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How important is the return of Arsenal’s full-backs?


For the opening few weeks of the season, Arsenal’s defensive calamities have always been mitigated by the fact that definitely two, likely three, of the defence would not be starting when the squad is fully fit. Perhaps the most important cogs in an Emery system are the two full-backs, in this case, Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin. Both are closing in on full fitness, starting last night’s Europa League fixture against Standard Liege.  In this article, I will look at how the pair can transform Arsenal’s season, in turn potentially securing Emery’s position as manager of Arsenal.

Defensive solidity

First and foremost, a defenders job should be to defend his own goal. For all their positive attributes, defending is not the strong suit of either Sead Kolasinac or Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Kolasinac is often caught defensively unaware, and has the skillset more suited to a left-midfielder than a left-back. Maitland-Niles has continued to grow into the right-back position, but the truth is he is not, and likely never will be, a quality defender.

Like much of the Arsenal defence, he is prone to regular lapses in concentration. Whereas these lapses are forgivable in his natural central-midfield position, at full-back they often result in the creation of a “big” chance. There is therefore, significant room for improvement in the wide defensive areas for Arsenal, a fact shown by the 30 crosses conceded against Liverpool.

Full-Backs Union

New signings Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin are different prospects entirely. Both love defending, whilst also being able to support attacks when necessary. Tierney especially relishes a tackle, as he revealed in a recent interview.  Bellerin still has some room for improvement in this department, but often his sheer pace is able to hide this issue. He is without doubt, however, an upgrade on Maitland-Niles defensively.

By having more reliable and better-positioned full-backs, less pressure will be placed on the centre-backs, who in turn will be less likely to make mistakes. Emery has relied on quality full-backs at each of his clubs – such as Thomas Meunier and Layvin Kurzuwa at PSG – hopefully, with the pair returning we will be able to see the best of this Arsenal side.

Midfield dynamism

Despite his bold claims, Emery clearly doesn’t believe that attack is the best form of defence. With full-back deficiencies, he has named more and more timid line-ups. Whilst the attack often picks itself, often the midfield becomes far too defensive. At Old Trafford for example, the midfield consisted of Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi, all of whom offer limited forward output. This tendency could in part be due to Emery’s acknowledgement of a weak defence.

With the returning full-backs, Emery may be encouraged to name a more aggressive midfield trio, including the likes of Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock on a more regular basis. It will not represent a dramatic change – Arsenal will still likely sit back and face more shots than they should, but it could offer a link player between defence and attack that has been sorely missed so far this season. In turn, this would leave the side less reliant on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has carried the side on his shoulders this season.

Getting the best out of Nicolas Pepe

In case you hadn’t been reminded at every turn, Nicolas Pepe has not had a good start to his Arsenal career. The man from Lille has one goal (a penalty) and one assist to his name in his opening seven games, which has led to some people writing him off as a ‘flop’ already. This, of course, is far too premature.

He has shown promise in many of these games, and settling into a new league will always take time. A look across London to Chelsea’s new winger Christian Pulisic offers plenty of evidence for this. Yet this downturn in form is down to a myriad of factors, one of which is simply that Pepe does not suit Unai Emery’s system. Whilst Emery loves his team to force play wide before crossing the ball into the penalty area, Pepe prefers to cut inside onto his much stronger left foot.

The result of this has been that it has become predictable, much like Riyad Mahrez in the 2016-17 season. In Hector Bellerin however, Pepe will have support from a man who absolutely loves to overlap, which will give him more space, as well as taking some of the creative responsibility off his shoulders. Bellerin recorded five assists before injury cruelly curtailed his 2018/19 season, and represents a potent attacking force. Having an overlapping runner will make Pepe less predictable, and should help to get the best out of him.

The long and the short of it

Hector Bellerin represents a known quality for Arsenal fans, and a definite upgrade on Maitland-Niles. Kieran Tierney is less known, but if he can continue in the same vein as he played for Celtic, he will represent a fantastic full-back option. More importantly, he will be one of the few in the Arsenal squad that actually relishes defending. Jurgen Klopp has led the way in demonstrating the importance of full-backs to a system, and all Arsenal fans will hope that the Scot and the Spaniard can have the same level of influence on this Arsenal side.


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