It’s not so long ago that the full-back positions seemed to be ones of real depth at Arsenal. At left back the Gunners had the excellent Kieran Tierney backed up by under-21 registerable prospect Nuno Tavares, while Sead Kolasinac was not an option that Mikel Arteta was afraid to use in the early part of this campaign.
Over on the right deadline day signing Takehiro Tomiyasu was competing with Cedric Soares, while Calum Chambers remained a viable option. Both these sides were supplemented by the versatility of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and it seemed like this area of the squad was relatively disaster proof. Things though have changed very quickly.
After being knocked out of both cup competitions in January and with no European football for the first time in 25 years Arsenal embarked on a campaign of moving on those who were viewed as surplus to requirements. This saw Kolasinac, Chambers and Maitland-Niles all allowed to leave the club as Arteta focused on creating a tight knit group around London Colney united by the shared objective of finishing in the top four.
This though was always going to be a risk. One or two injuries and a squad that previously had been so bloated that established international footballers couldn’t be registered, would suddenly be down to its bare bones.
As often seems to be the case with Arsenal and injuries the exact situation they were hoping wouldn’t happen has come to pass. Tomiyasu has been out injured since January due to persistent problems in both calves and is not expected back in training till April 16, while Tierney has likely been ruled out for the season with a knee problem that requires surgery.
The Gunners gave us their first showing of life without Tierney on Monday night against Crystal Palace as Tavares was thrust into the starting line up for the first time since January. The Portugal under-21 international was hooked after just 45 minutes though and concerning nature of his performance have left many wondering if Arsenal need to pursue alternative solutions at full-back.
Failure to cope in Tierney’s absence arguably cost the Gunners at the business end of last season and it is essential that history is not allowed to repeat itself. With that in mind football.london takes a look at the options available to Arteta over a crucial run of matches in the coming weeks.
Stick with Tavares
The easiest option would probably be to stick with Nuno Tavares. The Portuguese full-back was brought in to provide cover for Kieran Tierney, and now that the Scot is out it’s surely time for him to do exactly that.
It’s not as if he’s not done it before. When Tierney suffered a knee injury early in the season, the former Benfica man did a sterling job of deputising and even kept Arsenal’s vice captain out of the side for a little while when he returned to full fitness.
Since that time though the Gunners have evolved. They are now a side who play an aggressive 4-3-3 formation reminiscent of what Pep Guardiola does at Manchester City. In this set up a balance between the full-backs is essential. If one goes forward to overlap the attack, it is vital that the other drifts infield to provide defensive cover and an extra passing option. It is for this reason that you’ll often see Arsenal in a 2-3-5 shape when they are in possession at the moment.
Were Tomiyasu available for the next few games you could make a case for this working. As someone who has spent much of his career at centre-back the Japanese international is much more inclined to hang deeper and play the inverted full-back role which would allow Tavares to play his natural game which is more attacking.
In Tomiyasu’s absence, Cedric has come into the side and has surprised many with how well he’s done at right back. A big reason for his impressive form though has been the sacrificial role that Tierney has played drifting inward and defending more rather playing his own usual overlapping game.
Tavares was asked to do a relatively similar role on Monday against Crystal Palace but failed drastically. The 21-year-old is not the most switched on defender in the world and his strengths lie in the opposition end of the pitch as evidenced by a game earlier in the season against Newcastle in which he had eight shots!
You could ask Cedric to play the more defensive role of the two full backs. The former Southampton man is technically sound and has showed himself to be a solid one-vs-one defender in recent weeks after largely coping well with Wilfried Zaha at Selhurst Park. The problem with this though is in the time when he has been in the side Arsenal’s attack has developed a right sided bias. The attacking trio Cedric has formed with Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka has been at the heart of most of the Gunners good offensive play recently so in order to accommodate Tavares you would most likely have to change that.
If you really did want to get the 21-year-old in the side in a way where he’s set up to perform at his best you would have to look to shifting to a set up more akin to the ‘4-4-2’ Arsenal played when he broke into the team in October. At that time Albert Sambi Lokonga largely hung back to cover the left half spaces when Tavares attacked in a role similar to the one Granit Xhaka starred in last season.
Now that the Swiss international is fit again he could potentially slot back into that left-sided armchair position and provide the cover to enable Tavares to attack at will. This though again would require Arsenal to shift away from the single six the base of their midfield (where Thomas Partey has been excellent in recent months) to more of a double pivot in the middle of the park.
Cedric at left back, White at right back
The versatility of the Arsenal squad means that Mikel Arteta does still have options if he feels Tavares is not to be trusted going forward. One of these would be to switch Cedric over to left back.
The 30-year-old had an extended run in the team their last season during one of Tierney’s injury absences and did pretty well, with his pass to Bukayo Saka in the build to Alexandre Lacazette ‘s goal during the 3-1 win over Southampton proving a highlight.
Arteta has previously described Cedric as “probably the best [full-back Arsenal] have in the final third” and if he wanted to ensure the Portuguese international continued to be as efficient going forward then he could ask Ben White to switch out to right back, with Rob Holding coming in to the heart of defence.
The 24-year-old has played there before for Arsenal in games against Norwich and Burnley already this season and recently started there for England over the international break. Given the inverted nature of the right back role things would not change too much for the former Brighton man who is technically one of the best defenders in the league. He is probably the person in the Gunners squad best equipped to do an impersonation of Tomiyasu when it comes to defending one-vs-one situations in wide areas.
However, in plugging one hole by making this switch Arteta would risk opening up a new one. White’s ability to cut through opposition defences with his line breaking dribbles has been a tremendous weapon for Arsenal in the build up this season, and when he was asked to play right back against Burnley that was sorely lacking as the Gunners failed to dismantle Sean Dyche’s tightly packed defence.
While they have their strengths defensively, as a centre-back pairing Holding and Gabriel are not necessarily the most adventurous on the ball, often preferring to play safer passes when up against opposition low blocks. With White over at right back Arsenal would gain more full-back balance, but lose a crucial tool when it comes to building their attacks.
Another option available to Mikel Arteta is to rip up the back four entirely and switch to a back three. This is a system he has used in the past to great effect, employing it en route to victories in the FA Cup and Community Shield during his first season in charge. With the personnel available to Arsenal at the moment it’s easy to see how switching back to this would work.
Rob Holding is essentially a cheat code when it comes to last ditch defending at the heart of a back three, and it has become something of running motif among Gunners fans this season how impenetrable the backline looks when the former Bolton man is sent on to see out cagey matches in a 5-2-3 set up. Ben White has played in back threes for Brighton and would be able to continue his line breaking dribbles on the right side of this formation while Gabriel would be over on the left.
In theory this would allow Nuno Tavares and Cedric to exhibit their attacking exploits with the defensive platform behind them in manner similar to what Marcos Alonso and Reece James have done under Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea. On top of that the defensive naivety that Tavares has shown recently would be covered by the platform of the extra defender behind them.
This appears to be a good set up to get the best out of the defenders Arteta has right now, but when you look further forward in the team problems start to emerge.
Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey would operate as the double pivot in front of the defence which would leave only two spots available in the starting line up. Bukayo Saka simply has to start, while Arteta has shown a preference for using wide players of a similar ilk to Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli in behind the striker when playing when playing this system in the past.
That would appear to leave Martin Odegaard’s place in the side vulnerable. The Norwegian though is Arsenal’s best and most consistent creator despite a poor performance on Monday night. Would dropping him out of the side really be worth it to accommodate some more defensive pragmatism?
You could hypothetically use Smith Rowe or Martinelli up front instead of Alexandre Lacazette in order to get Odegaard into the team, but again you’re losing one of the pillars of the Gunners attack in recent matches. As is a running theme throughout the solutions in this article the back three gives with one hand but takes away with the other.
Xhaka at left back
This was the option Mikel Arteta went for last season and the one he reverted to when hauling off Nuno Tavares on Monday night. By his own admission Granit Xhaka is a player who likes to operate with the game in front of him as opposed to the more advanced eight role he has played in recent months. Playing left back enables him to do this.
Arteta’s penchant for the inverted full-back would mean that the Swiss international would essentially find himself in the same left defensive half space where he spent much of last season. Here he is allowed plenty more space and time on the ball to look up and dictate play. This set up would also allow Cedric to bomb forward, ensuring that Arsenal’s strong attack on the right hand side continues.
However, we are all well aware of the risks of dropping Xhaka into defence at this point. Defending in transition is a huge part of the role and running back towards his own goal while trying to stop opposition attackers from countering is not something the 29-year-old is blessed with the physical capabilities to do. He is also not the world’s best one-vs-one defender as evidenced by his struggles up against Samuel Chukwueze in the Europa League semi-final first leg defeat to Villarreal last season.
On top of that with Thomas Partey potentially out for Saturday’s match with Brighton after aggravating a thigh injury on Monday night, losing both him an Xhaka from the middle of the park would be a massive blow. The pair offer a rare dose of experience in to this young Gunners side, and going into crucial matches in the race for the top four with neither of them in midfield would be a big risk.
Saka at left back
Another option that is well known to Arsenal fans is the possibility of playing Bukayo Saka at left back. This is the position where the England international first broke in to the team, and having excelled there in the past it’s easy to see how he could do the same again.
Saka would essentially be a replica of the role Kieran Tierney played at left back last season, overlapping the left winger and looking to support the attack with pinpoint delivery. The 20-year-old is also defensively switched on and has shown himself to be decent in one-vs-one situations in the past.
Playing him in defence though would rob the Gunners of one of their most potent attacking weapons. Alongside Emile Smith Rowe, Saka is Arsenal’s top scorer this season and with Alexandre Lacazette now having gone 19 hours and 23 minutes of football without scoring a goal from open play it would seem counterproductive to move the Hale Ender away from the attacking third of the pitch.
Also, as with problems already identified earlier in this article with playing Nuno Tavares at left back, having such an offensive option on the left side of defence would require Cedric to play a more conservative role on the right. The whole rhythm of Arsenal’s right side-heavy recent offence would be disrupted as a result and you may end up losing more in attack than you gain in defence.
Trust the youth
One other option that’s available to Mikel Arteta to solve his problems at full-back is to promote from within. When Arsenal were in the midst of a creativity crisis last season that saw them 16th in the Premier League heading into Boxing Day, the promotion of Emile Smith Rowe from the youth set up worked a treat, so why not repeat the trick again.
Hale Ender Mazeed Ogungbo was called onto the bench on Monday night and despite spending most of his time playing as a centre-back in a back three for Kevin Betsy’s under-23 side this season he is capable of playing at left back or left wing back. Joel Lopez made the first team squad on a few occasions last season and was part of the first team trip to Dubai at the end of January, while January signing Lino Sousa has really impressed since coming in from West Brom and is understood to be admired by Arteta.
Given that Betsy has had his side largely operating in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 set up this season there could be a few questions over how the youngsters might adapt when making the step up to play in a back four with the first team. However, the under-23s have experimented with various different systems this season with the aim of helping improve their game intelligence and understanding of how to occupy space on the pitch. With this in mind they would be well equipped to make the step from a tactical perspective.
In reality though it might be a bit too much a risk for Arteta to throw these youngsters in at the deep end in what is such a crucial time in the season. When discussing the development of academy players like Flo Balogun and Charlie Patino, the Spaniard has always emphasised the importance of ensuring they take all the right steps in their development, and over-exposing them at this nascent stage of their careers could end up doing more harm than good.
Ultimately while all of these options serve as sticking plasters between now and the end of the season, none of them provide a completely satisfying solution to the problems Mikel Arteta faces at full-back. With Champions League qualification for the first time in five years at stake, the Arsenal boss faces the unenviable task of picking one of them.