THE increasing importance of full-backs in modern football is, by now, well documented. Unai Emery’s Arsenal have not found fluency easy to come by this season, their shot conceded statistics have rocketed off the charts and many games have been characterised by either a chaotic or confused air.
David Luiz, Sokratis and Granit Xhaka have earned opprobrium for their performances at the heart of an occasionally dishevelled looking team. Collectively, the Gunners fan base has furrowed its brow in an attempt to decipher this indecipherable Arsenal team.
Many of us have pinned our hopes on the returns of Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney from injury. In their stead, the Gunners have usually fielded Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac, neither of whom are entirely suited to playing as full-backs in a back four.
Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney look set to be in contention to make their first Premier League appearances of the season. pic.twitter.com/WzgxDqp6Kd
— ARSENAL (@tomgunner14) October 6, 2019
Unai Emery clearly has reservations about the defensive acumen of the pair and has recently dropped Maitland-Niles for Calum Chambers. At the back end of last season, the coach fielded a back five which, in part, was a move to provide extra security. Nacho Monreal played on the left-side of a back three to cover for Kolasinac. Emery has foregone the back five / three this season, but he has still taken special measures to buttress Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles.
The Gunners have operated with either a midfield three or a midfield diamond this season. The midfielders either side of Granit Xhaka have played very wide, in part to assist the back-up wide defenders. This has left the centre of the pitch very stretched for Arsenal, with the fig leaf of Granit Xhaka covering a cavernous gap in front of Luiz and Sokratis.
If the performances of Xhaka, Luiz and Sokratis have failed to impress, it’s largely because they are being left with an enormous amount of space to cover. The hope, the wish, is that Emery will (be able to) trust Tierney and Bellerin enough to allow the midfield three to form a slightly tighter bond and, in doing so, make the central area of the pitch more secure. This ought to lead to improved performances from the much-maligned trio of Xhaka, Luiz and Sokratis.
Emery has also played his central midfielders at the wide tips of the pitch because he doesn’t quite trust Nicolas Pepe’s output from wide positions. Pepe started in a more central position in the away matches at Liverpool and Watford. The Ivorian is not renowned for his defensive rigour, but he has also yet to hit his straps in an attacking sense.
The return of Hector Bellerin is another potential salve. Bellerin’s ability to overlap ought to help Pepe unclog the swathe of defenders he often finds in his way when he receives the ball. Regular playing time with Hector should eventually see a valuable and dangerous partnership grow. On paper, the pair have complementary attributes; Pepe likes to dribble inside and the Spaniard can help him do that by drawing attention on the overlap.
Emery *facts*: He has Arsenal in fourth after seven games, 40% of which have been at Anfield, Old Trafford or NLDs. Three quarters of the defence has been injured, his star signing’s still adapting & he’s introduced some of Arsenal’s most exciting youngsters ever. #AFC #Arsenal
— Matt Scott (@Matt5cott) October 1, 2019
Full-backs are incredibly important to Emery’s style of play, he likes for his wide forwards to move inside and create a kind of midfield “box” with a clear connecting line between the central midfielders and the wide forwards. The success of such a tactic depends on the full-backs providing width. Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles are able to do this, but the issue is that Emery doesn’t trust them to turn around and get back again quickly enough. Chambers has done this quite well, but still doesn’t have the athleticism to travel up and down for a full 90 minutes.
Kolasinac lacks athleticism and Maitland-Niles, by his own admission, hasn’t got fully developed defensive instincts. This is less of an issue for Bellerin and Tierney and Arsenal’s entire structure ought to become tighter as a result. There is reason for caution, of course. Bellerin is returning from a very serious injury and his game time will have to be managed sensibly until the New Year at least. Fatigue is the leading cause of injury recurrence, especially in the knee.
Tierney has a recent history of hip and hernia problems and that has quite possibly been a loading issue, where he was expected to play every game at Celtic, a team that regularly negotiate 60+ fixtures a season. There is also a sense under Emery that Arsenal fans have been left to wish cast future solutions to make the team less confusing.
Last season many of us thought upgrades in the wide forward positions would make the team more cohesive. The club have spent £72m on Nicolas Pepe and the likes of Bukayo Saka and Reiss Nelson have impressed, but Arsenal’s team has not become any more stable. Bellerin and Tierney’s returns will not cure all the team’s ills, but their presence ought to improve some of the structural problems Unai Emery has grappled with this season.