Left Back in the Changing Room: Arsenal and our Offensive Fullbacks

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On the back of the recent 2-0 home defeat against West Ham, many questions via journalists, pundits and social media have been thrown in Arsenal’s direction as to how this, as what can only be described as a shock, happened. I personally feel that the lack of width in the team on Sunday ultimately led to Arsenal’s downfall. The play was much too narrow and even though Arsenal had much superior possession, 61.8%, they rarely managed to create any dangerous chances. Only 6 of the registered 22 shots were on target and 8 were blocked by the stubborn Hammers’ defence.

However, with Arsenal’s reputation for having a large quota of central and especially wide midfielders, the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Alexis Sánchez, Welbeck, even the summer acquisition of Jeff Rene-Adelaide should be included in the options for a wide birth; especially when the opposition team included a 16 year-old who performed excellently considering his lack of premiership experience. Why weren’t we able to spread the ball and make the pitch as large as possible, stretching a West Ham defence that had a ‘make do’ right back in the form of Tomkins?

Firstly there are reasons of fitness and injury to consider. Welbeck was of course out of the match through an injury sustained during the back end of the 2014/15 season. The inhuman Alexis Sánchez could only make the bench due to a lack of match fitness, considering playing nearly every game last season and taking Chile all the way in the Copa America. These issues meant that Wenger felt Santi Cazorla was the right player to play on the left of the attacking midfield three.

Bellerin

Did we miss the young Spaniard more than we might’ve realized?  credit DSanchez17 under license.

Ultimately and in my opinion the main problem that meant Wenger was left with a real selection dilemma was the untimely minor injury to Héctor Bellerín which side-lined him for the match. This meant a very experienced right back Mathieu Debuchy, started the game. This of course, was the correct choice by Wenger considering our other right-back option, Calum Chambers, is much less experienced and also, in my opinion, has a future at the club in a more central defensive position. The decision that I feel was made incorrectly was to continue playing Nacho Monreal at left-back. It must be said that Monreal easily had one of the best half seasons of his career, starting from early 2015. However, although Nacho’s defensive and distribution attributes have developed leaps and bounds since his signing in January 2013, he lacks an ability which cannot significantly be developed, especially past the halfway point of a player’s career, pace.

Now reader, without you thinking I have gone all FIFA ‘pace-whore’ mad, hear me out. Playing Nacho Monreal over Kieran Gibbs, in my opinion, is why our attacking prowess did not reflect some of the free flowing displays seen at the end of last season and throughout preseason. The reason being, playing Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal together in a team means that you significantly hamper the overlapping ability that the likes of Bellerín and Gibbs utilize in their full-back styles. You can argue that Debuchy is far from slow and I would agree with you, however, when you compare him to the rapid left wingers that grace the other top teams in the country, Young, Depay (Manchester United), Hazard (Chelsea) and Sterling (Manchester City) and even to the lesser clubs such as Montero of Swansea – which is a very painful reminder from last season, Debuchy can deceivingly be looked upon as not fast at all. For example, look at how well Héctor Bellerín managed Eden Hazard, not only one of the fastest men in the league but arguably the best player in the Premiership, he was able to stay toe-to-toe with him, so much so that in their second meeting in the recent Community Shield victory, Hazard was forced to switch sides to compete against the much slower Nacho Monreal – leading to the chance where he nearly and should have equalized in the second half.

Playing Debuchy in our 4-2-3-1 system must then require Gibbs to play at left back. Similarly if Monreal plays at left back Bellerín must be the right back. Mainly because when attacking it allows us to switch to a 3-2-4-1 where either Bellerín or Gibbs overlaps the right or left attacking midfielder. This leads me onto my next point. More significantly than just having both slower full backs playing, in particular Debuchy in this case, is the presence of Mertesacker on the right side of the two centre halves. Often Debuchy attempted attacking down the right flank, in our attempts to get back in the game and this left Mertesacker exposed on West Ham’s left meaning that Zarate, or later on Jarvis, could launch a counter attack that meant Koscielny had to leave his position to come over and cover. Having Bellerín at right back means he get back fast enough to cover Per. Likewise if we play Gibbs and Debuchy, if Debuchy cannot get back quick enough Koscielny can come over to cover and Gibbs is fast enough to provide defensive security for Koscielny at the same time.

Debuchy

Debuchy’s style meant a lack of overlapping runs on Sunday. credit Ronnie Macdonald under license.

My final point on why the full-back choices played at the weekend effectively cost us the typical attacking fluidity Arsenal prides itself on, is what I mentioned at the beginning of the piece which was the choice to play Cazorla in the wide left attacking midfield position. In my opinion Cazorla should only be fielded centrally in the current Arsenal team and unfortunately with the presence of a potential world class player in Aaron Ramsey being undroppable at the moment, Cazorla is on the bench. Playing Cazorla left with Monreal meant that the left hand side of our team was lacking in pace and continuity. What I mean by this is that Santi was dragged into the middle of the field looking for a shot or pass inside instead of trying to play down the left flank as the wide player naturally would. Although many crosses were put into the box, 33 in total, only 9 of them were met by one of our players and none resulted in any real chance. From what I noticed, many crosses that came in were from further back than the 18 yard box meaning they came to the player to flick a headed pass or shot onwards. Crossing from a position nearer the goal-line means a header is played back against its flight direction generating more power and allowing a more accurate attempt. Also Santi doesn’t possess the pace Sánchez has which allowed him to tirelessly track back to cover Monreal which was a real issue when West Ham counter attacked.

My solution to these issues, which must be immediately recognised, are not limited. Our depth in squad allows us many options. Wenger was quoted saying Bellerín’s injury would mean he would be out for “days”, however, if Bellerín doesn’t start, Gibbs is a must. If Bellerín is fit or even if he’s not and Nacho is still preferred at left-back then the left midfield position must be occupied by either playing Ox there and Walcott on the right. However, if Sanchez is fit he must play left with the Ox playing right. Also I would put across an argument that if Wenger feels that Ox and Theo cannot play left midfield, and Sanchez is not fit, Gibbs can play in front of Monreal. He would provide both pace and defensive cover for Monreal. Looking forward to the Palace game, I hope the team has received a massive wake-up call and can knuckle down and find some of the form they had in the second half of last season and throughout preseason.

Tom Canton is a member of the #ABW Radio team and can be found on Twitter here: (@TCanton94)

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