After another disappointing performance at home to Crystal Palace, a lot of focus will be directed at what Arsenal did poorly during the game, and most of it should fall on the centre-back partnership of Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel.
It just isn’t working.
In theory, your first choice centre-backs should consist of one player who can read the game from behind the play and instruct his teammates accordingly and one player who can anticipate passing moves in front of him and intercept the play. Think of Tony Adams and Martin Keown, or Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure, or at least in theory, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
When Koscielny plays with Mertesacker, he can play his natural game of pushing high up the field to help with pressing the opposition, with the knowledge that his partner will cover for him at the back. But when Mertesacker isn’t playing, Koscielny doesn’t adapt to playing with a different partner, and the consequences are severe.
We saw it when Thomas Vermaelen was at the club, whenever he and Koscielny were paired together, that they neither were willing to sit back and cover for the other, such was their desire to get involved with the play. The result was that Arsenal were so regularly open to counter-attacks, one of them had to be sold to avoid the issue of pairing them together again, and such was Vermaelen’s injury issues, he was the man who was sold.
Fast forward to Sunday, and it’s deja vu all over again. Koscielny once again finds himself paired with a centre-back whose best work is done higher up the pitch, and he has once again failed to adapt. Koscielny may not be the best game-manager, but he’s far better at it than Gabriel.
As the senior defender and captain, it should be Koscielny that is assuming the extra responsibility of organising the defence and letting Gabriel do what he does best, which is intercept the ball high up the field. But instead, it is Koscielny who is doing the pressing, leaving Gabriel to do all the hard work behind him.
This wouldn’t be too big an issue if Koscielny was playing at a high level whilst indulging himself like this, but he’s been under-par for a lot of this season, and today was a microcosm of that. On numerous occasions, Koscielny was beaten to a ball in midfield, sometimes ten or fifteen yards inside Palace’s half, leaving Arsenal dangerously exposed to a counter-attack. Only for Gabriel making two goal-saving challenges, one early in the first half and one in injury time, then Arsenal’s day could have been horrific, instead of just disappointing.
Arsenal have four centre-backs at the club, Koscielny, Gabriel, Mertesacker and Calum Chambers. It appears as if Mertesacker has lost the faith of the manager, if the recent team-sheets are anything to go by, and it’s clear that Koscielny and Gabriel can’t play together. The question shouldn’t be if Chambers should be starting soon, but when.