Top of the league, all was well heading into 2016 as Calum Chambers gave a solid first midfield start of the season and Arsenal beat Bournemouth.
Then 20, Chambers was starting in midfield for the first time in a year in the absence of Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin. Mesut Özil was the star of the show but, linking up well with Aaron Ramsey, Chambers provided Arsenal’s more talented midfielder with a platform to perform in front of
Bournemouth aren’t the toughest opposition but nor are Swansea City, Crystal Palace, Norwich City or Watford and they have all given the Gunners big problems at the Emirates Stadium since that evening at the end of December.
Newcastle United can be added to that list, and that’s when Arsène Wenger should have learned that reinstating Mathieu Flamini was a mistake. The French midfielder went back into the side five days after the win against Bournemouth and Arsenal scraped to a narrow 1-0 victory.
Flamini kept his place, incredibly, and Arsenal picked up one point from the next four games.
Things looked better again by mid-February when Arsenal came from 1-0 down against Leicester City to win, closing the gap to the table-topping Foxes to just two points.
Calum Chambers was introduced at half-time that day and played superbly at centre-half, defending well and moving the ball intelligently.
Leicester may have gone down to 10-men shortly after the break but Chambers dealt with a number of counter-attacking opportunities well. He judged the ball in the air intelligently and dangerous pair Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy got no change out of him.
The fact that Per Mertesacker didn’t play in five of the seven Premier League games immediately after the win against Leicester is something that can be debated but most people can see as a reasonable decision.
Unfortunately, the German hasn’t been at his best for a lot of this season. Though he has no pace to lose, his reactions appear to have declined and his partnership with Laurent Koscielny (without apportioning blame to either side – that’s another discussion) isn’t as seamless as it once was.
It’s only natural, then, for Wenger to look for Arsenal’s next defensive partnership. It is not natural to overlook the very obvious Mertesacker replacement at his disposal.
Like the German, Chambers requires intelligent positioning and reading of the game to make up for the fact that he isn’t exactly as fast as most of the strikers he’ll come up against. That perfectly complements Koscielny, who prefers to read the game more quickly and use his strength and anticipation to steal the ball before it comes too far upfield.
Chambers also offers a replacement for Mertesacker’s talents on the ball. With the German, passes are sprayed forward into midfield just as often as they are played to a fellow defender.
When you have two defenders who look comfortable on the ball, opposition sides can’t simply force man-mark and force the ball to one side of the defence.
But instead of using Chambers as Mertesacker’s replacement, Arsène Wenger used the non-English speaking, overly-aggressive, impulsive, clumsy, weak in the air Gabriel. Now, Gabriel could still become a good defender: he’s far too impulsive but use the right amount of that and combine it with his acceleration and you have something similar to Koscielny’s style.
You just can’t play with two Koscielnys.
You also can’t play with someone as poor on the ball as the Brazilian; if he wants to become a worthy Arsenal regular he will have to improve drastically with the ball at his feet. Against Swansea City, in particular, Arsenal struggled to create any pressure because the team couldn’t even get the ball into the opposition half while behind on the scoreline. Swansea would put a man on Koscielny, Čech (or Koscielny) would have to play the ball to Gabriel, everyone else would be marked and he’d just play it square.
With Gabriel in the side, Arsenal’s title hopes died. There were more reasons, of course, but he was in the team when it happened. Between beating Leicester City and Gabriel being dropped, we conceded two or more goals in four of seven league games. We dropped 12 points, nine of which were from winning positions.
We let Marcus Rashford score twice and Andy Carroll netted a hat-trick.
Arsenal have had big issues going forward and Calum Chambers is not perfect but Gabriel shouldn’t have been in the team for so long.
The issue isn’t that Mertesacker was dropped but that Chambers doesn’t seem to be trusted at all. He played in midfield when there was no other option and then dropped despite performing well, the same has happened at the back.
On Saturday, Chambers wasn’t even on the bench. Gabriel was the only defender there and, one can presume, Francis Coquelin was considered fullback cover.
Gabriel came off the bench when Per Mertesacker was injured and made one crucial intervention which, actually, wasn’t as impressive as it first appeared. It’s easy to see the challenge preventing Dieumerci Mbokani from scoring as a good one but the problem was caused by poor positioning in the first place.
Gabriel was doing just fine on the left but on the right, he’s tried to play offside. He also hasn’t told Koscielny that Mbokani is moving across towards him.
The Brazilian’s English isn’t good – that’s well documented – but that’s not really an excuse. If anything, it’s just another reason he shouldn’t play. Yes, the situation was rectified, but I’d rather our defenders not have to make inch-perfect challenges in our own box a split-second before someone is about to score. It shouldn’t get that far.
Calum Chambers wasn’t even on the bench on Saturday and Gabriel will most likely start against Manchester City next weekend. If Mbokani’s movement was such an issue, I dread to think what Sergio Agüero could do.
If Arsenal want to start moving in a new direction at the back, that’s fine. It’s time for Chambers.