Since switching to a three-at-the-back system, some of Arsenal’s defensive frailties have started to go away. The Gunners have defended deep and narrow, with their wing-backs dropping into full-back positions to form a back five when out of possession. With four midfielders in front of them, it has been hard for opponents to find space through the middle.
Despite this, the defensive deficiency which has dogged the club for too long was again in full force in their sensational 4-3 comeback win over Leicester on the Premier League curtain raiser. While the game will be remembered for Alexandre Lacazette’s debut strike and Olivier Giroud’s roof-raising late winner, Arsenal’s defensive failings were at the heart of all three Leicester goals.
Without the senior figures of Per Mertesacker, Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny, the Arsenal defence looked badly short of know-how, which could undoubtedly be the case for any team when missing three key centre-backs. Nevertheless, there is a bigger underlying problem which could put the Gunners’ defence in shambles time and time again if not addressed early on; Arsène Wenger has struggled to find the right man to play in the centre of the back three.
Formerly, both Mertesacker and Koscielny have performed this role to some success in the new formation, but ushering a new dawn and bringing a young, more injury-resistant defender to slot into this key role could prove effective for the London club.
A player who follows tactical instructions to the letter and can seemingly read the game as if he were watching its replay is what Arsenal really need to reach the next level. Splashing the cash on Southampton’s wantaway star, Virgil Van Djik, could provide the pave the way to success.
Famed for carrying the ball out from the back and into midfield, Van Djik is a rare example of a defender who displays the traits of an old-fashioned sweeper. In a style made famous by Franz Beckenbauer, the Dutch international has effortless elegance when striding into midfield. The way he builds his side’s attacks is endlessly admirable in its self-confidence and fluidity. This trait would be particularly beneficial under a manager like Wenger, who has always aspired to deliver a possession-based style of play. Acquiring a player of Van Dijk’s ability would help achieve this from the heart of the defence.
What’s more, the 26-year-old is extremely good in the air, standing at 6’4″. The Gunners have continually lacked an aerial presence over the years—particularly in the absence of their veteran captain, Per Mertesacker—and Van Dijk would be just the man to calm the waters when defending set pieces.
With just under a month to go until the transfer window officially slams shut, it remains unlikely that Arsenal will be focusing on new signings until the dead wood of the squad has been dealt with. Wenger himself has admitted that his squad is too big, and several players will need to depart, freeing up some space on the wage bill, before the 67-year-old turns his attention to strengthening the remaining weak areas in his side.
Regardless, the transfer window has a habit of turning upside down towards the very end, a trend in which Wenger has played his own part over the years. There is still enough time for the club to seize its chance and bring in the right defender to strengthen a side which should be chasing after the Premier League title, and Van Dijk should be at the top of the list.
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