The first step to change is the acceptance of a problem in the first place. This seemed beyond Arsene Wenger, who time and time again refused to acknowledge Arsenal, under his charge, had become a soft touch at the back. Everyone could see their defence was vulnerable, prone to weakness at the worst possible moments, but Wenger couldn’t.
This is just one of the reasons the Frenchman was pushed out of the club at the end of last season. In Unai Emery, the Gunners now have a manager who is intent on changing things, and progress has been made over the first few months of the season, with Arsenal once again one of the most exhilarating teams to watch in the Premier League.
However, at the back the same old problems persist. Arsenal have, more than once, looked shaky in defence, but at least Emery recognises there are problems to be addressed. That’s more than could have been said about Wenger, whose stubbornness became his worst quality over time.
“Before Wenger came, Arsenal celebrated 1-0 and were based on defensive solidity,” the Spaniard explained in an interview given to the Spanish press earlier this week. “With Arsene, joy came from attacking, with players of good standing. And the perfect combination was the Invincibles.
“But over time, only technical quality and offensive freedom were taken care of, losing the defensive structure. What I want is to unite both essences and be more competitive. Arsenal was in decline. We had to stop it and start climbing.”
As demonstrated across the Premier League, defensive resolution is difficult to instil in a team. There is a global shortage of top class centre backs at the moment, explaining why Liverpool were so desperate to sign Virgil Van Dijk for a club record fee of £70 million last January. Emery has yet to settle on his defensive formula, at least one that works.
So far Shokdran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos have been used as Arsenal’s centre back pairing, with Hector Bellerin on the left of the defence and Nacho Monreal on the left. Bellerin has rediscovered his form this season, with Monreal his usual consistent self. But at the heart of the defence, Mustafi and Sokratis have proved less than convincing… and that’s putting it mildly.
It could take some time for the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla boss to get things right at the back – just look at how long it took Jurgen Klopp to settle on a defensive line at Liverpool. But as least Emery knows there is a problem. Whether it’s through coaching or through signings made in the transfer market, the defensive process has only just started at Arsenal.
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