At the risk of hyperbole, one could argue that Hector Bellerin’s agonizing ACL injury suffered in this past Saturday’s match against Chelsea could be the single most crucial factor that will affect Arsenal’s success for the rest of the season.
Of course, it’s equally as easy to argue that it is far too premature to jump to such a wild conclusion, that there are myriad other factors to be included and considered before anyone can say with any veracity that his injury will decide Arsenal’s season, that we have weathered injury crises before and that no single player is crucial to a team’s success.
Somewhere between those two extremes, though, lies the truth. After losing Rob Holding to an ACL injury against Manchester United a month ago, Arsenal’s defensive issues that had been papered over by some fortunate results during a 22 match unbeaten run became too much for the Gunners to overcome. A week after a disappointing trip to Old Trafford, Arsenal lost 3-2 at Southampton as the Saints picked apart Arsenal’s wounded defense.
Holding’s injury was an easy straw man around which many Arsenal fans built their arguments about the loss, as the Gunners had not lost a match since the first week of league play until after he was injured. However, the Southampton match also saw Bellerin subbed at half time with the calf injury that would keep him on the bench for the majority of the next five league matches. During that stretch, Arsenal won twice (Burnley and Fulham), drew once (at Brigthon), and lost twice (at Liverpool and at West Ham), and often looked woeful in defense, as Arsenal had to rely on a mix of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ainsley Maitland-Niles to deputize for the Spaniard. Bellerin did return to the pitch during the West Ham match as a substitute, but that match was a disaster across all fronts.
Compounding matters is the issue that Arsenal - rather, Unai Emery - have no definitive plans to alter their transfer window plans to accommodate for the absence of Bellerin (or any definitive plans to make any transfers at all, for that matter).
So, what can Arsenal do in the mean time?
Replacing Bellerin isn’t easy. Despite not having the same speed he possessed in previous seasons, Bellerin has become more influential in the attack this season, notching five assists, including the assist for Lacazette’s opening goal against Chelsea. His overlapping runs and crosses had steadily improved until his untimely injury, so whoever steps in needs to be willing to contribute similarly.
There are three obvious first team options at Arsenal’s disposal to fill in for Bellerin: Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Stephan Lichsteiner, and Carl Jenkinson. Each presents their own benefits and shortcomings, but who is best suited to deputize for Hector in a back four?
Pros: Young. Pacy. Eager to prove himself at the first team level.
Cons: Not a true defender by trade. Still very green. Has already dealt with a long term injury of his own.
Pros: Experienced. A bastard. Willing to get physical. Crazy.
Cons: Slow. Old. Not good at defending. Crazy.
Pros: Alive. On Arsenal’s roster. A lifelong Gooner.
Cons: Not tested. Frankly quite average.
BACK FOUR vs BACK THREE
To Unai Emery’s credit, he has shown a willingness to adapt his line-ups and formations to suit his opposition in a way that Arsene Wenger typically did not. He has not been afraid to tinker and make subs early, with more positive results than not. Regardless of the lineup, Emery has shown a prediliction towards a traditional back four, with Bellerin the most consistent starter in the back line with 19 appearances, tied with (surprisingly) Shkodran Mustafi.
But with Bellerin out, and a huge gap between he and his back-ups, there is room to argue that a back three might be in Arsenal’s best interest. So which defensive formation best fits what Arsenal have to work with?
The most obvious benefit of a back four is defensive balance. Although it requires the fullbacks to be more mindful of their defensive duties, it enables numbers to work in favor of the defense. While Arsenal now have two defenders out for the season, the return of center backs Laurent Koscielny and Dinos Mavropanos to the first team at least gives Arsenal the chance for rotation and tactical flexibility in the middle.
Based off of Arsenal’s successful 4-1-2-1-2 diamond against Chelsea, Arsenal could start a very similar lineup to what they finished the match with, with a back four of Kolasinac, Koscielny, Sokratis, and Maitland-Niles.
The back three, however, enables Arsenal to attack on the front foot. In the 3-4-3, which Arsenal utilized with great success against Tottenham in the North London Derby, the play of the wingbacks works to the strengths of both Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles, who are better attacking than defending. Arsenal’s attack under Emery has relied heavily on the fullbacks getting up field and crossing the ball into attackers in the box. Kolasinac has begun to grow into his role on the left. Whoever plays opposite him will need to rise to the occasion to provide the attacking balance Arsenal will need in order for a back three to work.
Three central defenders, though, works rather will considering the available players. As all central defenders minus Rob Holding are healthy and available, and with Koscielny slowly looking like his former self, Arsenal can rotate their CBs into a back three often, which will hopefully keep the current defensive roster from getting over worked.
There is also a level of flexibility that a back three allows that a back four does not. Despite typically playing wide in defense, both Nacho Monreal and Stephan Lichtsteiner have played in the back three, albeit to mixed results. Even Granit Xhaka has deputized in the defense in a back three, although that is the kind of last ditch decision that would typically indicate that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
No matter how Arsenal choose to line up going forward defensively, they will have to walk a fine line. Any further injuries will put the Gunners into a potentially disastrous state of disarray, lest they start calling up players from the youth academy. This will present a very important test for Emery, and if he passes, Arsenal and their fans will be all the better for it.