Arsenal’s Achilles Heel

Look at the size of those hands

In breaking news yesterday Laurent Koscielny has stated that he will need “daily treatment” on a problem with his achilles until the end of his career. It’s a quote that should shoot cold through every Arsenal supporter.

Koscielny’s own words,

“Every morning I have my treatment for my Achilles and I know I need to do this to the end of my career. Sometimes with all the games we play every three days, it is difficult and I need to have a rest to recover well.

“You need to be careful with this because if you stop doing your own exercise programme for one or two weeks, the problem will come back.”

Koscielny reportedly has achilles tendonitis which I coincidentally developed this year. I can attest to both the hobbling nature of this injury and the requirement for a special daily exercise regimen. Even with exercise, whenever I walk up stairs I feel it tug slightly. Whenever I play, I’m fine for 50-60 minutes before the radiating pain starts and I know that the next day I’ll be hobbling around like a pirate.

And in order to even play I have had to add stretches to my daily exercise routine. Actually, I’ll just be honest and say my “exercise routine” is taking the dog for a walk to which I’ve added yoga and other stretches. The yoga, though, helps.

Koscielny is fortunate in that he has the entire Arsenal medical team at his disposal 24/7. They probably have a perfectly designed set of stretches and strengthening exercises to keep Koscielny in top shape (I got one from my physical therapist). But Koscielny is Arsenal’s best defender, a true warrior on the pitch and the man who flies in to make last-ditch tackles reminiscent of Arsenal great Martin Keown. And the idea that he’s carrying an injury is just a reminder that Arsenal may need to start looking for his replacement.

Arsene has recently switched to a 3 center back system and if he wants to keep using three center backs this puts extra pressure on making sure that Arsenal have a full compliment of players who can do all of the things an Arsenal center back needs to do. They need to be comfortable in possession, technically good enough to deliver a long pass on the ground up the pitch to the midfielders, aggressive in the air, strong enough to hold off the challenges of the English Premier League’s lumbering forwards, and fast enough to cover for long passes over the top.

In a typical 3 center back system you want at least 5 or even 6 center backs. This provides cover for injury and players to rotate. Heavy rotation isn’t as strictly necessary for defenders as it is for other positions on the pitch but with Koscielny’s injury, rotation will be mandatory.

Arsenal currently have Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gabriel, Mustafi, and Holding as first choice center backs. That’s five, though counting Mertesacker here, a player who was dropped a year and a half ago, is a bit disingenuous so, let’s say four.

Arsenal also have Nacho Monreal who has played as an erstwhile center back and who is ably suited to a back three system, so long as he is covered by stronger and more aggressive players like Koscielny and Holding. A back three of Mustafi, Koscielny, and Monreal would be a bit soft, especially in the air, but would be an excellent passing side. As you can probably see already, Arsenal have options in the center back and could tailor a small cadre of center back “platoons” to fit the game plan on the day: playing against a team like Southampton who use speed? Play Monreal, Koscielny, and Gabriel. Need more ball control in a game? Monreal, Koscielny, and Mustafi. So on and so forth.

Arsenal are also getting Calum Chambers back from his loan spell at Middlesbrough. Chambers is only 22 years old but is one of the best center backs I’ve seen with the ball and along with Rob Holding could well play a big part for Arsenal’s future at center back. Holding has been good this year and has looked most comfortable on the right of the back three. He’s strong and fearless in the air and has a bit of bite to him as Marko Arnautovic found out when he tried to bully him a few weeks ago. Chambers is actually an adept dribbler and Wenger even once saw him as a future holding midfielder for Arsenal. Could Chambers be the ultimate replacement for Koscielny?

Even if Arsenal persist with three center backs and lose Mertesacker I still don’t expect them to sign anyone new for that position this summer. Between Mustafi, Gabriel, Koscielny, Holding, Chambers, and Monreal, I think they have the position covered, freeing Arsene to spend huge money on a center forward. But what will be curious to see is who will take over the mantle from Koz as Arsenal’s toughest, fastest, and most beloved defender?

Qq

16 comments

  1. “Koscielny is fortunate in that he has the entire Arsenal medical team at his disposal 24/7. ”

    There’s a joke in here somewhere…

    1. 😀

      Almost spit my coffee.

      Every defence makes mistakes — otherwise games would have far fewer goals — but Koscielny has been showing signs for a year now that he’s getting on a bit in age. We have good young defenders, and Holding most closely fits being the ideal replacement.

      Yet I think we need something that we don’t currently have — a tall, bruising British brute (or equivalent) who rarely gets beaten in the air. Even if he’s not a great passing defender. Who throws himself into blocks, rather than doing that sissy half turn beloved by too many of our defenders.

      But let’s hope we get two good years out of Kosc, because he remains a class act.

      1. “a tall, bruising British brute (or equivalent) who rarely gets beaten in the air” – Gabriel?

        1. The Richard Dunne types don’t fit in at Arsenal because they can’t cover the vast acreage behind them that teams exploit time after time. Even a great defender like Tony Adams might struggle when asked to play as high of a line and with as little cover as Arsenal routinely provides their CB’s. Koscelny’s exceptional quickness and ability to nip in front of strikers is the glue that holds Arsenal together at the back. Arsenal needs sprinters at the CB position because of how we play. Mertesacker was the exception (Wenger said as much) because he was able to read the game so well and because he was partnered by Koscielny, who made up for his entishness.

          That’s a hidden value of Olivier Giroud; he’s probably our most aerially dominant player and is so valuable in those crunch time set piece situations.

  2. A shout out, too, to the polish lad Kristian Bielik, who a) came to Arsenal as a highly regarded DM, so should be very comfortable in a back three, and b) in my opinion looks a real prospect. I hope he gets his chance this coming season.

  3. Totally unrelated, but as this is a blog written in the Pacific Northwest, thought I’d just say how saddened I am this morning by the news of Chris Cornell’s death. If you were into grunge in the 90s, you had your favorites, and mine was Soundgarden (specifically Badmotorfinger). What a voice!

    1. I have a personal story about Chris Cornell. Suffice it to say that I’m going to write about this tomorrow.

  4. RIP Chris Cornell. I remember headbanging to Black Hole Sun and Spoonman on the way home from high school more than once, and many times after that.

    CB seems like the best stocked department in the team, but Koscielny’s absence will still be felt, if and when his tendons finally give out. For me he’s our second most important player after the guy who scores all the goals. Agree that the future looks bright with Holding, and maybe Chambers too if we continue to play a back 3. I don’t think he has the first step quickness to play CB for Arsenal when we play the 2-1-7; in fairness not many players do; but as part of a back 3, his ability to pass and dribble might mitigate the lack of sheer athleticism. Between him, Holding and Mustafi, that’s 3 very cultured young CB’s, a valuable commodity in an age when more and more teams come out to press.

    The interesting part will be the ongoing tension between the need to develop these young defenders and the need to win now; you feel at least one of the three, probably Chambers, will end up playing his football elsewhere. Defenders can’t just come on and play the last 20 minutes of games like Iwobi can; the back line needs cohesion and continuity like no other department, so for the most part, you’re either in or you’re out. He is under contract through 2020 though, which puts the club in a good position to either keep loaning him out or move him on at a good price.

  5. Harry Kane with four goals. Ugh. Remember when we used to demolish teams routinely? In recent years we’ve more often labored against teams. Is it that other clubs just don’t take Tottenham seriously enough and open up for them? In other words, both Tottenham (“an average team! no need for that extra gear!”) and Arsenal (“we must sit back and hit them on the counterattack because they are INVINCIBLE!”) are being treated by reputation rather than actuality?

    1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and I’d say it regardless of who they were): the style of high press that Tottenham employ is a form of organized, unpunished cheating, as it cannot work without a huge dose of tactical fouling (of course it can work to a degree; lots of teams high press, but not as effectively as Spurs). This explains why they tear teams apart (oh, that and Kane and Alli having come out of nowhere to be bizarrely brilliant; more dumb luck for them, just like with Bale).

      If tactical fouling were called like it should, they’d end most games with 9 men, and they wouldn’t be second in the league. Until it is punished properly (I’m not holding my breath), they’ll continue to sweep (almost) all before them. Or at least, that’ll be the case unless/until the truly big clubs come along to gobble up all their best players (please let it be this summer!!!). They’ll still be good as long as Poch stays there, but they’ll struggle massively to replace the spine of their side if they leave.

    2. Good Teams do what they think is going to work against us. Really good teams play their own game and impose that on us. That’s what Tottenham were able to do for the first time in my memory of watching the NLD. As PFO alludes, the sustainability is the thing to watch. Coaches who demand such high energy game after game tend to burn their players out. The emphasis on energy can also stifle creativity. They rely on Eriksen for inspiration almost as much as on Kane for goals. He’s been remarkably fit for a creative PL player; usually those types are beaten relentlessly with rotational fouling. They have a really nice balance in their squad and they’re playing well to the strengths of each player. I’m not sure it’ll last, though.

      For our part, Arsenal has been terrible when pressed and almost as bad when allowed to push forward, only to leave ever larger gaps for opposition strikers. Both problems were partially addressed with the move to a back 3; the spare man helps in coverage after change of possession and to shift the ball around if the midfielders are covered. But both problems persist as long as Arsenal continue to have their midfield identity crisis. Are we going to be a mobile team that tries to score quickly and then presses high and looks to create shots off transitions? That’s us when Coquelin and Sanchez play through the middle. Are we going to play patient, probing combination football while controlling possession? That’s us when Giroud and Ramsey play through the middle. Or are we going to be a counterattacking team ourselves? That’s us when Ox, Welbeck or Theo plays. All three styles have their ups and downs but we can’t be all 3 of them at once. And this identity will greatly inform our defensive security or lack thereof.

  6. “Chambers is only 22 years old but is one of the best center backs I’ve seen with the ball and along with Rob Holding could well play a big part for Arsenal’s future at center back.”
    That must be a joke! I’ve watched all his games with Arsenal and Chambers is simply not good enough for Arsenal. He has slow first steps and struggles to turn quickly, which explains why forwards dribble past him easily. Also, Chambers has an average reading of the game and is weak in the air. The scout who recommended Chambers made a mistake. Arsenal paid about £17m, which is the price for a regular starter, while Chambers was at best a prospect at that time like Holding. The difference is that Arsenal paid the right price for Holding, £2.5m, and that Holding is better than Chambers.
    “Chambers is actually an adept dribbler and Wenger even once saw him as a future holding midfielder for Arsenal. Could Chambers be the ultimate replacement for Koscielny?”
    Chambers is a weaker defender than Mustafi and Holding, so there’s no way he could marshall the defense. His technique is also below par for a holding midfielder. Petit was a much better player, who could tackle, pass, dribble and score goals (including one in a World Cup final). Imho, Chambers is like Jenkinson, a great fit for an average team, but just a bench warmer for Arsenal.

  7. I always saw Chambers as a Mertesacker replacement rather than Koscielny’s. That duty will probably fall on Rob Holding, though I think Mustafi has similar attributes and can cover for Koscielny for now.

    As you say Monreal can play CB. And if we actually have signed Kolasinac, apparently so can he, and he’s got the size as well. Add in Bielik who might get a few games in the cups, and I agree that we won’t be signing anyone there.

    Also, harsh on the club captain. He was injured or he would have featured more, especially at the start of the season. We might even have looked better organised with him there. Though his lack of speed is a problem.

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