Should Arsenal bolster backline in the market?
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By the end of Arsene Wenger's long tenure, Arsenal's defence was a debris field. The attack remained potent but the Gunners were perpetually exposed at the back. Unai Emery failed to solve the problem. Now, it's left to Mikel Arteta.
To be fair to the first Spaniard, Emery made an effort. He brought in Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathoupoulos but, apart from forcing football writers to constantly spell-check, his signings had little effect. The Swiss fullback was simply too old. The Greek was a positive addition with his industry, experience and sandpaper. Unfortunately, Laurent Koscielny's abrupt, acrimonious exit rendered Sokratis a like for like replacement with no progress achieved. Emery then signed David Luiz but the Brazilian aids the transition to attack more than the backline's chances to keep a clean sheet.
Even though Arteta was hired before the January window, the midseason transfer session isn't typically one where clubs make big moves. With the business end of their campaigns looming, clubs aren't as open to selling top players. So how does the second Spaniard recover ground on the top seven? If the Gunners harbour European dreams for 2020/21, they must make up four points on one from Manchester United, Tottenham and Wolves.
It's fair to say the former midfielder tackled the problem from the start with some effect. In his first five matches, the squad conceded multiple goals in a match just the once, in a 2-1 home defeat to Chelsea. They kept clean sheets at home against Manchester and Leeds United, the former in the Premier League, the latter in the FA Cup. Four goals shipped in four league matches is a deceptively small sample size but an improvement on the 28 yielded in Emery's 19 games.
The return fixture against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge took place on Tuesday evening. David Luiz made it difficult for Arsenal to keep Chelsea off the scoresheet. The Brazilian was sent off on 26 minutes with the Blues taking the lead through the ensuing spot-kick. Despite their disadvantage, the Gunners levelled through another Samba star, Gabriel Martinelli. Then, the defenders began contributing at the wrong end, Cesar Azpilicueta and Hector Bellerin potting goals in the final ten minutes to keep the match all square.
While he had nothing to do with it, Arteta probably wishes Arsenal took their chance at signing Kalidou Koulibaly. They've been linked with a move for the Senegalese again this winter but it's highly unlikely they'll land him. New Partenopei boss Gennaro Gattuso's tactics are rooted in defence. Inquire after the big centre-half and you might as well make an offer on Reno's right testicle.
On the other hand, the new boss hasn't seen anything of his top defender. Koulibaly missed the last month with a muscle injury. Napoli lost their last three matches and fell into the table's bottom half as a consequence. The crisis only makes it more likely Gattuso will want to hang onto Koulibaly. Needs must. Contracted until 2023, it's unlikely Napoli will be willing to sell even in the summer but, if Gli Azzurri can't push back up the table, the player may force a move. For their part, Arsenal will need to offer European football to be in on the potential sweepstakes.
Jerome Boateng may be a more immediate option. The 31-year-old Bayern Munich centre-back is on the downhill side of his career, starting only 14 Die Roten matches from a possible 27. His contract is up in 2021 and the club are more likely to sanction a move than Napoli. Gunners faithful harbour mixed emotions regarding Per Mertesacker's time at the Emirates but Boateng promises greater physicality and discipline to go along with the aerial presence he offers. Still, three years older than Koulibaly, the German is a stop-gap measure at best.
If Arteta prefers to explore long-term solutions, signing a future partner for already in-house William Saliba, Dayot Upamecano is a good choice. The 21-year-old Frenchman is growing into a defensive maestro for RB Leipzig. The German side won't accept anything less than €50 million. With the youngster's contract expiring in 2021, a deal can be made in this window with the player loaned back to Leipzig for this season's remainder.
Regardless of who the Gunners target, they cannot let the problems in defence fester any longer. Arteta must take decisions for both the short and long term to restore Arsenal to the top of the Premier League table.