For veterans of Arsenal Online Discourse, the club have needed a commanding centre back with leadership skills for over a decade. Some experts point to the vacuum created by the departure of first Patrick Vieira and then Sol Campbell as the source for the discourse. Since about 2010, a number of centre backs have seemed the answer: Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Gabriel, Shkodran Mustafi, and then Sokratis. The club also signed David Luiz, who while not arriving with a great reputation has been a constant at top European clubs, and praised by fellow footballers as having leadership qualities.
Of those centre backs, there have been some genuine successes: Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker is probably the best partnership the club has had in the last decade, and it is a genuine shame that Arsenal only had about 18 months of the two at their best. But the rest of that list are centre backs who are of very similar quality, and had a similar time at Arsenal: making mistakes, and becoming castigated for not being the answer. Some have left Arsenal and gone on to be decent in capable defensive systems.
Yet what Arsenal are struggling with is a tussle between an imperfect defence and midfield. At the moment, Arsenal’s poor defense has seen an extra centre back added, affecting how Arsenal can attack. Under Mikel Arteta, Arsenal have defended much better; yet the attack has not been expansive. This is in part due to poor technical quality further up the pitch. Yet despite defending much better, the defence has come in for blame.
Look, Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz, and Sead Kolasinac all had horrendous games against Tottenham—Kolasinac especially. But since Project Restart, Arsenal have conceded 7 goals in 7 games. Yet, there have been 3 losses. Taking away the match against Manchester City, Arsenal dropped eight points from games they were winning against Brighton, Leicester and Tottenham, with all three games having a large period where Arsenal were ascendant; yet Arsenal scored three goals across those three games. By only scoring 11 goals—4 of which were against Norwich, who stink—Arsenal are playing on the margins, and effectively rendering defensive mistakes much more damaging.
It is probably time for some of those defenders, like Kolasinac and Mustafi, to move on. Yet, it would be a mistake for Arsenal to spend serious clout in the transfer window to replace them. There are very few elite central defenders in European football. This is why Liverpool spent the best part of the money they got for Philippe Coutinho on Virgil van Dijk, and why Manchester United spent an eye-watering £80m on Harry Maguire. It is why Arsenal spent £30m last summer on a then 18-year old centre back with 16 first-team appearances. Getting elite central defenders is an expensive task, and Arsenal are not at the point where that level of talent would propel them up the table.
Arsenal are going to have limited funds this summer, as a result of a large wage bill, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a fourth season without Champions League football, with likely no Europa League football offering some financial cover. With limited resources, the club would do better to buy midfielders and attacking players, to make up for poor squad construction. This would be prudent for two reasons: firstly, there is a much more good, young, and cheap talent available in these positions that would make a difference for Arsenal’s tactical set-up, and overall play. Secondly, having already signed Saliba, and Pablo Mari, it would be a mistake to spend at the level of centre back that Arsenal already have and could afford, for as we’ve seen, the names can change, but the mistakes remain.