Have Arsenal Finally Stabilized Their Leaky Defence?
If I had one word to describe Arsenal’s centre-back pairings in the last few seasons, even a decade as we get things going in the 2021/22 campaign, it would be unstable. Stability is a key problem in the post-Wenger era at Arsenal Football Club.
Centre-back parings have ranged from Mertesacker and Koscielny to Mustafi and Holding in the past seven or so years and it seems that after the few results that we have seen in the past weekends- is it too early to say that there might be some stability in the defence currently?
Below I have looked at a timeline of the preseason and first few games of Arsenal’s horrific start to the season and whether the results really do reflect the poor defensive performances that pundits and experts have been very critical of in the media.
13th July 2021- Hibernian 2-1 Arsenal
Arsenal’s first preseason game didn’t get off to the best start, losing away in Scotland to a Hibernian side that finished 3rd in the SPFL in the 2020/21 season. The centre-back pairing was very spontaneous and Mikel Arteta opted for ‘a one experienced and one youth’ tactic with Pablo Mari and Harry Clarke filling those spots, the latter being replaced by another academy defender in Omar Rekik.
17th July 2021- Rangers 2-2 Arsenal
Coming off the back of one defeat away, Rob Holding replaced Harry Clarke with Pablo Mari keeping his place. With a very strong side fielded at the time, it was a bit of a disappointment to see the Gunners draw with no real impact from the important first team members such as Aubameyang, Pepe and Smith Rowe who all started. Calum Chambers also came on as a substitute at centre-back and seemed to perform slightly better than the other alternatives that Arteta had.
30th July 2021- Ben White signs for Arsenal
Arsenal’s much-needed centre-back signing came in the form of Brighton & England’s Ben White for a fee of around £50 million. Many experts and even the Arsenal fanbase itself criticised this fee and felt that the negotiations were very poor and the money that was splashed out on White could be funded into other players elsewhere on the pitch.
1st August 2021- Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea
Arsenal’s first home preseason game back with a crowd at the Emirates Stadium was facing reigning Champions League winners Chelsea in the Mind Series mini-tournament. Rob Holding and Pablo Mari were again the starting CBs but were to be replaced with new signing Ben White coming on at halftime. He was immediately thrown into the action clearing off the line with what seemed to be a certain goal and impressing the Arsenal fans right off the bat. It wasn’t to be though with Tammy Abraham scoring in the 76th minute to win the game for the Blues.
8th August 2021- Spurs 1-0 Arsenal
Ben White’s non-competitive full Arsenal debut was in an NLD friendly match as part of the Mind Series alongside the preferred Pablo Mari. Ben was replaced by Calum Chambers in the 63rd minute who was being trialled as a centre-back in contention for a starting spot. 13 minutes later, Heung Min-Son found a back route behind the defence to slot calmly past Arsenal’s no.1 in Bernd Leno.
13th August 2021- Brentford 2-0 Arsenal
Mikel Arteta’s first team selection in the opening Premier League game wasn’t surprising in the defensive sector whatsoever with Ben White and Pablo Mari as the CBs and Calum Chambers in at right-back. Arsenal had to cope with many injuries including Alex Lacazette and captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out with illness. New signing Ben White couldn’t cope with the tempo that Brentford’s tall and pacy strikers in Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbuemo could work at, and was losing a lot of battles aerially. He was heavily criticised on social media with Gary Neville talking on Sky Sports about how he could be ‘exploited’ by many sides this season due to his weaknesses. It was clear that the Gunners also lacked a proper right-back and that Arsenal missed Gabriel Magalhaes who hadn’t returned yet from injury.
22nd August 2021- Arsenal 0-2 Chelsea
With Ben White ruled out with COVID-19, Rob Holding was put back into the side with only days notice. Pablo Mari was very poor in his battle with Romelu Lukaku in his second Chelsea debut which meant that Kieran Tierney was drawn into the centre and Reece James was free to exploit the open space and send Romelu Lukaku in on goal as well as scoring for himself 20 minutes later. It was clear that there was no stability in the Arsenal defence at all and Arteta had a lot of work to do to try and improve it before the transfer market closed.
24th August 2021- Aaron Ramsdale signs for Arsenal
Bernd Leno had looked very comfortable as Arsenal no.1 despite some shaky mistakes in the past few games. For a fee of £28million plus around £5million in add-ons, this deal did not look like one that was made for a ‘backup’ goalkeeper. It put Leno’s spot at risk and provided some stealthy competition for the German shot-stopper. Again fans were very critical of this move with people agreeing that the fee was again too high and that Ramsdale’s history at previous clubs didn’t look too positive.
25th August 2021- West Brom 0-5 Arsenal
Aaron Ramsdale’s debut for Arsenal couldn’t have gone any better with a clean sheet and a 5-0 win against a weakened West Brom side. Sead Kolasinac and Rob Holding were given the nod at the back with Pablo Mari dropping to the bench. Many had expected Sead to depart in the upcoming week after the West Brom game, explaining the reason he was featured in the starting lineup. All in all, Ramsdale was very impressive and sparked questions on whether Mikel could start him over Leno if the poor form was to continue in the Premier League.
28th August 2021- Man City 5-0 Arsenal
Mikel Arteta got his tactics against his former employer all wrong as he deployed a 5-back defence with Sead Kolasinac retaining the spot that he had in the win against West Brom. With Ben White still ruled out with COVID, Calum Chambers and Rob Holding took up the other two centre backs. The defensive performance could only be described as a calamity, collapsing goal after goal. It didn’t help that Bernd Leno didn’t have the best of games either, with some terrible fumbles to allow two easy goals for Manchester City.
31st August 2021- DEADLINE DAY (Takehiro Tomiyasu signs, Hector Bellerin departs on loan)
Arsenal’s deadline day saw the addition of Japanese international Takehiro Tomiyasu who was heavily linked with Spurs earlier on in the transfer window. Hector Bellerin who had seemed to not be enjoying his football in North London, moved back to Spain to Real Betis on a season-long loan. Tomiyasu, who has played as a centre-back and right-back was some good business by the negotiation team who managed to push Bologna to sell for under £20million, which Tottenham couldn’t facilitate before.
11th September 2021- Arsenal 1-0 Norwich City
In a must-win game for Mikel Arteta’s side, fans finally saw a new, rejuvenated backline. The four consisted of Kieran Tierney, Ben White, the returning Gabriel Magalhaes and Takehiro Tomiyasu. There was also a massive change between the sticks with Aaron Ramsdale preferred to Bernd Leno. It was not the prettiest of games nor the most high-scoring but the defence was resilient and played very well to prevent Teemu Pukki and the struggling Norwich attack from causing any more problems.
18th September 2021- Burnley 0-1 Arsenal
Many opponents struggle against Burnley due to their constant over the top long-balls and physical tussles, but the unchanged back four were excellent. Gabriel put in a great performance winning almost every aerial duel whilst Aaron Ramsdale in the net prevented the Burnley attack from any possible scraps in the box. There was a shout for a penalty when White played a poor backpass to Ramsdale who was superb to cleanly tackle the incoming Burnley striker, which Anthony Taylor proceeded to point towards the penalty spot to then be corrected and overturned by VAR.
22nd September 2021- Arsenal 3-0 AFC Wimbledon
The changes to the backline for the Carabao Cup confirmed that Aaron Ramsdale had taken Bernd Leno’s spot as the number one goalkeeper for the time being. Pablo Mari and Rob Holding starting also meant that Gabriel and Ben White were the two centre-backs who finally had solidified their spot. It seemed that the Gunners finally had a permanent back four and it had come after seven games into the season.
26th September 2021- Arsenal 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur
The North London Derby was the ultimate test to see whether Arteta’s transfers would gel together after 2/3 matches in the starting XI. And indeed it did with Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu denying everything that was being produced through Heung Min-Son and Dele Alli on both flanks. Ben White was the catalyst to the counter-attacks that were being started, winning every duel with Harry Kane at the back. And Gabriel was sublime, getting forward with every opportunity and had a possible penalty shout when he was brought down in the area which could’ve been a goalscoring opportunity for the Brazilian defender.
So, we’re finally back up to date. It’s been a hectic summer and we’re fast approaching October already, but there is finally some trust in Arsenal’s backline. With Aaron Ramsdale in net, Gabriel and Ben White at the back and Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kieran Tierney running down the flanks- there is finally some stability in the Arsenal side. With ages of 23, 23, 23, 22 & 24, there’s plenty of room to grow and surely, it’s only going to get even better? Surely?