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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Defensive woes facing Arsenal and Unai Emery are not an overnight fix

The Liverpool thrashing and a lack of clean sheets overall highlight the weaknesses in the London side's backline

The honeymoon period is already over for Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Action Images via Reuters
The honeymoon period is already over for Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Action Images via Reuters

If English football rarely needs a second invitation to invoke the memory of the most famous year in its history, the most recent mentions of 1966 have nothing to do with 52 years of hurt.

When Arsenal conceded five times at Anfield on Saturday, they turned the clock back to 2014, when they last lost 5-1 on Merseyside, and 1966, the previous time they let in at least 30 goals in their opening 20 league games.

If Arsenal were long a byword for frugality, now only seven teams have conceded more goals.

Unai Emery’s reign has generated intrigue and strange statistics in equal measure. Arsenal used to build on the most solid of foundations; now only Fulham and Manchester United have fewer clean sheets.

They conjured a 22-match unbeaten run but boast a solitary half-time Premier League lead so far.

Tuesday's rematch with Fulham feels symbolic; Arsenal beat capital rivals 5-1 in October after drawing at the interval, but with three goals from replacements.

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If that match was a microcosm of a season, reflecting Emery’s often inspired substitutions, his capacity to reconfigure his side, their spirit, fitness and attacking talent, it is scarcely a failsafe formula for victory.

If the evisceration at Anfield was a combination of bad timing – facing high-class opponents when Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal were injured and Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny perhaps semi-fit – and flawed choices – Sead Kolasinac is a better wing-back than full-back – underlying issues ought to provide more concern.

The first is that too many of Arsenal’s defenders scarcely seem to suit Emery’s style of play; a higher defensive line requires pace, decision-making and excellence in one-on-one situations.

It is not a system to suit the slow or the erratic. The second is simply that some are probably not good enough; not for any tactics, let alone these.

That had been camouflaged by uplifting results and the superb form of Lucas Torreira; when the defensive midfielder had arguably his worst game in an Arsenal shirt, the substandard defence was exposed.

Liverpool may now have four centre-backs who, even if the other three all benefit from partnering Virgil van Dijk, would be the best at the Emirates Stadium were they Gunners.

Arsenal might be in a situation Liverpool should recognise from their past, possessing and sometimes signing defenders who may be good enough to play for the sixth-best team, but not the fourth finest, let alone potential champions.

It is where a club can end up chasing its metaphorical tail in the transfer market, starting every summer looking to rectify the previous year’s business.

The transformative midfielder Torreira was the welcome exception last summer, but of other three defensive-minded additions, Stephan Lichtsteiner looks what he is, an ageing back-up, Bernd Leno may be a marginal improvement on Petr Cech, and is definitely better on the ball, but scarcely bears comparison with Alisson and Ederson and while Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ 90-minute masterclass in clumsy cluelessness at Anfield was an outlier, he is far too cumbersome.

The Greek looks the sort of signing who calls for an immediate upgrade.

Yet while Holding’s improvement, before his cruciate ligament injury, suggests Emery’s coaching can be catalytic, the reality is Arsenal may be lumbered with too many of either the second-rate or the declining.

In 2019, Monreal, Koscielny and Lichtsteiner turn 33, 34 and 35 respectively. With the added complications of probably losing Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey on free transfers and needing to replace both, Arsenal’s budget will be split far too many ways to target the next Van Dijk.

And while cut-price defenders are not automatically inferior, Emery may need to display alchemy to make Arsenal boringly effective at the back.

Updated: December 31, 2018 10:11 PM

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