While there is still a lot of time before we find out the verdict of Unai Emery’s first season in charge of Arsenal, Héctor Bellerín’s ACL injury may mark a turning point, one that condemned Arsenal to another season out of the Champions League. Bellerin is the third long-term injury that Arsenal have suffered this season, and while Danny Welbeck highlighted a gap in depth, and Rob Holding’s injury emphasized a lack of centre back quality, there is no other position at Arsenal where the gap between the injured player and the replacements is as large as right back.
Since Bellerín went off injured against Chelsea, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Carl Jenkinson have all played at right back in his stead. Maitland-Niles started against Manchester United in the cup, and did not have a great game, with his lack of defensive focus highlighted at various points, not least for Alexis Sánchez’s opener. That is perhaps not to be unexpected for a player who came through as a box to box midfielder and a winger, but going forward, Maitland-Niles was disappointing.
Stephan Lichtsteiner has started the two games since, as Maitland-Niles has had an injury of his own. Against Cardiff, Lichtsteiner was unceremoniously hauled off with thirty minutes to go as Arsenal sought a goal, with Jenkinson’s ability to get up and down the line at pace proving a superior option at that point to Lichtsteiner. Against Manchester City, Lichtsteiner completed the full 90 minutes, but it might’ve been better for Arsenal had he not; he was thoroughly outdone on the second and third goal, with his experience not enough to compensate for his lack of pace against Raheem Sterling. If Arsenal persist with Lichtsteiner, his lack of pace will be exploited by opposing sides, as it was during the Christmas period when Lichtsteiner deputized for Bellerin.
Furthermore, it is not only a question of defensive ability. While most top sides rely on their fullbacks for attacking play—think of Kyle Walker at Manchester City, Jordi Alba at Barcelona, David Alaba at Bayern Munich and Andrew Robertson at Liverpool—Unai Emery is particularly dependent on fullbacks. It is through fullbacks that the ball is advanced into midfield, and through fullbacks that width and forward movement is provided. Outside of set pieces, Arsenal’s best moves of recent have involved full backs, and while Sead Kolasinac has taken on a higher-profile role, Bellerin has still be crucial, with his 5 assists this season second only to Aaron Ramsey.
Furthermore, it is Bellerin’s ability on the ball that has been crucial. Think of his slipped pass for Lacazette against Chelsea, which should’ve led to the first goal, or his pass for Ramsey in Aubameyang’s equalizer against Tottenham. His passing has improved this season, especially on the counter-attack, and it has been an essential aspect of how Arsenal build attacking play and up the tempo.
There is perhaps not a solution for Unai Emery. Perhaps Maitland-Niles, a midfielder by trade, will give Arsenal the ability on the ball that is needed. It may necessitate a re-balancing of Arsenal’s fullbacks, with Monreal coming in for Kolasinac, and playing Maitland-Niles further up. But Bellerin’s injury is a huge loss, one that will have ramifications across the pitch, as it changes how Arsenal attack, as well as lowering the overall defensive quality on the pitch. It may be prove to be the injury that Arsenal could not overcome.