Arsenal’s squad review: Who stays or goes in defence?
Defensive deficiency has been Arsenal’s bane throughout the last decade. It didn’t abate this season. The Gunners conceded 51 times in 38 Premier League games, the most among the top six teams. Both Burnley and Newcastle United kept tighter backlines, too.
Arsene Wenger had no answer to Arsenal’s porous defence. It’s hoped new boss Unai Emery can solve the problem. Regarded as an authoritarian, the Spaniard is tasked with drilling awareness and discipline into the Gunners.
The second in our four-part Arsenal series concentrates on the defenders. Which deserve the chance to right last season’s wrongs? Furthermore, who could make way for potential new signings during this transfer window?
Find part one → Arsenal's squad review: Who stays or goes in goal?
The days of Tony Adams and Sol Campbell delivering rock-solid performances in Arsenal’s central defence have long gone. Laurent Koscielny is currently the closest quality-wise to his acclaimed predecessors. Since joining eight years ago, the Frenchman’s reputation has enhanced significantly, amassing 324 competitive matches.
Koscielny played 66% of the Gunners’ league contests this season. On peak form, he’s among the English top tier’s most eminent centre-backs. As well as offering comfortability in possession, excellent interception skills, and aerial prowess, the 32-year-old possesses pace to make recovery tackles.
An Achilles injury suffered in early May will rule Koscielny out for at least next campaign’s first seven weeks. As club captain, he’ll be given an opportunity to reclaim his place once returning.
Having cost £35 million in August 2016, Shkodran Mustafi is Arsenal’s sixth-most expensive signing in history. The German has failed to equal such billing, though. His inclination to dive into challenges was on show at least once during each of his 24 league appearances this season.
At 26, Mustafi’s career should have entered its prime. Although he boasts proficient tackling and capacity to pass out from the back, his enthusiastic attitude requires curbing with a steady presence alongside him. The Bad Hersfeld-born defender is a follower, not a leader.
Mustafi almost joined Inter Milan last summer. Three years remain on his Gunners contract, but he may receive one final chance to prove worthy. Missing out on Germany’s World Cup squad serves as a wake-up call.
Calum Chambers and Rob Holding have both reached similar points in Arsenal careers. They each earned a squad place this campaign, yet neither featured prominently. The centre-back duo made 24 league appearances combined.
Since aligning with North London’s red half, Chambers has struggled to fulfil his enormous potential. Dwindling form meant he was shipped out to Middlesbrough in 2016/17. Having, on average, played in less than a third of the Gunners’ league encounters during the last four seasons, the 23-year-old must learn to balance ball-playing talent with defensive solidity.
Arsenal snapped Holding up from Bolton Wanderers for £2 million two summers ago. He was awarded 18 opportunities to shine in his debut campaign, including the FA Cup final victory over Chelsea. Despite fitting in seamlessly, the 22-year-old has since failed to progress at the necessary rate.
With the Gunners set to rejig their backline, Holding and Chambers are possibly battling each other for one remaining squad position. If either, which will win out?
Ashley Cole and Kolo Toure made Premier League debuts aged 19 and 21 respectively. The latest young defender Arsenal seem compelled to blood is Konstantinos Mavropanos.
Known as Dinos, the Greek’s transfer to the Emirates five months ago slipped under everyone’s radar. His debut came in April during the 2-1 defeat away at Manchester United. The 20-year-old delivered an assured performance, leading to supporters demanding a more significant role. He’s featured two times since.
Mavropanos’ ascent will continue next season. Having overtaken both Chambers and Holding in Arsene Wenger’s pecking order, he could mount a first-team challenge under Emery.
Signing in January 2013, Nacho Monreal quickly became a permanent Arsenal fixture. After going on to make 212 competitive appearances, the Spanish defender’s knowledge means his importance increases as time goes by.
Monreal is effective at linking up on the left channel. Consistent if not spectacular, competent tackling ability enabled him to flourish as a central defender this campaign, too. Not only did his performance earn October’s PFA Fans’ Player of the Month award, it contributed to selection in Spain’s World Cup squad.
Monreal should command the Gunners’ left-back position next season. At 32, though, and with just one year remaining on his contract, a younger model is perhaps already being lined up.
Impressive Bundesliga form persuaded Arsenal to take a punt on Sead Kolasinac, signing him for free 12 months ago. The Bosnian took little time showcasing his strength, on and off the ball, as well as an eagerness to charge forward. He then tailed off, however.
Despite garnering 25 league matches this campaign, Kolasinac proved unsuitable in a four-man defensive set up. He requires adequate cover, as his lack of mobility allows opponents to roam free. It cost the Gunners at times.
Kolasinac must improve next season, or risk Emirates expulsion before his contract expires in 2022.
After departing Barcelona in summer 2011, Hector Bellerin debuted at Arsenal three years later. The Catalan, a typical modern-day full-back, immediately put his blistering pace and dribbling skills to great use. He was soon roundly considered the Premier League’s best right-back.
Bellerin retained a place in the starting eleven throughout this campaign, playing 35 top-flight games. His performance has noticeably dropped, though. He’s gone backwards in the past two years due to having no strong competition. As a consequence, the 23-year-old won’t feature in Spain’s World Cup.
Accustomed to an attacking set-up, can Bellerin up his defensive acumen to fit Emery’s more cautious approach? If not, a new Swiss arrival is waiting in the wings.
Borussia Dortmund’s Sokratis is on the verge of switching alliance to the Emirates for £17.5 million. Speaking three days ago, the Greek defender’s father told Radio, ‘Manchester United have a very good relationship with Dortmund, the teams speak a lot, but Sokratis has chosen to go to Arsenal.’
The Gunners must tighten up in central defence next season. With 79 Greece caps and almost 400 competitive club appearances, Sokratis will provide valuable experience. He’ll also add much-needed aerial ability as well as physicality. There are some concerns, however, that the 29-year-old is beginning to decline.
Another centre-back on the North London outfit’s radar, Mehdi Benatia could be set to leave Juventus this summer after winning back-to-back Serie A titles. The 31-year-old’s price tag is a potential stumbling block, though. The Old Lady reportedly spurned Arsenal’s £35-million proposal in December.
If a deal can be agreed, Benatia would supply Emery’s side with top-level expertise. The Morocco captain has three big European clubs on his CV in Roma, Bayern Munich, and Juventus.
Per Mertesacker recently ended his 15-year playing career to take charge of Arsenal’s academy. It perhaps leaves another gap to fill.
Caglar Soyuncu is a classy 22-year-old centre-half. The Turkey international has amassed 50 Bundesliga appearances at Freiburg since making his debut in August 2016. Are the Gunners prepared to follow through their interest, fight off Liverpool, and pay the £30 million asking price?
Emery’s first signing as Arsenal manager was announced on Tuesday. Right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner arrived on a free transfer from Juventus.
Carl Jenkinson has averaged only 5.4 league games per season for the Gunners since moving seven years ago. The 26-year-old’s future lies elsewhere. Mathieu Debuchy’s exit in January left a shortage. The new Swiss acquisition more than fits the bill.
Lichtsteiner is a solid, all-round defender. He lifted 14 trophies at Juve, including seven scudetto titles. The 34-year-old is also expected to earn his 100th international cap in Switzerland’s World Cup opener. The Gunners will doubtless benefit from his winning mentality, vast experience, and exemplary leadership skills.