Wenger’s Selection Dilemmas for 2015/16: the questions in defence

by    Tim Charlesworth

This is the first of two articles on the issues facing Arsene Wenger this summer.  Part two, which deals with attacking players and the players whose positions are guaranteed will be published shortly.

As the new season approaches, I cannot remember ever being so uncertain about our ‘first choice starting eleven’.  So I thought it might be useful to consider some of Wenger’s upcoming selection dilemmas.

For simplicity I have assumed a traditional back four; a defensive midfielder, a box to box midfielder and an attacking midfielder/no 10.  I have then added two wingers/wide midfielders and a central striker/no 9.  This is a bit of an over-simplification, but it is essentially the way that Arsenal have lined up for the last five years.

The lack of clear ‘first choice’ players is both a strength and a weakness.  It indicates that we have good strength in depth, but also that we are short of real ‘stand-out’ performers who have proved themselves so consistently excellent in recent years that they are nailed-on starters.  I think the Community Shield line up will give us the first real indication of what Wenger thinks our first 11 is (albeit Sanchez will not play following the Copa America)

Uncertain Positions

GK – Szchezny or Ospina or Cech

You have to assume that Cech will get an opportunity to establish himself as first choice in goal.  He left Chelsea due to a lack of first team games and surely Wenger gave him some assurances when he signed.

I remain to be convinced that Cech is as good as he used to be (and he was very good).  I have a nagging doubt that Mourinho has tricked us into buying a dud.  Maureen’s protests against selling Cech seemed a little surreal to me.  At the end of the day, Mourinho is a good judge of players and will know if Cech is in decline or not, whereas Wenger is a less good position to conduct an objective judgement. (Of course the Tots thought Pat Jennings was in decline…)

That leaves Ospina and Szchezny.  I don’t think many of us are convinced that Ospina is the long-term solution here, but he did finish the season as first choice in a successful team.  Szchezny seems like a young keeper who may still be the long-term option in this position, but has not quite lived up to expectations yet.  The general assumption is that Ospina will leave and Szchezny will settle in to play the long-game.  This is probably correct.  Wenger will probably allow one of them to play in cup games, but third choice keepers generally get very little opportunity, and I cannot see either of them settling for third choice.

CB – Mertesacker or Gabriel

I fear for Mertesacker. He is a lovely chap, and I really enjoyed his headed/shouldered goal in the cup final.  His ‘Big Friendly Giant’ moniker is well earned (I reject alternative interpretations of BFG). But he lost his place in the German team on merit, and now looks under threat for Arsenal.

His ability to turn like an oil tanker, and his general lack of pace can expose our team on occasions.  He seems to rely on Koscielny (and the full backs sometimes) to cover for him.   This can work very well (teamwork being the essence of football after all), but is a potential point of failure when the team is really under the cosh.  Wenger likes his defences to push high up the pitch and the BFGs lack of pace is a barrier to this.

On the other hand, Mertesacker is going to have a proper summer off for the first time in a while.  Last season he played 49 games for us on the back of a long world cup campaign.  He looked tired at the end of the season and a rest might make all the difference.  He has also retired from the German team, and this will make next season easier for him.  So let’s hope we see an improved BFG next season.

Gabriel looks like the real deal.  He was a bit skittish and prone to errors when he played last season, but I think this might go away as he settles down and plays regularly.  Athletically he looks superb.  I suspect that Wenger will use pre-season to compare the two.  My bet is that Gabriel will get more minutes than Mertesacker and that Chambers will get some minutes too.  I have a sneaky suspicion that Gabriel will establish himself as a starter for Brazil as well. (Possible rotation/horses for courses)

LB – Monreal or Gibbs

Monreal has talked recently about feeling that he has finally settled in here.  This struck me as a slightly strange thing to say.  Was there something odd about his transfer?  Did he not really want to come?

Cazorla and Monreal were both signed from Malaga in the period when we seemed to be looking for bargains.  Malaga had financial problems and appeared to be forced to sell these players at knock down prices.  Moving from Malaga to London is not a trivial change in life, and I wonder if Monreal was really ready for it, or expecting it.  Did he just take a really long time to settle in?

Whatever the reason, he appears to have displaced Gibbs for now, and to have done so on merit.  However, Wenger seems to think that Gibbs is an important player in the long-term (English core etc).  Gibbs doesn’t seem to be far behind, and I suspect he will rise to the challenge and win his place back at some point next set season. (possible rotation/horses for courses)

RB – Debuchy or Bellerin

This one is genuinely hard to call.  Bellerin had a breakthrough season and was the man in possession at the end of last season.  Many of our fans are very excited by his prospects, but he is still young and relatively inexperienced.  Debuchy is a high class international player, who looked very good in his few appearances last season.  Many of us were delighted to get an ‘upgrade’ on the excellent Sagna last summer.  He will be fully recovered at the start of the season.  I suspect Debuchy will start the season. (possible rotation/horses for courses)

DM – Coquelin or a new player

I thought that the emergence of Coquelin was the most exciting thing to happen last season.  How long have we fans cried out for a genuinely brilliant defensive midfielder?  Was the answer really under our noses all these years?  The team looked completely different with him in it.

BC (Before Coquelin) I beat myself silly with frustration, as we got caught on the counter attack over and over again.  With him, the counter attack problem has virtually disappeared (I think others, particularly Cazorla, must take some credit as well).

I am just so grateful to this enigmatic man.  His positioning is freakishly good – next time you watch the mighty Arsenal, ignore the ball and just watch him – it’s nearly as good as watching Sanchez trying to get the ball back after he has lost it!  His tackling is wonderful, and he seems to have magically eliminated the tendency to get carded for it.

He also seems to have strength, balance and pace in abundance.  His aerial ability is fantastic.  During the FA Cup quarter final, Man U pumped aerial balls up the middle and he dominated Fellaini in the air (apparently not even flinching when Fellaini used his elbow to break his nose).  For a man listed as 5’10”, this is inexplicable.

During the FA Cup final, just like that, he decided to add Messi-like close control to his list of attributes.  Is there no end to this man’s talents?  Anyway, I must stop going on about this wonderful player or my wife will get suspicious.

The fact remains that he hasn’t played a full season for us, and thus hasn’t proved his ability to do so.  I still have a nagging fear that he is ‘too good to be true’.  Could he just be an illusory ‘flash in the pan’.  Perhaps I don’t really understand what I am seeing? (I am an experienced observer, but I am just an amateur, and not always a good judge of players).

It is also very rare for players to suddenly become brilliant at the age of 24, after showing relatively little promise before that.  I get the firm impression that Wenger was genuinely surprised at how well Le Coq played (if not, then why did he let his contract get so close to expiring?).  Will opposition teams work out how to play against him, how to find his weaknesses?  Will his body hold up to a full season?  Will Wenger sign another DM – the rumours are incessant. Will our club captain even get his place in the team back?

Of all the ‘uncertain’ positions, this is probably the one where I feel most strongly that I do know what will happen next season.  As the summer wears on, it increasingly looks like Wenger is not looking for another player in this position.  I see no evidence that Arsenal ever expressed any serious interest in Khedira; Schneiderlin; Schweinsteiger; Vidal; Bender; Carvalho; Pogba; or anyone else who can play this position.  All the rumours seem to be based on interest that was expressed BC, and that Tony would describe as ‘vapour rumours’.

Wenger is probably happy with Arteta as back up, and the experience of the Asia Cup suggests that he is considering alternatives such as Ramsey/Cazorla in deeper roles.  Wenger has an odd tendency to deny that he plays a Defensive Midfielder at all, and I sometimes think he is looking for midfield arrangements that avoid the need for one.  However, all things considered, I think Coquelin will be first choice and that he will have an excellent season.

From the anniversary files…

22 July 2006: The Emirates Stadium opened with the Dennis Bergkamp testimonial,  Dennis’ father kicked off the match.  Dennis had played 423 games for Arsenal, and was part of both Arsène Wenger’s two Doubles and the Unbeaten Season.


19 Replies to “Wenger’s Selection Dilemmas for 2015/16: the questions in defence”

  1. Apparently Chezzy is going on loan?

    I think Arsenal should look away from concrete 1st team starters as much as possible. The one thing that should determine a start is game performances and the results from training sessions. I also think players who have played 6 games full should get a rest by being out for 1 game(70th min sub). That way we do not wear down the players too much. Of course this depends on the player itself(Alexis obviously needs more than 6 games to require a rest).

    Secondly, i think we need to look back at the players performances against certain opposition(individuals) and rotate accordingly.

    All in all i really do not want to see our players flagging at the end of the season, as big things are expected of them from them and from us next season.

    I love Cazorla in his new position, and as much as Coq needs a back up, i think Santi does too. He is our “Messi”. In the later part of last season, Coq showed some very Santi like skills on the ball, and i hope this improves as this keeps the yellow cards away from him doing his specific job.

    Tim Charlesworth:
    “I sometimes think he is looking for midfield arrangements that avoid the need for one.”
    This rings true for the midfielders as well as for the forwards, we cannot rely on the dying breed of strikers for much longer, and the new emergence of multi-talented forwards are emerging fast.

  2. If the other 19 EPL teams all played the same style, as well as all the better Champions League teams, having a first XI makes sense. I don’t think that is going to be happening any time soon.

    The bottom teams park the bus, because nominally they have to. That Chelsea is as good at parking the bus as it is, is unusual. Nobody would come out to watch football, if every team switched over to park the bus.

  3. So you are sure that Koscielnys place in the first team not threatened…

    But of the two established duo, Koscielny is more error prone. Last ditch on the line defending is good for media. They get these pics with flying people here and there. But essentially it is worst form of defending. Defending is an art. Losing its shine sadly. And Mertesacker, may be, is one of the last real defenders.

    Well, why do people complain about speed and turning radius when it comes to Mertesacker. And ignore his calmness and inch perfect or is it millimeter perfect reading of the game.

    Mertesackers greatest asset is his lack of speed. Which helped him develop and use the more intelligent side of the game. How many times have you seen Mertesacker make a rash challenge!!!

    Chambers looks close to Mertesacker with a little more speed. If he can develop the reading skills…..

    I think it’ll be occasionally Mertesacker-Gabriel combo this season and Chambers-Koscielny. But the main combo is still Mertesacker-Koscielny.

  4. @Tim,
    Excellent précis with which I wouldn’t disagree a single word.
    Looking forward to Part Two. 😉

  5. @Brickfields

    Not sure if that is his real twitter account. Great Banter though.

  6. The Petr Cech song – inspired by a tweet by Danny Boy !
    With apologies to Johnny Nash.


    I can see clearly now, the pain is gone,
    I can see all obstacles in my way
    Gone are the dark crowds that had me blind
    It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
    Sun-Shiny day.

    I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
    All of the ‘bad feelings’ have disappeared
    Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for,
    It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
    Sun-Shiny day.

    Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
    Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies

    I can see clearly now, the pain is gone,
    I can see all obstacles in my way
    Gone are the dark crowds that had me blind
    It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
    Sun-Shiny day.

  7. @ Malaysiangooner July 22, 2015 at 5:17 pm – Since when did truth matter ? Its too funny to waste ! Cheers !

  8. Brickfields Gunners
    The “blue” skies in the song remind me too much of chel$. 🙂 Could change it to clear skies, and could change to bright(red) sun shiny day. 🙂

  9. @ para – July 22, 2015 at 7:35 pm – I too had the same dilemma , but red skies didn’t seem right ! Was also trying to include Cahill , Terry , Ivanobitch and Moain’inho , but just couldn’t get to rhyme , so only changed dark clouds to dark crowds , and rain to pain .
    When we win the EPL , I promise to go wild and rewrite/compose another song and take potshots at ‘them’ and the rest !
    Oh , I just cannot wait !

  10. During the 2014/15 season, Mertesacker played 35 PL games, 4 FA Cup games and 8 CL games – a total of 48.

    He didn’t get booked once.

    That kinda hints at positional acumen, wouldn’t you say? /sarcasm

  11. If we were in mid-table then not having a clear first choice would be a weakness but we have so much quality / potential that I’m comfortable that it’s a strength for us. It also allows slight change in tactics by team change without it being obvious that it’s a tactical change.
    I think the Chavski owner gave his word to Cech that he could move anywhere but hadn’t expected him to want to stay in London. MaureenO learnt on his last stint as their manager that he couldn’t go against Abramovich, or he wouldn’t have allowed it.
    BFG reads the game very well when he’s ‘on his game’ which balances his speed/turning issues, although he does have the odd bad game which is usually vey bad. The last I heard was that Gabby was having big problems learning our language and that could be a real problem at CB where communication is so important. BFG will be 1st option for a bit longer.
    Firstly a tackling DM isn’t really necessary against every opponent. Some teams come forward on the wings only, where a wise head is more important to cut out the crosses and the space for the crosses to go to. Secondly most of the ‘DM’s mentioned are really B2B players who only play defensively when necessary. Look at Juve with only Pirlo as a DM (which shows Arteta can certainly do the job in some games), but they also have Pogba and Vidal as 2 hard tackling B2B players. I don’t believe any of them are a real step up from Coquelin (although there are a couple better, they aren’t available), so anyone that AW does buy in that position must not unsettle him. This could also be the season Hayden finally stays fit and makes himself a viable alternative when a real DM is important.

  12. Glad to see lots of defenders of our BFG here. I should clarify. I am not of the ‘he is slow and therefore useless’ camp. I think he is defensive rock, who may be very slightly past his peak. Merts may well have an excellent season, and I hope he does. I think he might lose his place because he is up against a very talented and underrated alternative in Gabriel, and because Koscielny is undroppable (we really struggled when he was not in the team last season). Merts will still get plenty of minutes, as I think he is ahead of Chambers and we will inevitably have some injuries/suspension/rotation in the two CB positions. Of course he might get even more minutes if he holds off the challenge of Gabriel and remains first choice. I think the choice between Merts and Gabriel is probably a very fine one, and may depend on who plays best in preseason.

  13. Robert, according to Transfermarkt, BFG got 2 yellows last season. Both in the PL. As you say, exceptionally good.

  14. Firstly thanks to Tim Charlesworth for a well thought through and well argued post. I don’t recall seeing Tim before as a poster and if it is your first post then you have set yourself a very high standard to maintain.

    I agreed with all your comments on full backs and would only add that Monreal has commented that he found the nature of full back defending very different between here and Spain. In particular it is much more physical and you get pressed more and taken on more also. He has had to toughen up and sharpen up and initially he was sharing the position much more with Gibbs than he did in the latter part of last season.

    I agree strongly with your views on CD and I relish the fact that picking two out of five (even though you did not mention Hayden I hope and trust he will get more than just League Cup experience next season) is exactly the sort of dilemma Arsene should have.

    Finally I feel you were at your best with the comments on Coquelin. But I am fearful that we need better cover in long term situations than an aging Arteta will provide. I also think competition is good for every player.

    I allow myself to smile imagining that Coquelin recently bought himself a puppy and when he eventually taught it to ‘sit’ the penny dropped as to what Arsene had been trying to tell him for the last twelve months! Certainly for a long time he tried too much both in being B2B and in making killer passes. Sitting back and simplifying his passes were the last essential pieces in his delivering what he now gives.

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