Arsenal has started the 2019-20 pretty much the way they finished the last one; chaotic and unpredictably. The Gunners have faltered when it mattered and made amends when least expected.
The recent draw against Watford lingers furiously in the minds of many Gooners alongside the error-laden North London Derby draw at the Emirates. Both games gave an ugly exhibition of schoolboy defending from Arsenal. This is a strange situation because going into last summer’s transfer window, it was a no-brainer that Arsenal needed to fix their defensive frailties to compete for a top 4 spot or even Europa League glory.
Unai Emery rang changes. He watched veteran captain Koscielny depart unceremoniously to Bordeaux for €5m as Litchsteiner bid farewell to the club after a season to forget. Nacho Monreal was allowed to move to Real Sociedad in the last of the departures. The arrivals came in the form of a certain David Luiz from Chelsea, Kieran Tierney from Celtic and the return of Calum Chambers from his Fulham loan spell. To be fair to Unai none of these has had a desired effect on the Arsenal defence in the league, at least thus far. Arsenal’s 10 goals conceded represents the fifth worst defensive record in the league and just one less than second to last Wolves have let in.
Defensive woes do not always emanate from poor defensive work from the defenders. In the modern game, defending is a team effort and that is why coaches are keen on having proper defensive shifts from even the forwards. Arsenal have also tried this approach but one position remains problematic; the holding midfield role.
In 10 seasons, Arsenal has used different players in this role with varying success levels. Players like Mikel Arteta, Denilson, Francis Coquelin, Alex Song, Granit Xhaka et al have all been called up to do a dirty job for the team. But to be brutally honest, none of them has done a better job at protecting the backline like Gilberto Silva or Vieira during the Invincible season. The Brazilian was a wonderful addition in front of an impressive Toure-Campbell partnership. Yet if Arsenal were to succeed, they must find a cure for an ailment that for too long has been their main undoing.
Clubs have paid top dollar to get players in that position. In 2012, Bayern Munich paid a then Bundesliga record £40m to get the services of Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao. Just recently, Rodrigo has been brought to the blue half of Manchester for a colossal sum of £60m. Arsenal haven’t had the luxury of splashing such sums for a defensive midfield player but may just have found one in a £8m acquisition. David Luiz was signed as a stopgap solution to Arsenal’s defensive issues. With the return to fitness of Rob Holding and youngster Konstantinos Mavropanos coupled with the presence of Mustafi, Chambers and Socratis, there is a need to rethink the use of the 32-year old Brazilian.
David Luiz has played for Unai Emery at PSG and for Mourinho at Chelsea after a big money transfer from Benfica. The Brazilian has also been a pivotal member of the Selecao leading them to the Confederation Cup glory and a World Cup semi-final berth partnering skipper Thiago Silva. David Luiz’s teammates and managers alike have had minimal effort noticing his technical ability on the ball. The Brazilian has made a name as one of the most comfortable ball-playing center-halves and it’s little surprise Barcelona were reportedly willing to cough up £30m to get his signature before he moved to PSG.
Despite being used predominantly as a centre back, David Luiz is a brilliant holding midfield player; brilliant on the ball, blessed with a good first touch, impeccable long range passes and shots. He also has admirable free kick expertise, good positioning and decent ball retention skills. In the 2013-14 season, Jose Mourinho used Luiz as a holding midfield player 14 times. Luiz Felipe Scolari once observed that David was one of his options in midfield if needed at the international level.
Playing David Luiz in midfield opens up very interesting centre back pairing options for Emery. Rob Holding is a player many within Arsenal ranks herald as a future captain. The Englishman was a mainstay in Unai’s defence before his long injury lay off. Calum Chambers’ persistence cannot be ignored either. The former Southampton youth protégé had a brilliant pre-season and started the season quite well. He has started in the only three matches Arsenal have kept clean sheets; Eintracht Frankfurt, Newcastle and Nottingham Forest in three different competitions contributing a goal and three assists. It remains to be seen if one of the two can partner Sokratis or Mustafi or replace the two altogether.
Granit Xhaka’s displays at the heart of the Arsenal midfield hasn’t won him many admirers. The Swiss has blown hot and cold too often for many fans liking. His knack of getting cheap bookings, giving away silly fouls and penalties coupled with his slow reactions haven’t made him particularly the most liked Arsenal player.
In fact the Arsenal captain has come in for a lot of stick for his challenge on Son in the derby earlier in the month in addition to reckless comments about Arsenal being ‘scared’ of Watford. It is also disappointing to note that the Arsenal skipper has the most errors leading goals in the Premier League since 2016 at seven. He has also accrued numerous, meaningless bookings.
Potentially, Xhaka’s loss could be Luiz’s gain. Much as the Brazilian has issues of his own defensively, he is steadier in midfield; in fact he is a dominant force. His aerial prowess is a big asset on set pieces at both ends of the field. His presence at the base of midfield would be the steady influence Unai craves in order to allow the likes of Guendouzi, Torreira and Ceballos to play box to box roles just ahead of him.
Unai is not a manager afraid of making changes if called upon. His axing of Mesut Ozil from the team due to his lackadaisical approach, poor work rate and unwillingness to track back was a bold move. It is incomprehensible to me how he has stuck with Xhaka for so long yet despite the former Borussia Monchengladbach star’s well-documented failings.
His dalliance with Xhaka has to be stopped imminently given the Arsenal board won’t be very forgiving if Arsenal don’t secure a Champions League spot. It will be interesting to see what ensues with defensive problems rearing their ugly heads in a make or break season for the Spanish coach.
Follow Luke on Twitter @LukeSparrow3