of focus on Bellerin simply because there is a lot of possession going down his side, and with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Aaron Ramsey and/or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bellerin is receiving zero cover.

Considering Bellerin is defending his entire flank by himself, it means that his forays forward need to be timed better than ever, otherwise he will – and the team will – be horribly exposed. So for Bellerin to have his best start to a season as an attacking player is evidence that he is using his footballing brain – he has evolved.

He is doing double the work, and is having his most effective season thus far. It is easy to forget he is still only 23. Ask any other right-back in the Premier League to put in his miles, make as much impact in the attacking third and also keep it as tight as he has?

I am convinced that none of his positional cohorts could manage what he has done.

Is it the arrival of an established rival that has pushed him on? In Stephane Lichtsteiner, Bellerin has massive pressure to keep his performances optimal, as he will be well aware that Lichtsteiner can stepin and keep him on the bench for an extended time.

Perhaps it is the threat of losing his place, maybe it is the fact he is learning and simply improving.

Either way, we have a right-back that is one of the best at both ends of the pitch – no matter what experts and some fans say.

Martin Keown – The Rash and Much More

The famous Arsenal back 5 is renowned for being perhaps the finest exponent of defending hailing from these shores in the modern generation.

Spanning two decades, David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Lee Dixon were assembled by then Arsenal boss in the late eighties, and were hewn into the offside-trap using, tough-tackling, impregnable unit we know, and Arsene Wenger then went on to prolong their careers with his modern dietary methods and free-thinking that was a breath of fresh air – and revitalised them.

They won league titles and cups, and the greatest strikers of that era cite them as the most difficult they faced in their time – and rightfully so.

Martin Keown is not mentioned in the same breath, although in terms of defensive merits, he more than held his own.

Keown is one of the club’s legends, after his two spells at the club and 332 appearances and being the last member of the ‘old guard’ to represent the club – and earning a place in the ‘Invincibles’ side in the process.

His first spell at the club only lasted two years and 22 matches, before going to Aston Villa and Everton. Keown returned to the club in 1993, and while Bould and Adams were still the first choice pairing, Keown’s instincts and backline nous were an important part of the squad.

Keown was one of the best examples of a specialist man-marker, earning him the nickname of ‘The Rash’ as strikers couldn’t get rid of him. In an interview with the Telegraph in the past, Keown admitted that he hated man-marking, but being so good at it meant he could never escape the task.

Because the Back 5 were a unit, Keown may not eat at the top table of Arsenal legends, but if anyone deserves to be there, it is the man who bullied Ruud Van Nistelrooy. That moment, one that the media chose to beat us with, is actually embraced within the club and our fanbase, we hold it up as an example of our fierce will to win and how our men never backed down. Keown may look back on that moment and cringe, but none of us Gooners feel that way.

Keown’s will to win, his fierce desire on the pitch was ill-at-odds with the man we see now in front of the camera, but it was this competitive spirit that drove him to become one of the best defenders we’ve seen.

GettyImages-2517323Image credit – Getty Images

Off the pitch, Keown is a well-spoken, educated man with a lexicon that is alien to most ex-pro’s. What isn’t well documented is that even in his spare time, Keown researched opponents and his own weaknesses, often with his son Niall, himself a pro footballer. The England international was never happy with his own game and pushed himself to be the best he could be, and Arsenal benefitted from his hunger.

Keown played for England for over a decade, but only amassed 43 caps. This shows the depth that England had in his position, but in his prime, Keown was among the best the country had, and he should have earned more during his career.

While our back 5 earned the right to be lauded and put on a pedestal, Keown should be remembered as fondly. He may be regarded as a legend amongst the club faithful, but Keown was one of our finest and can stand shoulder to shoulder with his peers.

Keown, in his erudite way mixed with his Arsenal experience and his unmatched desire, could have been the perfect coach to school our young Guns in what is ‘The Arsenal Way’ and what it means to play with the Cannon on your chest – not to mention how to defend stoutly.

Four FA Cup wins, three titles, a UEFA Cup Winners Cup, a League Cup was his haul of silverware in an Arsenal jersey, but perhaps his finest accolade was that he was kept by Wenger as part of the Invincibles squad, even in his latter years. He was not as fresh, as strong, or as quick as Toure and Campbell, but his positioning, his decision-making and his experience was enough to see him as part of the squad.

Martin Keown was much more than a specialist man-marker, but ask players of his generation about how tough to play against him it was. Ask Thierry Henry, Pires and Bergkamp how difficult it was training with him – that is a legacy.

Unai Emery’s Ideals

Our opening two fixtures were not exactly great for the development of Unai Emery’s new regime.

Our first game saw us pitted against the Champions. This Manchester City team are pretty much unrivalled on the domestic scene, so any pointers would be hard to come by to gauge how much work Emery still had on his plate.

A comprehensive 2-0 win for Pep’s side was the fare served up at The Emirates, but there were a few shining lights amid the gloom of realism.

It is hard to swallow how much of a gap has developed between us and the standard required for lifting the league title, and City have taken that yardstick and ran with it. Despite this, we saw a debut from French youngster Matteo Guendouzi that showed his pre-season showings were the real deal.

The kid bought from Lorient was constantly hungry for the ball, despite the constant harassment from the City midfield. His range of passing is excellent, and he seems to be the box-to-box midfielder we have craved for some time – although it is early days.

It was clear that Guendouzi needed to start in the next game – away to Chelsea.

This match represented a real barometer for our side – and for Emery’s progress. Chelsea also had a new boss in Maurizio Sarri, and are a few rungs below City, which means they are within our reach.

The game was the literal embodiment of the old adage, ‘a game of two halves.’ The first half was gung-ho, an advertisement of all that makes the Premier League so entertaining. The second half was a dud, especially if you’re a Gooner.

Emery is attempting to instill a new method, new processes, new tactics into Arsenal. After years of the same menu, players are now being asked completely new things – and change, profound change, takes time.

So, is it fair to judge after this game? If we inspect the game, then the answers become apparent.

Unai-Emery-Arsenal-1.jpg

Our new Spanish coach is a big fan of instigating plays from deep. From Cech – or Leno – to our defence, our deep midfielders, through to our two-layer attack. Movement is the oil in this particular engine, and if the right runs are made, then this tidal wave is hard to combat.

We saw this in our second goal, scored by Alex Iwobi. The move began from Cech, and involved ten of our eleven players. It was free-flowing and seemed improvised, but this was the product of intense training – something that players have already touched upon when asked about their season preparations.

It was great to see this come off, but we will suffer teething problems with this tactic. Starting from the back requires ball-playing defenders, and in Mustafi and Sokratis, we have some work to do.

Mustafi gets a lot of stick as his mistakes are normally rather high profile – the perfect evidence of this was his weak attempt to stop Alvaro Morata in his tracks before the Spaniard cut inside and fired their second goal.

However, his reactions are sharp, his tackling is normally rather good, and his strength in the air is more than good enough. If his decision-making was as good we wouldn’t have a dilemma, but it isn’t, and it’s the reason why the German suffers.

Then we have Sokratis. In all defensive attributes, he is more than adequate, and the ball may go past him, or the man – but never both. However, he looks like he has the pace of a glacier despite training showing he is one of our fastest, and so needs a rapid partner to mop up.

Also, both aren’t the greatest at passing out from the back – which is why this may become a real issue until December.

The first half saw us concede two, but we created a bagful of chances that on a normal day, our cutting-edge attack would put away. Our profligacy though, saw us waste the chance to go in leading at half time.

Emery is a contrasting figure from Wenger, and his half-time subbing of the ineffective Granit Xhaka was something we never saw from our former manager. The Swiss midfielder is another who gets the stick rather than the carrot from our fanbase, and Lucas Torreira replaced him.

Was he ineffective though? With Emery looking for the team to attack as one, Xhaka is integral, and why he continues to get chosen. Xhaka and his passing – still amongst the best in the League – is the link we require, and the perfect proof of this was our mystifying second half.

If the first half was steak, then the second half was a spam fritter.

We didn’t take the game to Chelsea, confident in the knowledge we could cut them in half when we wanted to. No, instead we soaked up pressure and wilted. We willed them to attack us, and when moves broke down, there was no more playing out from the back – because we had no one to light the flame. Guendouzi was again industrious, but Torreira is a conventional defensive type. With Ozil also off, we were the magician that had cut our assistant in half – but couldn’t remember how to put the two together.

Xhaka forgets to track runners, he rarely shows the endeavour to tackle, but when it comes to seamlessly knitting our play together, he is vital to our cause – and even more so now that Emery wants our eleven to act as a hive unit when in possession.

We left empty handed from the Bridge, but it was us shooting ourselves in the foot rather than being outgunned. We went to Chelsea and carved them open repeatedly in Emery’s second game.

Our defence though, were being opened up by simple balls over the top. Emery’s insistence on playing the highest line may work when we have all of our ducks in a row, but at the moment it is like a TK Maxx half price sale. It is unorganised, it is chaotic.

Our display – even in defence – will be enough against the majority of teams in the league. Throw in an acclimatised, battle-hardened Torreira and a more physical Guendouzi and we have a midfield ready to cover gaps and a defence with more Emery hours under their belts.

A lot of our issues will be resolved with a simple remedy of practice hours with Emery and his team of coaches. Practice makes perfect, and after ten games, we will have a far better idea of what makes the cut, and what needs lancing.

Two games, zero points. It wasn’t a good start, but Emery won’t be too concerned, after seeing his ideas start to bud.

We shouldn’t be either.

Xhaka Can?

June was an interesting month for player developments in and out of Arsenal.

We had the recruitment team working overdrive, a new contract for youth prodigy Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and then there was the contract extension of Granit Xhaka.

This new derived a mixed reception from Gooners. Xhaka was one of the ‘villains’ of last season’s horror show, often his mistakes put under a large magnifying glass and pored over. His defensive work was viewed as a symptom of our downfall and weakness on the pitch.

An interesting article by Tim Stillman on Arseblog highlighted the Swiss midfielder’s vast improvement in the second half of the season though, and how he could yet still be vital to our hopes of success.

An upturn in form he may have enjoyed, but for the sake of objectivity, a spike in context means that there was massive room for improvement in the first place – as highlighted in this article on 7am Kickoff

For a central midfielder, his defensive skills need work. He was outtackled by the likes of Roberto Firmino last campaign, and while he improved in the second half of the season, to increase his defensive output would not have been difficult. Given that we have now acquired a specialist in this role in Lucas Torreira, where does this leave Xhaka?

Xhaka is very much a ‘square peg, round hole’ type of player. His all-action displays for his country and previous club Moenchengladbach gave high hopes of the combative centre man we have craved since Gilberto departed.

Granit is more than that though. While his tackling and interceptions may need work, his distribution success is amongst the best in the League. His eye for a pass and ability to transition play swiftly with a ping of his boot gives us something extra.

Granit Xhaka needs to improve

Unai Emery is now in charge and Xhaka’s contract extension would not have been offered if the Spanish boss didn’t have plans that included the Switzerland star. Emery is known to favour a pressing game, and if Xhaka is part of the Emery regimen, then it means that Emery knows that Xhaka has what it takes to continue to do what he does in attack, but also rework his defensive aspects.

The heat that Xhaka gets from our fanbase is a little much – but he is a scapegoat because his mistakes have been high-profile and highlighted by the media. Many other players don’t track runners with aplomb and / or lose out when tackling for possession. Yet Xhaka is a dud because of this.

There can be no doubt that the Granit from last season will not have much of a career at Arsenal under Unai Emery, should Xhaka continue with his lapses in concentration. He will need to hone his awareness, and make sure that he gets to where he needs to be. As Emery himself pointed out when commenting on Xhaka’s new deal – he is still young. that means there is room for improvement.

Xhaka has the building blocks to fill in the gaps in his game and be the player we need him to be, but there are justifiable reservations on his starting place amongst us all.

The fact is undeniable. We know he has the talent, but if he were to stay at the level he is now, then the exit door would not be far away. Emery demands more than what the vast majority of our squad put in last campaign.

Xhaka has a clean slate. It is clear he is very proud to represent The Arsenal. Now is the time to use that fierce pride and desire and leave it all out on the pitch, and adapt to Emery’s style.

It will be very interesting to see how he performs – the season can’t come soon enough.