Arsenal’s Right-Back Conundrum
When Cedric Soares joined Arsenal on loan from Southampton on January 31, there was a sense of confusion amongst the fanbase. What was the point? Ainsley Maitland-Niles had been thriving in Arteta’s first month in charge and Hector Bellerin had just returned from injury. Earlier in the month we’d been linked to Coritiba and Brazil Under-17s right-back Yan Couto. However, he has recently moved to Manchester City for £14m. With unease surrounding Hector Bellerin’s form, perhaps that was a move worth pursuing.
Fast forward 3 months and the situation is as murky as ever. Cedric Soares has not managed a single appearance due to his pre-existing injury. Should the move not be made permanent, he may well etch himself into Arsenal folklore, alongside the likes of Kim Kallstrom and Denis Suarez as a futile loan signing. Meanwhile, Hector Bellerin has struggled in his return from an ACL injury inflicted against Chelsea in January 2019. These struggles are understandable. Bellerin’s game is largely reliant on pace and agility, two attributes which are largely encumbered by his impaired knee.
Where to from here?
The woes of Bellerin and Cedric beg the question of what Arsenal must address in the summer window. Or whenever the transfer window is. Do they make Cedric permanent, in turn prioritising other positions and putting their right-back targets on the back burner? Or do they allow Cedric to walk away and find a long-term solution straight away?
It may be that the club opt to sign Cedric on a permanent basis as a stop-gap solution and make a move for a long-term option the following summer. This could be very much like what David Luiz has been this season. An expedient option for a low fee that keeps money available for a marquee signing the following year. In the case of Luiz, the long-term option may prove to be Dayot Upamecano, who the club’s hierarchy made a last-gasp attempt to acquire earlier this season.
Who to target?
Regardless of whether Arsenal act on the right-back position in the upcoming window or next year, there are an array of options to be considered. What must also be considered is what Arteta wants in a right-back. A ploy which is also implemented at Manchester City, is the use of an inverted fullback. Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have been used in this position to varying degrees of success. Maitland-Niles took to the position like a duck to water. It was absolutely perfect for him. However, as we have come to know recently, he clearly doesn’t view it that way. Bellerin on the other hand, has had his struggles since returning from injury. However, perhaps as time goes on and he grows fitter and is more alike the Hector Bellerin we know and love.
Max Aarons is not a name that would be unfamiliar to Premier League fans. The 20-year-old has impressed under Daniel Farke at Norwich City this season, reportedly attracting interest from Arsenal and Tottenham. Despite registering just the 1 assist this season, Aarons is very offensively oriented. As per WhoScored, the Luton product produces 0.7 key passes per 90 and completes 1.3 dribbles at a success rate of 45%, which isn’t all that great. He is not afraid of pushing forward, but clearly, as exhibited by his unpolished dribbling and mere assist this season, there is work to be done.
As touched on earlier, Arteta’s style lends to the right-back being an auxiliary midfielder of sorts. As such, this requires a player to have an adept passing game in tandem with strong dribbling. Aarons averages 37.5 passes per game at a rate of 78.9%, with 0.8 of them being long balls. Aarons appears very talented on the eye. A diminutive presence who can manoeuvre his way up the field with great agility and speed. This is true, however, as exhibited by his stats, there is work to be done. His dribbling and passing both have very average completion rates, which must be addressed if he were to make the move to the Emirates.
In a piece for The Athletic this week, London reporter Dominic Fifield revealed that Arsenal were amongst a throng of clubs eager to acquire the Moroccan’s services. They are alleged to be “attracted as much by his versatility and excellence across numerous positions.” Some of the suitors for Hakimi span far across Europe, with the likes of Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus aware of his progress. Tottenham also were interested during Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure and Chelsea are interested in him as well. Although, with the progression of Reece James, a move to West London may be a long-shot.
As alluded to in the article, Hakimi has the ability to play across an array of positions. However, most commonly he has been deployed as an attacking fullback in a 3-4-2-1. His attacking prowess is evidenced by his impressive haul of 10 assists and 3 goals in 25 Bundesliga appearances. Beyond his direct goal contributions, Hakimi is pivotal in Dortmund’s build up play. He registers 1.2 key passes per game and 2.4 dribbles at a success rate of 60%, as well as 60.3 passes with 84.7% being successful. Just with stats alone, Hakimi stacks up as a perfect fit for Mikel Arteta. His heavy involvement in possession – as depicted below – is fundamental for the role of an inverted fullback mastered by Kyle Walker at Manchester City.
Much like Walker, Hakimi is absolutely rapid. In Dortmund’s 3-3 draw with RB Leipzig in December, Hakimi was clocked at 22.49 mph, which stands as the record speed in the Bundesliga. His swift acceleration makes him a weapon both offensively and defensively. When tracking back to support his fellow defenders, he can abruptly break up attacks, as illustrated by his 1.8 tackles and 1 interception per 90 in the Bundesliga.
Clearly, the right-back position is one that needs addressing for Arsenal. I must confess, Hector Bellerin has always been a player I’ve held in high esteem. However, when compared to other fullbacks across Europe, it is clear that we must upgrade on him. Whether that be in this upcoming window or the following year depends on Arteta’s immediate priorities. If we are to go to the market, Achraf Hakimi would be the best option to pursue. With Dani Carvajal having a stranglehold over the right-side of Real Madrid’s defence for the best part of a decade, he may prove hard to displace. However, Hakimi may just be the man to take Arsenal to the next level.