It is a truth universally acknowledged that when things are looking up for Arsenal, there’s always something lurking around the corner, ready to ambush that good feeling, bundle it into a black van with tinted windows, drag it to a black site, torture and mutilate it, and then throw it into the sea with all the hopes and dreams and aspirations of Arsenal fans to weigh it down and bear it to a watery grave.
Ok, that might be a bit melodramatic, but anyone who’s had the misfortune of supporting this club over the years knows exactly what I mean. And yet again, just as we thought things had started to improve for the Gunners, with 6 wins and a big draw at Stamford Bridge since the shellacking at Anfield, we’ve been hit with the news that Shkodran Mustafi will be out for 4-6 weeks because of an injury picked up on international duty with Germany.
Some fans may not think this to be a big deal – after all, Wenger seemed willing to let the former Valencia centre-back go in the summer, and there have been doubts raised over whether he is as good as we all thought initially last season.
However, Mustafi has been a crucial cog in the Arsenal machine for the last month, with his move to the middle of the back 3 playing a crucial role in giving us more defensive solidity. Mustafi’s tigerish tackling ability was very well-suited to this, allowing him to make aggressive tackles while still having Koscielny and Monreal (better interceptors and readers of the game) to cover for him on either side. It also gave him the license to step forward with the ball a bit more, without exposing the channels and space behind our wing-backs. This gave us a better platform from which to build attacks.
In the absence of the German, Arsene has two options for the central defensive role, but playing both of them will necessitate some changes to our tactical gameplan, which is unfortunate since the team had finally started to look like it had a semblance of a plan.
OPTION 1 – Laurent Koscielny
Playing Lolo in the centre of the back 3 is the easier option, as Koscielny can do a similar job as Mustafi, because of his pace and willingness to step up. The problem is that playing him there means someone else has to play at right centre-back, a role which demands pace to protect the channels and clever reading of the game to cover for Bellerin’s buccaneering down the right wing or when an attacker gets past the middle centre-back and Xhaka.
Rob Holding has been entrusted with that RCB role and had mixed results while doing so – he was awfully exposed by Liverpool and had a nightmare against Leicester even when we won. The young defender does have the attributes to play in that position, and the potential, to do the job, but he needs more experience to do so properly, and the rest of the team will need to be more mindful of this. As a result, Granit Xhaka and Bellerin may have to be a bit more cautious going forward, while Koscielny and Monreal will need to give Holding more instructions and guide him more than they normally would. Apart from the potential drop in width that may result from Bellerin having to drop back a bit more, Koscielny as middle centre-back will need to also be a bit less aggressive than Mustafi was, which will lead to a slight change in how high up the pitch we win the ball and how we impose ourselves on a game.
OPTION 2 – Per Mertesacker
The BFG is the other candidate to play in the middle of the back 3, which is, in fact, the only position he can really take up in this formation. He was immense in the role against Chelsea in the FA Cup last season, despite never playing for us there before, so we know he can do the job. The only problem with playing him there means that we will be much less aggressive when looking to win the ball in the middle with him playing there rather than his injured compatriot, and we will have to play a deeper defensive line.
This, in turn, means that we will need Xhaka to be more effective as a defensive screen in midfield, as failure to do so will give opposition attackers more space just ahead of our defenders, which will put more pressure on the defence. Koscielny and Monreal will also need to be wary of getting too far ahead – Monreal, for instance, had a lot of joy stepping up against Brighton, knowing that Mustafi had the pace to cover for him. This will need to be curbed if Mertesacker plays in that position.
We also know that Koscielny is struggling with a foot injury that requires him to take medication to get through a game – which means that we will often not have his pace and nous to rely on at the back. We can only hope that this is offset by Mertesacker’s calm head and ability to guide a youngster like Holding better – something which we again saw him do magnificently in the FA Cup Final last season when Holding kept Diego Costa in his pocket for most of the game.
Looking ahead to the Watford game on Sunday, we should be wary of underestimating the Hornets, especially at Vicarage Road. One can only hope that Wenger and the team will have identified the tweaks required to our gameplan because of Mustafi’s absence, and adjust it accordingly to continue our fine run.