With the start of the new Premier League season being weeks away, teams would be deep into their pre-season preparations and transfer negotiations. Most teams would be without notable players in key positions due to Copa America, Euros and possibly the Olympic Games. Arsenal have to cope without Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil, Olivier Giroud and most importantly their best defender in Laurent Koscielny. Early in the off season, Arsenal were expected to make a massive centre back signing with names such as Mehdi Benatia being linked to the Gunners but it seems Arsenal have gone to the complete opposite end of the spectrum and recruited young Rob Holding from Bolton Wonderers. With Arsenal likely to start the season without their most solid defender marshalling the backline, how will they cope?
One thing that needs addressing is the typical youth signing by Arsenal in Holding and what it represents. Most have been asking for a replacement for Per Mertesacker as his pace has been seen as a liability during his years at the club. Despite performing admirably in more cases than not, especially in the capacity as captain for the club, his contract will end in 2017 and Arsenal, so far, have not shown any indication of a renewal being on the cards. Holding represents a young, promising player who for a few years will play understudy to the likes of Koscielny and Gabriel before being slowly transitioned into the first team as a regular. It is a smart and astute signing as the 20 year old was voted Bolton’s player of the year and his performances, despite them being in the second tier of English football, have been worthy of commendation. So much so, he was called up for England’s squad for the Toulon tournament earlier this year. Playing beside Calum Chambers, they formed a good partnership that saw England go on to win the competition, with Holding being named in the team of the tournament.
Next issue ahead is which of the current options can line up during the early parts of the season while Koscielny is recuperating. Arsenal luckily have personnel in terms of numbers but if they meet the required quality is another problem entirely. Gabriel Paulista, Per Mertesacker and Calum Chambers are the immediate options for Arsenal in Koscielny’s absence. Per would have expected to be the immediate first option as his experience and technical quality are things needed in defence despite his lack of pace. However, having been left at home for Arsenal’s US tour, reports emerged of the big German being injured for up to five months. If true, it will be a massive blow for Arsenal and certainly puts them in a precarious position in the centre of defence. That said, with Per not being given the armband in the wake of Mikel Arteta’s departure, it can be viewed that his position in the team may be up for grabs in more ways than one.
Gabriel has been hailed by Wenger for his great physical attributes. The Brazilian is quick, good in the air and aggressive, however, his mentality and focus have come under question on multiple occasions. His propensity to step up to make interceptions while admirable makes him easy to read and get around for cunning players, which often leaves him in a position where he has to make rash challenges. Gabriel will have to work on his temperament as he gets agitated easily which impacts his decision making in games. Gabriel, like Koscielny, can over time develop into a fine defender as a few of these problems were noted in the Frenchman as well. Unfortunately for him, Arsenal have precious little time to wait for him to mature. It must happen in the coming season as the club will be looking to trust him as Koscielny’s partner going forward.
This leaves young Calum Chambers, a calm, technical, ball playing defender. At the age of 21 he has already shown his versatility in multiple defensive positions such right back, centre back and defensive midfield. Many see the young defender as even future captain material based on his exploits for the England U-21 team. Despite a promising start to his Arsenal career, Calum failed to push himself into Arsene Wenger’s plans for the 2015-2016 season. Given his versatility, it is unlikely that Chambers will be loaned out but what this does present is a chance for the young Englishman to push for a starting place despite his age. His composure and passing sees him as a more suitable partner for Koscielny as a well as a replacement for Mertesacker. That said, with him severely lacking in top flight football experience over the past year and with no apparent way to judge his growth, it would take a considerable effort from him to force himself into Wenger’s thoughts but he does remain a real option.
Heading into the season, it is expected for Arsenal to go with the pairing of Gabriel and Chambers are the likeliest starters while Mertesacker recovers from injury and Koscielny rests. As it stands, Arsenal are not in the worst shape defensively even after factoring in Per’s injury. Much will depend on Gabriel making the required improvements to his game and for two young players in Chambers and Holding to step up and show what they can offer at this level. Each of these players are at a point where they need to showcase their ability not just to validate Wenger’s decision to overlook a major centre back signing but also, with the eventual return of Koscielny to the starting eleven, to see who gets the nod to start beside him.
This pre-season and the early season games offer the best opportunity for Arsenal’s centre backs to genuinely make a step forward, with each having their own personal incentive for wanting to improve their game. Chambers’ lack of game time last season, Gabriel being eager to show he belongs among the elite in world football and young Holding will want to impress his new manager. The manager will certainly have his hands full figuring out how he can best structure his team defensively for these players to benefit and perform at the required level.