Sead Kolasinac’s debut season with Arsenal hasn’t worked out as expected.
His arrival at the Emirates Stadium was preceded by the title of the best left-back in the Bundesliga, claiming the No.3 slot in the German top flight’s 2016/17 Team of the Season, and combined with the fact he’d left Schalke on a free transfer, many instantly hailed the Bosnian international as the Premier League’s shrewdest signing of the summer 2017 transfer window.
The early signs were encouraging too. The 24-year-old found the net upon his Arsenal debut in the Community Shield win over Chelsea, and by his 15th appearance across all competitions had notched up a further two strikes alongside four assists – a phenomenal return for a defender, but even more so for a young defender trying to make his mark in a new team while switching between left wing-back and the left-sided role of a back three.
Not only did the Gunners appear to have signed a versatile defender that could fit into two different positions, but also one that offered them fantastic physical power and creative quality on the ball – the former representing precisely what Arsenal have desperately lacked at times in recent years, and the latter highlighting what is required from practically every player at the north London club to suit Arsene Wenger’s aesthetic philosophy.
Around the turn of the year though, things started to turn sour – and it’s still not wholly clear why. Wenger explained that Kolasniac had been dropped from the starting XI because Arsenal had reverted to a four-man defence after starting the season with the 3-4-3 system that provided such a promising end to the campaign previous, but there was clearly something more to it than that.
After all, Kolasinac wasn’t finding himself benched in favour of Nacho Monreal, Arsenal’s tried and trusted orthodox left-back, but 20-year-old, right-footed midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
“He [Kolasinac] is highly suited for a wing-back role, for a more offensive role. I think he will play again and I gave him a breather as well. He is working hard and I think he will play in a back four, as well.”
Maitland-Niles is an incredibly exciting talent, and Wenger is one of the Premier League’s bravest managers when it comes to giving chances to young players, yet the significance of replacing Kolasinac by playing an academy product out of position was incredibly telling. There appeared to be some kind of rift between Wenger and the 24-year-old, or at the very least a disagreement over what he should be bringing to this Arsenal team.
In fairness, there are arguments to validate Wenger’s point of view. While Kolasinac has consistently displayed his attacking qualities this season, the defensive aspects to his game have left something to be desired.
Gary Neville remarked during Arsenal’s 3-0 Premier League defeat to Manchester City that the former Schalke star “can’t move his feet quickly”, which obliged the likes of Leroy Sane and Bernardo Silva to play around him on the left-hand side.
“The problem with Kolasinac is that he can’t move his feet. Manchester City, every one of their players can. So when they change the direction or a quick combination around him, he’s struggling badly.”
It created a clear hole in the back four for City’s cast to attack through and Kolasinac struggled to cope just as much as Arsenal couldn’t afford such an obvious point of vulnerability against such a talented team. There have been other examples too; he endured a dreadful evening against Ostersunds in the home leg of their Europa League tie, and against Brighton he failed to block a Pascal Gross cross that helped inspire the Seagulls to a 2-1 win at the Amex Stadium.
Yet, talented players are often only as good as the context they’re put in, and it’s clear Kolasinac still has something to offer Arsenal. It’s just a question of embellishing strengths and hiding his weaknesses, and Arsenal’s next manager could find a far better method of doing so than what Wenger has attempted this season.
That may well translate into deploying him exclusively as a wing-back, or modifying the complexion of Arsenal’s starting XI to ensure the 24-cap international isn’t so ready exposed. It certainly didn’t help that, for the first half of the season at least, he was playing behind Alexis Sanchez who often drifted inside to double up as a second striker.
It’s clear the defensive side of Kolasinac’s game needs some improvements though, and that’s once again where Arsenal’s next manager could make such a crucial difference to the arc of his career.
The idea that Wenger’s failed to substantially improve the defensive talents under his watch has persisted for several years now, and the recent evidence is certainly convincing. While it will inevitably be difficult to make naturally slow feet quicker, a manager who gives greater precedence to defensive structure may have better luck in ironing out Kolasinac’s most damaging defensive frailties.
And the fact is, Wenger’s departure represents a clean slate for everyone at Arsenal. Although the Frenchman’s successor will have his own ideas about who to bring in and who to move on, there won’t be instant managerial favourites.
Everyone will have the chance to prove themselves and with Monreal recently turning 32, the conditions are right for Kolasinac to establish himself as the wiser long-term option for Arsenal’s next boss.
So, do you think Kolasinac will emerge as a starting XI regular under the next Gunners gaffer? Let us know by voting below…