Things were looking very positive for Arsenal for most of the first half of this season. After a poor start, when the Gunners were beaten by Manchester City and Chelsea, they set off on a 22-game unbeaten run. The quality of the opposition wasn’t always great, but they did beat Tottenham and draw with Liverpool and Manchester United. Arsenal would have been delighted with the run they were on, as they battled for the top four. It looked like they had what it takes to finish in the Champions League qualification places, too. But in the last couple of weeks, the wheels have come off.
Arsenal’s poor run began with a defeat against Southampton in mid-December. Since then, they’ve been knocked out of the Carabao Cup against Tottenham, drawn with Brighton in the Premier League and given a 5-1 hammering by Liverpool. A hard-fought 3-1 win against Burnley at the Emirates is their only win in their last five games. In these games, their vulnerability in defence has been clear for everybody to see. But they have been poor defensively in almost every game this season.
The Gunners’ 30 goals conceded from 20 games is far more than anybody else in the top six, apart from Manchester United. United had a shocking start to the season, and had crisis after crisis until Jose Mourinho was sacked. But now, United trail Arsenal by just three points. Going through the league table, it’s shocking to see how many teams have conceded less than Arsenal. There’s the four teams above them, as well as Wolves, Leicester, Watford, Brighton, Crystal Palace and Newcastle. How are Arsenal worse defensively than these? That clearly shouldn’t be the case.
In a lot of games, Arsenal’s attack has managed to be good enough to ensure they win. Forty-two goals have been scored by Unai Emery’s men, which averages over two per game. But such a poor defence was always going to come back to haunt them.
Arsenal were supposed to be different this season. Unai Emery was supposed to sort them out and make them more solid defensively. But that hasn’t been evident. Personnel is obviously an issue, but could Emery be doing more with what he has? Almost certainly. Injuries to key players is obviously part of the problem. Rob Holding, one of Arsenal’s most reliable defenders, is set to miss the rest of the season after rupturing his ACL. Nacho Monreal has been in and out all season, while Hector Bellerin has been struggling with injury in recent weeks.
This means that Stephan Lichtsteiner, who is well and truly past it and clearly not capable of playing at this level, has had to come into the defence. He was likely signed to be a character in the dressing room, while filling in for Bellerin now and again. Nobody would have wanted him to play this much. Shkodran Mustafi continues to look like a headless chicken who is impersonating a footballer. He’s a liability, and shouldn’t be anywhere near the first team. Sokratis Papastathopoulos has been better than expected, and deserves a place in the team. Sead Kolasinac is impressive when in the final third, but is another liability in defence.
If Emery was to play a back four, his ideal defence would be Bellerin, Holding, Sokratis, Monreal. That really isn’t all that bad. But Monreal now seems to be past it, as niggling injuries are keeping him out. Holding isn’t an option, and we’ve seen just how important Bellerin is to the team since he’s been out. Laurent Koscielny has returned, and is playing some minutes as he tries to get up to speed after a bad injury. But, at 33, he can’t be relied on as he approaches the end of his career.
The January transfer window opens tomorrow, and if Arsenal aren’t in the market for a defender, it would be a shambles. There are other problems with Arsenal apart from the defence, such as Mesut Ozil’s situation, but the defence has to be a priority right now. Saying that, if an acceptable bid comes in for Ozil, they should take it. They’re not going to get £100million for him because of his ridiculously high wages, but even if they get £40million, they should take it and reinvest in a defender, because Ozil isn’t doing what a player on £350,000 per week should be doing. He doesn’t fit into Emery’s plans, and should be moved on.
All Arsenal have to do is look at the team that hammered them 5-1 on Saturday to see what a difference a good defender makes. Virgil van Dijk has completed transformed Liverpool’s defence. They’ve gone from being suspect at the back to having the best defence in the league. That’s not all to do with van Dijk, of course, and Jurgen Klopp has to be praised for the work he’s done over the last few seasons.
It’s unlikely that Arsenal are going to go out and splash £75million on a defender as Liverpool did. Stan Kroenke is known to be tight with his money. The American billionaire, who has no problem splashing out £85million on a French vineyard, is unlikely to dig deep and make huge funds available to the club. But, if he’s really serious about Arsenal returning to the top, he has to. But he probably isn’t really serious. He is definitely serious about making money, though, and putting money into the team will help him make more money.
Arsenal are facing a third season out of the Champions League, which is hurting his pocket. Signing some players will help them towards finishing in the top four. With the current squad, it is going to be very difficult for them to finish up there. But signing a top-class defender could make all the difference. It is Sven Mislintat’s job to identify this player, but that’s useless unless they have the money to sign him. Good defenders don’t come cheap these days, and it’s likely going to cost north of £50million for a real talent. It is possible to sign gems on the cheap, as Lucas Torreira has shown, but this is the exception rather than the norm.
If Kroenke says that Arsenal have to sell before they buy, they’ll really struggle. Liverpool have done well with a policy like this in place, but they’ve been able to sell Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho for huge fees. Arsenal don’t have such an option, and are letting tens of millions of pounds go for free as Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck’s contracts are up at the end of the season. It’s been very poor planning to end up in this situation, and they need to ensure things like this don’t happen again in future.
The club are making huge amounts of money from TV deals and ticket sales. This money isn’t being reinvested back into the team, though. If they want to really push on, Unai Emery must be backed. It’s going to take a couple of years, and a few transfer windows, for him to get the team together that he really wants. If Kroenke begins to back the new manager, Arsenal could be back towards the top, and challenging for honours, in the next few years. But if they continue with the current transfer policy, they’ll continue to struggle.
Kroenke needs to put his money where his mouth is and prove that he is interested in Arsenal as a competitive football club, rather than an asset that makes him millions of pounds each year. But don’t hold your breath, because he hasn’t shown this since he first became involved with the club in 2007. There is hope that this will change, as he now owns all of the club rather than being a majority shareholder since he bought Alisher Usmanov’s shares. But all signs point towards him continuing to use Arsenal as a money-making asset.