The Arsenal defence against Cardiff City earlier this week was Stephan Lichtsteiner, Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal, and with injuries having ruled out all of Arsenal’s other defenders (either temporarily or for the long term) there is every chance that the same back four will take the field against Manchester City this weekend. If they do, all Arsenal fans will surely pray to all their Gods, because if that back four just about kept Cardiff at bay (albeit without keeping a clean sheet), there is very little chance of them offering serious resistance against Sergio Aguero et al, especially as City will be determined to make amends after their (latest) shock defeat against Newcastle United.
Arsenal Have No Defence For Having No Defence
What Once Was
It is arguable that Arsenal’s latest back four is the worst in the club’s history, the complete antithesis of the truly great back four that George Graham built and Arsene Wenger sensibly kept together for the early part of his tenure. Lichtsteiner looks too slow for the Premier League (which says a lot about the current state of Serie A, given that he won seven titles in a row with Juventus); Mustafi may have won the World Cup with Germany in 2014 (albeit as a squad player rather than a first-team regular), but lacks the necessary pace and power for the Premier League; Kolasinac is a superb wing-back but a questionable full-back (and no kind of centre-back at all); and Monreal…well, Monreal is a good player, either at left-back or as the left-sided player in a back three, but his presence alone does not constitute a strong case for Arsenal having a strong defence.
It must amaze younger Arsenal fans (and younger football fans in general) that Arsenal were once famed for having a strong defence, and not just the great back four of Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn (with David O’Leary and Martin Keown alternating as the ‘fifth’ member of that great back four). Arsenal’s strong defensive tradition goes further back to the 1971 Double side, which was led from centre-back by Frank McClintock, who was ably supported by the likes of Peter Storey and Bob McNab, and indeed all the way back to the first great Arsenal side of the 1930s, for whom the great Eddie Hapgood was the defensive lynchpin. It was defenders such as those who formed the basis of numerous title and cup-winning sides, in the process winning Arsenal the nickname ‘Boring, Boring Arsenal!’, because they so often won 1-0 (with defences that good, one goal was often enough to win a game).
Now, as with so many things at Arsenal, the club has come full-circle and is renowned for its defensive weakness rather than its defensive strength. Obviously, much of the blame for that must be targeted at Wenger, who failed to build (at least for the long term) on the defensive foundations that George Graham had put in place. After the great back four of Adams et al finally began to age and falter, Wenger built a capable defence, at the heart of which was Sol Campbell. Arguably, it was Sol Campbell and not Patrick Vieira or Thierry Henry who was Wenger’s most important signing ever, as he finally provided the defensive speed and solidity that was required behind all the attacking players that Wenger had already assembled. However, it has always been claimed that it was David Dein, not Wenger himself, who pushed through the signing of Campbell, and when Campbell left the club in 2006 (far too early, as was soon obvious) Wenger failed over the next decade to find a central defender of his calibre.
However, Wenger cannot take all of the blame for all of Arsenal’s current defensive woes. When Unai Emery took over last summer, he should have recognised immediately that defence (or the lack of it) was Arsenal’s Achilles heel, and yet it was not until the autumn that he openly bemoaned the team’s lack of defensive nous. Worse still, in the months since then, he has failed to reinforce the defence significantly, even when two of its best components – Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin – were ruled out for the rest of the season through serious injury.
No Defence For No Defence
There is simply no excuse – no defence – for Arsenal having no defence, or at least a not-very-good one. Holding was injured in December and Bellerin in mid-January, which left plenty of time for the club at least to attempt to sign some new defenders. Instead, Emery focused entirely unnecessarily on acquiring new wingers, which eventually led to the arrival on loan from Denis Suarez from Barcelona, when the team were crying out for strengthening at the back. Such a decision only adds to the impression that he shares Wenger’s inability to recruit and organise good defenders. For Suarez now, read Andre Arshavin 10 years ago, who was another ‘luxury’ addition to a team that had forgotten the basics of defending.
Various excuses have been put forward by Emery as to why Arsenal have not bought any defenders this transfer window, or even acquired any on loan, but none of them stand up to serious scrutiny. It is true that it is more difficult to make quality signings in the month-long January transfer window than it is in the summer. That is especially true when Arsenal’s revenues have been depleted by recent signings (such as Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) and the ridiculous decision to reward Mesut Özil with a contract that no other club would ever have given him. Nevertheless, the team needs reinforcing now, rather than in the summer, and the failure to do so will surely return to haunt Emery. For Arsenal fans, the fear is that this will prove to be yet another wasted season and they have already had far too many of those.