Arsenal’s two defeats under Unai Emery in subsequent Premier League weekends have contained a recurring theme – the result -deciding influence of the opposition left-back. Just as Benjamin Mendy twice drove powerfully down the left flank before assisting both of Manchester City’s goals at the Emirates Stadium, Marcos Alonso inspired a Chelsea victory last Saturday by firstly squaring the ball to Pedro for a simple finish and then sneaking into the box on the underlap to convert an Eden Hazard cross.
Of course, Arsenal won’t come up against No.3s belonging to the same calibre offensively as Mendy and Alonso every week – there’s a high chance they’ll end the season ranking highest in the Premier League for assists from defenders. However, it’s clearly a structural weakness in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 setup that every Premier League side will feel they can exploit to some degree, so how does the new Gunners gaffer fix it? Football FanCast lay out three suggested solutions…
While there’s only so much a defender can do when faced with a whole ninety minutes of two-on-one scenarios, the nature of Hector Bellerin’s game doesn’t help much either. He’s an offensive full-back by design and although there’s an argument for fighting fire with fire by pushing so far forward you’re pinning the opposition wide players back, the alternative is to play a better-rounded defender who will think about stopping goals more than getting forward.
The obvious candidate for that is Stephan Lichtsteiner who may be 34-years-old but hardly put a foot wrong when asked to fill in at left-back against Manchester City, despite the problems the Premier League champions created for Ainsley Maitland-Niles previously. Positionally he’ll make Arsenal’s backline a far sturdier flat four and when given the opportunity, he has the technical quality to cause a few problems at the other end.
That would then free up Bellerin – who Transfermarkt value at £36million – to play further forward at right wing, which is something of a problem position for Arsenal at the moment. The squad lacks natural wide players and although there’s no doubt a reason Bellerin has ended up being used as a right-back rather than an attacking force, the defensive qualities he’s yielded over the last few years should really plug up gaps on that flank – while his pace offers Arsenal some penetration on the counter.
Bellerin’s no doubt been fighting a losing battle during Arsenal’s last two games, offered practically no protection from the players in front of him while trying to contain not only talented wingers like Willian, Eden Hazard and Raheem Sterling but also the left-backs overlapping them from out wide.
So perhaps the real problem lays in midfield and the lack of tracking back from Arsenal’s right wingers. That’s a pretty logical assessment, considering it was Mesut Ozil deployed there against City and Henrikh Mkhitaryan against Chelsea – two players who can provide moments of brilliance going forward but are infamously workshy when facing back towards their own goal.
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Plenty feel the two attacking midfielders just can’t work in the same starting XI because they leave the rest of the team so exposed, and based on performances so far this season Mkhitaryan has made the far bigger influence – scoring and assisting against Chelsea – meaning its Ozil’s time to be dropped.
If that display was enough to earn Mkhitaryan the central slot in Emery’s attacking midfield berth, then the Arsenal boss is left with something of a decision to make at right wing. Bellerin, as previously discussed, remains an unorthodox option but Danny Welbeck shouldn’t be forgotten here. The England international is hardworking, physical, versatile and brings more goal threat to the team. Furthermore, after him, Arsenal’s wide options really aren’t that encouraging.
It may seem counter-intuitive to stop the influence of an opposition left-back by reducing the number of wide players but using Bellerin as a solitary wing-back flanking a three-man defensive line could prove to be a stroke of genius.
In actuality, the extra centre-back allows one to drift across and cover Bellerin at all times, meaning he can be free to close down the opposing full-back as another defender goes tight on the winger. Depending on how the team is set up offensively too, there could be even more cover further up the pitch from a wide forward in a 3-4-3.
Arsenal used a three-man defence during the early stages of last season and the latter months of the campaign previous, before Arsene Wenger reverted back to his more trusted 4-3-3 setup. It was only ever meant to be a short-term solution but it did suit some of Arsenal’s players incredibly well, including Bellerin who has always been a little too cavalier and creative to be considered an out-and-out No.2.
It could pave the way to fit Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette into the same starting XI, which would be a massive boost for the Gunners. But it’s an incredibly big change to make after just two games while trying to introduce a fresher style of play, and it’s not a formation Emery has much first-hand experience with.
So, Arsenal fans, which solution do you think would stop the influence of the opposition left-back? Let us know by voting below…