Much of the Arsenal chat of late has revolved around the effectiveness of our recent Premier League lineups featuring the high-profile front 3 of Lacazette, Ozil, and Alexis. In their first competitive fixture together they displayed the cohesion of a far more experienced attack line as they combined for 3 goals and 2 assists in our thrashing of Everton. Against Swansea Ozil created 5 chances, provided 1 assist and Sanchez was a constant threat.
That being said, I want to shift the focus to the opposite side of the pitch and our back 3. Wenger seems married to this new system for the foreseeable future and I feel their contributions are often overlooked. Our overall success this season, especially in big games, will depend largely on the decision-making of our center back partners.
So much of Arsenal’s possessional game begins at the back. We all get frustrated by the slow, sideways passing near midfield as they look for an angle to break the first defensive line. Arsenal flow best when our pace of passing and ability to transition from defense to attack is fluid and the sideways passing near midfield is limited. In short, our ball-playing center backs are so much more than defenders.
We saw both ends of the spectrum in regards to center back distribution against Everton. The game serves as a Microcosm of everything that is good and bad with our current style of play. The clips below show the importance of a quick transition through the initial third as Koscielny’s passes were the catalyst of the attacking buildup. This will be especially vital against City on Sunday.
Additionally, Ozil’s brilliance on the ball and ability to find midfield space cannot be overlooked. When Arsenal are firing on all cylinders we see our advanced number 10 types (e.g. Ozil, Sanchez, Iwobi, etc.) dropping into withdrawn spaces from advanced areas to build play. I feel this is why Wenger has been so hesitant to try a midfield 3 in past years. He wants to give our advanced options the freedom to read the game and form that third midfield body in an unpredictable fashion.
Conversely, we saw a poor centre back decision from the normally reliable Mertesacker, which led to Everton scoring the opener.
Despite Everton pressing high and placing extra bodies around Xhaka, Mertesacker delivered a slow pass that put Xhaka in an unenviable position. Both players are to blame. Xhaka should have sensed the pressure and played a one-touch pass back to our right-sided CB Koscielny. Instead Mertesacker needs to find an advanced target or clear his lines entirely.
The decision-making of our center backs will be pivotal in matches going forward, especially in big games where tactically astute teams press us and/or don’t let us build from deep. Having a variety of out-balls will make us less predictable and help us build play differently. Against City it will be a test to establish fluency against team pressing/swarming. Against Spurs it will require an awareness of how to deal with the counter-press.
We have the personnel in defense to build quality play from the back. A common theme among Wenger CB signings is there ability to play on the front foot as well as their passing acumen. Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal, Mertesacker and Holding are the main men and Holding is the only one of which I feel who’s passing game could use refinement.
They all have their strengths and weakness which add to the potential diversity in which we can spread the ball. For example, Monreal thrives on short, quick passing interplay while Mustafi has an eye for a long out-ball.
The importance of our center back distribution grows even more significant as teams are more routinely man-marking Xhaka out of games and not allowing him to pick up the ball from deep. His passing accuracy numbers are down significantly from last season – 82.5% this year compared to 89.5% last year. It’s time to alleviate the pressure on him as our main link deep to advanced midfield.
It’s easy to overlook the brilliance of a quality centre back pass that begins to transition us through the thirds. So many quality goals have origins that begin with a quality pass from a centre back but is forgotten about due to fan’s love of what happens in the final third and our tracking of goals and assists.
While so many will have eyes squarely on our dynamic front three in coming games, I’m going to be sure to pay equal attention to our 3 centre backs and their contributions to building play and dealing with pressing situations.
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31 year old based in the U.S. I am an elementary school teacher by day whose passion for teaching is only rivaled by a love for the Arsenal. I release a weekly piece each Tuesday that is oftentimes analytical but sometimes eccentric. Founder of the U.S. supporters group Syracuse Gooners (www.cusegooners.com). I enjoy interacting with any and all Arsenal-based opinions on Twitter. Have a younger brother who chose to support Spurs. Fielding suggestions for ways to disown him.