A Case for Defence

After what seemed like an almost flawless summer of transfer activity in N5, the expectation among fans and pundits alike was that Arsenal would instantly transition into a side capable of overhauling last seasons treble winners. Football, however, is rarely that straightforward. 

The above is a narrative that has been delivered to Arsenal on the back of their surprise challenge during the last campaign, but naturally heightened following the arrival of four high-profile signings. Jurrien Timber, Kai Havertz, Declan Rice, and David Raya; it's enough to excite even the most reserved and cautious of supporters. Add to that the efficiency that the club have operated off the pitch during the close season in addition to these arrivals through the renewal of key contracts and also the retention of one of their most prized academy players, and you're left with an excitement for the campaign that has rarely existed this side of the 2004 Invincibles. However, all has not seemed quite right in the early weeks of the Premier League campaign. 

Of course, The Gunners preceded this by lifting the Community Shield at Wembley, in a performance and result that raised expectations even further. But since the resumption of truly competitive football, Arsenal have appeared to struggle to meet the standards that are now expected to come from them, albeit from a tiny sample size at a period of the season which is often riddled with ropey performances and bizarre results. The fact that the only side in the league to maintain a 100% record after just three games are the reigning Champions highlights this. 

Arsenal produced an electric start to the season last year with five straight wins, a run that helped relaunch them back into the big time; but that period came with little expectation of the club, certainly with regards to a sustained and realistic title challenge. Arsenal, however, are now a team feared, and with that fear comes a very different set of challenges.

Before we continue much further, it's important to highlight that Arsenal have not had a 'bad' start to the season. Had they not conceded a late equaliser to the ten men of Fulham on Saturday, then they would be sat at the top of the league alongside Manchester City. However, a combination of wasted chances and two goals that simply cannot be conceded if you wish to compete at the top have left the tactics of Mikel Arteta being questioned from all corners. Despite the influx of new and exciting signings, the Spaniard has had his attempts to introduce a new style to this side interrupted in the early weeks of the season.

Jurrien Timber picking up a potential season-ending injury on the opening day; Takehiro Tomiyasu deputising but being dismissed following the award of two questionable yellow cards; and Oleksandr Zinchenko struggling for match fitness have all hindered Arteta's management of his defensive line. Much has been questioned over his desire to shoehorn Declan Rice, Kai Havertz and Thomas Partey into the same side, with the latter occupying right-back but being afforded the luxury of transitioning into central midfield alongside Rice. The result has seen Gabriel dropped to the bench for all three of the opening fixtures, with his long-term future being now being questioned. 

Throughout pre-season, the Brazilian was a prominent figure within the side, and there were no indications that he would be out of favour for any prolonged period of time. Arteta, meanwhile, has maintained that his absence is purely 'tactical'. If this is the case, then it might just be that this new style is something we can come to expect in certain games against considered lesser opposition. With last seasons preferred back-four of Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel and Zinchenko, it would be fair to acknowledge that the Brazilian is probably the weakest in possession of the ball. By no means a deficiency of his game, but traits that the other three arguably promote with more authority. However, with Zinchenko surely returning to the left-hand side for the visit of Manchester United on Sunday, it might just open up a return for Arsenal's number six to combat the direct and combative nature of the Red Devils.  

His return, however, will mean that someone has to make way, with many believing that this will and should be Kai Havertz. The German has had a mixed start to his Gunners career, with sections of the media and indeed the fanbase, writing him off as a flop already. Operating as primarily a left eight, it is worth noting that he is yet to play in a settled left-hand side. Granit Xhaka often divided opinion over his performances, but Arsenal invariably struggled when the Swiss was absent from the side. Having left for Bayer Leverkusen, it is now essential that Arsenal find a new way of playing on that side of the pitch. Take out Zinchenko as well and this provides a real problem to the balance of the whole side, something that has also affected Gabriel Martinelli at left wing over the past two games.

With the inversion happening on the opposite side, Bukayo Saka and Ben White have been unable to dominate the right with overlaps and clever passes inside like they did on so many occasions last year, with White asked primarily to help hold the structure of the defence together. This is not to say that Arsenal have not still been dominating games. Against Fulham, in a match that most argued they struggled in, they still produced 3.01xG in response to the visitors 0.46. Without some ridiculous defending, Arsenal would have won routinely.

Arsenal have not hit top gear yet, and perhaps that is a lesson learned from last season when they appeared to peak too soon. It might take some time for all the components of this new-look side to settle, but it might just take a big game against an historic rival in Manchester United to really kick start their season.