TSF Preview Week continues with a look at Arsenal’s defense. Defense was perhaps Arsenal’s biggest weakness last season, and Unai Emery has tried to address that by bringing in a few veteran players in this area of the pitch. But between injuries and lack of obvious starters, the defense is still far from solidified. Let’s start with a look at the center backs.
Arsenal have been in need of some reinforcement at center back for a while now, and in July they brought in Sokratis for around £16 million. Sokratis is the third former Borussia Dortmund player that Arsenal have signed since Sven Mislintat joined the club, and at thirty years old, he is expected to bring a lot of needed experience to his part of the pitch, despite a so-so season last year at Dortmund.
Although there is no longer a clear first-choice lineup on the defensive side, Sokratis may get a lot of playing time, especially in the first half of the season—the club’s other available center backs could all benefit from a bit of guidance out on the pitch. Ideally, Sokratis will be able to keep his head and direct the defense like Per Mertesacker did.
Mustafi is one of those players who would benefit from having someone else on the pitch to do most of the thinking. He was a regular starter under Arséne Wenger and is a fairly skilled defender, but he is still prone to mistakes and off days. He played more consistently alongside the levelheaded Mertesacker than he did with Laurent Koscielny, so if Sokratis can play the role that Mertesacker did for Arsenal, then Mustafi may have a better season this time around.
He’ll have some competition from Arsenal’s younger center backs, though, and given how Unai Emery has been trying different center back pairings in preseason, I don’t think his spot in the starting XI is particularly safe.
After a promising start to his first team career, Holding plateaued a little last season and found himself bouncing in and out of the starting lineup. But he’s still young and he’s shown that he can play quite well, and like Mustafi, he could benefit immensely from playing alongside Sokratis. We’ve already seen what he can do when partnered with a more experienced player (see Arsenal’s 2017 FA Cup win) and if he can find that sort of form again, he could become first choice among the club’s young center backs.
Although he’s been with the club longer than Sokratis has, Arsenal’s other Greek defender is a bit of an unknown. When he joined the club in January 2018, it was thought that he would be loaned out in order to get some playing experience, but Wenger liked what he saw and kept Mavropanos around. He played in three Premier League games last season, including a good outing against Manchester United, and 5 PL2 games. He’s also featured regularly in preseason games and could easily earn himself more playing time under Emery, if he hasn’t already.
Kos and his surgically repaired Achilles tendon will not be returning to the pitch any time soon (not until at least December, per his last update on his recovery). Depending on how the rest of the CBs progress during the first half of the season, Kos could face some stiff competition to regain his spot in the starting XI once he can play again.
Chambers just joined Fulham FC on a year-long loan. Unless he’s recalled in the event of an injury crisis, we won’t be seeing much of him, either.
Speaking of injury crises, we’re a little short at left back right now—Kolašinac suffered a knee injury in Arsenal’s preseason game against Chelsea, and he’s expected to be out for at least eight weeks. He is a logical choice to start at left back; he’s young, simultaneously powerful and nimble, and has a very high ceiling. Although he didn’t quite have the consistency that he needed last season, more regular playing time might help him find it.
Look for Kolašinac to get more playing time at left back—starting in October or so, when he’s healthy again.
Although Monreal was the first choice left back last season, he’s not getting any younger, and he was gone for a good part of preseason with Spain’s World Cup squad. He’s our only left back at the moment, and unless Emery decides to play Ainsley Maitland-Niles there as Wenger did or makes an emergency purchase in the next day or so, the position will be Nacho’s until Kolašinac is healthy again.
Once Kolašinac starts playing again, Monreal will probably find himself in a substitute’s role more often than he has before. He’s still a very good player to have around, though, in case of injury or a dip in form for the club’s other left back, and he bailed out the center backs a few times last year, which he may need to do again.
Last season, Bellerín was essentially Arsenal’s only right back, which probably isn’t the best way to set up a team. This year, he’ll have the company of Stephan Lichtsteiner, and although Bellerín is probably still the starter at right back, he’ll have to stay on his toes and keep up the good form.
Bellerín has had the entire preseason to practice with the club, which can only be good for him, but he may also have had to adapt to a different system, probably with more defensive responsibility, under Emery. We’ll see soon how much has actually changed at right back.
Lichtsteiner will probably have a slower start to the season than Bellerín, as he just returned to Arsenal after playing in the World Cup for Switzerland. But he’s no slouch, and he should provide some real competition at right back for Bellerín—Lichtsteiner captained his Swiss side this summer, and he brings the same sort of experience to the position that Sokratis does to center back.
Lichtsteiner’s playing time will probably depend a lot on how he compares to Bellerín early in the season (and, as with the other positions, how much Emery rotates his players).
Oh, right, he’s an Arsenal player. He was out on loan all of last season, and I think I’ve seen him in pictures from training recently, but he didn’t feature in the club’s preseason games, and we can expect that to continue into the regular season.