Arsene Wenger was unhappy with the efforts of his defenders in Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat to Stoke, but he must share some of the blame.
There was plenty of head scratching as Stoke’s Jese Rodriguez found himself with the space and time to bury a shot into the far corner of Arsenal’s goal. The Spaniard had moved in behind Shkodran Mustafi, while Nacho Monreal, the covering centre back on the day, failed to close him down quick enough. The moment proved decisive, as Arsenal laboured to a 1-0 defeat. While Wenger publicly criticised his defence, fans wondered just why he had selected the players he did in the first place.
Arsenal lined-up with a back three consisting of one recognised centre back in Mustafi, while Monreal and Kolasinac played in the middle and on the left respectively. Chamberlain played as a right wing back, while, surprisingly, Bellerin was fielded on the left. On the bench was Per Mertesacker, presumably able to play after the facial injury he received against Chelsea. At home were Rob Holding and Calum Chambers, likely wondering why they had been left out of the squad. In Spain, our only other fit centre back, Gabriel, was posing in his brand new Valencia shirt. Injuries and suspensions would have been one thing, but Wenger had three fit central defenders to choose from and selected none of them.
On one hand, Wenger has reason to believe that Monreal, usually a dependable defender, can do well as a centre back. The Spaniard has featured there numerous times and has never been a disaster. Kolasinac arrived with a reputation of being able to play centre back as well. Wenger would have surely thought he had enough defensive know-how back there to deal with Stoke’s limited threat.
Yet, this also seems to be a classic case of not helping ourselves. Call me old-fashioned, but playing players in their proper positions makes for a more cohesive set-up, and I simply can’t think of any reasons why Wenger would opt for two full backs ahead of the likes of Holding and Mertesacker. The disruption caused by new partnerships, and the lack of natural width on the left hand side didn’t seem like a reasonable trade off for whatever Monreal and Kolasinac offered from a central position.
If there was a method to the madness, it certainly didn’t show against Stoke.
The make-shift backline was offered little protection from the midfield duo of Xhaka and Ramsey. The goal did, ultimately, come from a mistake by Xhaka. The Swiss chased his own misplaced pass and vacated the midfield, leaving it entirely free for Stoke to use. It looked as if no considerations were made for a potentially vulnerable backline; that the team were told to play as normally did and to trust the defence to be fine. Either that, or Xhaka’s and Ramsey’s carelessness during the game, and the danger it could have posed, wasn’t recognised.
However you look at it, there were a number of strange decisions from Wenger.
He’s right to expect better from his defence – all first team defenders by all accounts – yet at the same time must shoulder the blame for creating an unfamiliar and faulty set-up.
It was a risk as unnecessary as it was costly.