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Arsenal position preview: defense

The Gunners surrendered the third-fewest goals in the Premier League last season, can they recapture that form?

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - The MIND Series Photo by Vincent Mignott/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Arsenal and defense have a complicated history. The Gunners conceded the third fewest goals in the Premier League last season. FA Cup win aside, solidifying the defense has been by far Mikel Arteta’s most impressive achievement in North London. He stabilized and improved it when he took over in December 2019 and last season speaks for itself.

Those Unai Emery teams and late-stage Arsene Wenger teams shipped far too many goals. But before that, the Per Mertesacker-Laurent Koscielny CB pairing was really good. And the Gunners have a rich history of great defenders: Pat Rice, Sol Campbell, Martin Keown, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, and Mr. Arsenal himself Tony Adams.

What I’m trying to say is that there is a gap between perception / narrative about Arsenal’s defense and reality.

Kieran Tierney is already one of the best left backs in the Premier League. Both Pablo Mari and Gabriel Magalhaes are more than good enough not to cost the Gunners points. I happen to be a Gabriel fan, and I think he could take a step forward this year right up against, if not into, the “elite” category.

Ben White is the shiny, new toy that Mikel Arteta really wanted and could help unlock the Arsenal attack like David Luiz did (albeit in a different way) but be miles better than the Brazilian was from a defensive standpoint. We know what Rob Holding is — a consistent 6 out of 10 (or better), which is more than good enough for a backup CB.

Right back is a bigger question mark. Will Mikel Arteta go with Hector Bellerin or Calum Chambers? They’re both fine, albeit flawed, players. That spot will be the weakest across the backline, but I don’t think I’d call it a “weakness” per se. I’m okay heading into the season with one of those two at RB. There is definite room for improvement, but if the Gunners don’t improve it won’t be the reason the season goes sideways (if it even does that). Or maybe Arteta goes with Cedric and throws us all a curveball. I hope he doesn’t do that.

Housekeeping note: I decided it would be useful to link to each player’s profile on FBRef, so that’s what each name links to. They’re by far the best free site out there for data and advanced stats stuff.


Kieran Tierney, 24
Best case: he stays healthy and cements himself as the best left back in the Premier League. He’s already in the conversation, at least for me. He’s a big part of how Mikel Arteta wants to attack, and if he has a good season, he’ll challenge for the assist lead among fullbacks.

Worst case: he struggles to stay healthy. As a general note, it’s clear that a bad season for any player would be that they get hurt and miss time. I don’t like using that as my “worst case” for that reason. But with Tierney, we’ve seen that he can struggle to stay fit, so he’s an exception to the general rule. As we saw last season, Arsenal really couldn’t replace his attacking ability.

Nuno Tavares, 21
Best case: plays well in the cups and in a handful of lower pressure Premier League matches. In limited preseason time, he flashed his dribbling skill and attacking instinct and scored a goal on his debut. He seems well-suited to give at least some level of attacking threat from LB when Tierney isn’t on the pitch. But also in a best case scenario, we don’t see too much of Tavares this season because Kieran Tierney stays healthy.

Worst case: he plays a lot more than expected because Kieran Tierney gets hurt. We’ve not seen much of his defensive abilities, so there’s a chance that question mark has an answer we don’t like — that he struggles to defend at the Premier League level in his first season taking a step up.

Sead Kolasinac, 28
Best case: he’s sold or mutually agrees to terminate his contract and goes elsewhere this season. He doesn’t have much of a place at Arsenal under Mikel Arteta, and it would be best for both him and the club to part ways.

Worst case: isn’t it obvious? Whatever deal is in the works falls through and he spends the season languishing on the bench / not in the matchday squad, collecting a paycheck that Arsenal could spend better elsewhere. To be fair, there’s nothing about him or in the news that suggests that he wants to sit around, not playing.

Pablo Mari, 27
Best case: grabs hold of the starting spot with his consistent, (almost entirely) mistake-free play. He reads the game well, progressively passes, is a solid tackler, and actually has a deceptive bit of pace. He’ll start the season as the #1 LCB with Gabriel Magalhaes still recovery from a knee injury.

Worst case: the Cinderella story ends and he turns back into a pumpkin. After all, there is a reason that Manchester City sold him to Brazil and Arsenal were the only big European team interested in him. He may just be “a guy” so to speak. He’s also picked up a few silly yellow cards early in matches. So far, he’s been good about playing smart and not getting the second yellow, but a CB that gets quick yellows is a disaster waiting to happen. And injuries have been a bit of a concern with him.

Gabriel Magalhaes, 23
Best case: like Mari, his best case is firmly grabbing hold of the starting LCB spot. As I said earlier, he’s got a much higher ceiling than Mari, and I think he’s also better right now. The spot was his last season until he made a youthful mistake, had a birthday party, got COVID, and missed time. He’s got all the physical tools to be a world class CB. Maybe he takes that step this year.

Worst case: his sometimes overly-aggressive steps and reckless play in the middle third leads to the yellows piling up, with a second yellow or two (like he had last season) sprinkled in. His decision-making isn’t great, generally, and that could become an issue. I mean, the last Arsenal defender that I said has “all the physical tools to be a star” but was prone to poor decisions and mental lapses was Shkodran Mustafi, so.

Ben White, 23
Best case: he’s worth every penny of the £50M Arsenal paid to acquire him. His progressive dribbling jumpstarts the anemic attack and balances the wings out. Arsenal were quite left-wing heavy last year. White carrying it up the right inside channel and picking out either the fullback or right winger to provide a consistent threat / attacking pattern from the right side would add another dimension to the attack and likely open up space all over the final third.

Worst case: he struggles defensively, especially when consistently exposed by the high line that Mikel Arteta was trying to play against Chelsea and Tottenham in the preseason. His defensive numbers are okay-to-good but definitely not great, and in the worst case scenario, that deficiency becomes a recurring problem.

Rob Holding, 25
Best case: his consistent, steady play pushes Ben White for playing time and gives Mikel Arteta a defensively stout, secondary option at RCB. The job is Ben White’s to lose, but Holding could provide a lot of value this season as the “shut down” guy on the right side of the defense.

Worst case: Ben White’s presence and play highlights Holding’s deficiencies, especially with the ball at his feet. When he plays (because Holding is going to play at least some of the time, I think), the Arsenal attack goes looks significantly worse.

Hector Bellerin, 26
Best case: he recaptures his pre-ACL injury form that he’s shown flashes of rediscovering but hasn’t fully reached yet. He’s still a very good passer and offensive contributor, and I think he still has most if not all the pace that was his calling card. If he can get to “average” defensively, the spot is his.

He’s one of my favorite players (and people) at the club. I’m holding out hope that he puts it all back together. We’ve got this idea that ACL injuries are a 6-to-9 or maybe 12 month thing. But for some people, they take longer. It’s been basically two-and-a-half years since Bellerin’s, but my understanding is that his was particularly serious. Add to that the interruption that the COVID-shutdown had on his recovery and rehabilitation and the self-admitted mental health difficulties he’s had to work through from having, as he put it, his identity (football) stripped away by the injury. Suddenly, you’ve got a situation where it makes sense that he still might not be back back from the injury. Maybe now’s the time.

Worst case: his defensive awareness and tackling problems persist and continue to make him a liability on the pitch. He was linked all summer with a move away from the Emirates - first to PSG and then to Inter Milan, but both of those moves don’t look likely. He still could move to Atletico Madrid, but they only want to loan him in, not buy him, and they’d have to sell Kieran Trippier first. If he does stay at Arsenal this season, it’s a make or break year for him. And it could be “break” — a guy who looked to be a nailed-on star-in-the-making at the club a few years ago could fizzle out to a pedestrian end at Arsenal.

Calum Chambers, 26
Best case: recaptures the pre-ACL injury form that had him as arguably the best defender at the club in December 2019. Granted he was playing CB then, and it looks like he’ll be used primarily as a RB this year. But still, he was playing well. He’s an accurate passer, a good crosser, and weirdly really good at volleying the ball. He’s a better defender than Hector Bellerin (but that isn’t saying much), particularly good at intercepting passes and in the air. The RB spot is up for grabs, and if Calum plays well, he’ll claim it.

Worst case: his lack of pace and progressive passing / dribbling and inability to tackle (his stats are virtually identical to Hector Bellerin’s and they’re both poor) doesn’t fit with what Mikel Arteta’s system asks of a RB. If Arsenal are going to play a high line, they need recovery speed. Bellerin easily has Chambers beat there. If Ben White is going to progress the ball on the right, Chambers’ poor ball progression becomes less of a problem. But then he’s tucking into CB, and then you’ve got a poor tackling, pretty slow dude defending the counter, which isn’t great.

Cedric Soares, 29
Best case: the absolute best case scenario is that he surprises everyone and claims the RB spot. He’s a more successful tackler than either Bellerin or Chambers and pressures the ball more, too. But again, that’s nothing to write home about. A more realistic “good” scenario is that he’s serviceable as a backup and puts in a handful of good performances. Per fbref, he’s the best progressive passer and carrier of the three, and per my eye test he might be the best long crosser of the three as well.

Worst case: somehow ends up playing the majority of his games on the left, where he was absolutely terrible last year. Really, him getting significant minutes at all for Arsenal isn’t great because he’s a replacement level Premier League player. Man, the contract the club gave him makes no sense. Don’t worry though, we’ve only got three more seasons of him.