Is Arsenal's Defence Strong Enough to Sustain a Premier League Title Challenge?

Mark Jones@@Mark_Jones86Featured ColumnistJuly 12, 2015

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In the coming weeks, you’d forgive Petr Cech for punching the address to Chelsea’s Cobham training base into his car’s sat nav instead of Arsenal’s at London Colney.

After doing the same thing for so long, it can take awhile to shake you out of your routine. But as Arsenal fans have joyously been reminding everyone over the past couple of weeks, Cech is very much a Gunner now. He’ll be turning up for work in their red and not Chelsea blue.

And when he reaches that work, he’ll find something else that differs from his west London life.

Petr David Josek/Associated Press

Unlike with the John Terry-marshalled unit Cech played behind for 11 years that could often be so impressive, questions about Arsenal’s defence have been around for a lot longer than the Czech has been in English football.

Are they good enough, strong enough, experienced enough, tight enough? Do they “want it enough” in often confusing football terms? Well, they were pretty good last season.

Only champions Chelsea (32) and Southampton (33) conceded fewer goals than the Gunners' 36, while the club kept three clean sheets on their way to winning the FA Cup so emphatically against an Aston Villa side that barely got close to either Wembley goalmouth. Throw in the addition of a world-class goalkeeper for 2015/16, and it would appear they have a good base upon which to build a title challenge.

Yet because of what’s gone on before, Arsene Wenger’s teams will always face scrutiny about whether their defenders have what it takes. And that’s not going to stop now.

Shall we get started, then? Let’s go from right to left.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 04:  Hector Bellerin of Arsenal celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on April 4, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

A year ago, Hector Bellerin wouldn’t have imagined he’d be entering the 2015/16 season with 24 Arsenal appearances under his belt, especially as he only had an extra-time outing in the League Cup on his Gunners CV at the time.

But the manner in which the young Spaniard adapted and didn’t look out of place last season offers hope for both the future and present. The quicksilver 20-year-old offers an excellent outlet in attack down the right-hand side and is an accomplished defender.

Bellerin should start the new season as first choice, but little seems to faze him.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 10: Calum Chambers of Arsenal is hugged by team-mate Mathieu Debuchy of Arsenal during the FA Community Shield match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on August 10, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Ross Kin
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

He enjoyed impressive outings against some of the big hitters in the Premier League in the latter half of 2014/15—nailing down a place in the team in a position that Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers previously occupied, neither of whom made the bench for the FA Cup final.

So what of them now?

Debuchy was unlucky that an ankle problem, sustained in the draw with Manchester City in September, and then a shoulder injury, picked up in a league win over Stoke City in January, derailed his first Gunners season. First Chambers and then Bellerin replaced the Frenchman nine years their senior.

Seeing younger players excel in his absence might have been difficult for the ex-Newcastle United man to take. But he should be viewed as a solid alternative to both and a dependable member of Wenger’s squad for the various challenges ahead.

Similarly, Chambers, two months Bellerin’s senior, has suddenly seen his development stall as he struggled to nail down a place over the latter half of the campaign. But there’s no shame in not being the finished article at 20—something Raheem Sterling might like to consider—and he’ll get more than enough games at right-back or in the centre in the months to come.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01:  Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Everton at Emirates Stadium on March 1, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Ah yes, the centre, home to the apple of many a Gunner’s eye.

You only have to look at the amount of images of Laurent Koscielny that feature as the avatar on Arsenal supporters’ Twitter accounts to know just how much the club's fans admire and respect the Frenchman.

That respect has been earned through five pretty impressive years at the Emirates Stadium, during which the centre-back has risen from a relative unknown to one of the best defenders in the Premier League, something those same Twitter accounts aren’t slow to point out.

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06:  Per Mertesacker of Arsenal reacts after his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Arsenal  at the Britannia Stadium on December 6, 2014 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Phot
Clive Mason/Getty Images

For further proof of his importance, injury absences for most of October and November and again in December seemed to affect the Gunners’ form last season, with points dropped in matches he missed against Hull City, Swansea City, Manchester United, Stoke and Liverpool. Arsenal conceded 11 goals in those five games, and while not all would have been prevented if Koscielny were there, a few might well have been.

Key to the concession of some of the goals were the failings of Per Mertesacker. Former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher picked apart the German's game on Sky Sports 1 (via the Daily Mail) for a disastrous performance in the 3-2 loss at Stoke in December.

If that game seemed to be a turning point for the World Cup-winning German, then that’s largely because he would soon have Koscielny by his side again, with the two seemingly acting as perfect foils for one another.

The common criticism of Mertesacker is that he doesn’t have enough pace. But he never had any to lose, and he’s built a career overcompensating for the lack of it—dropping off when facing quick, nimble attackers or getting up close and personal when up against more physical specimens, as he did to impressive effect against Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke in the FA Cup final.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 01:  Romelu Lukaku of Everton is tackled by Gabriel of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Everton at Emirates Stadium on March 1, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Still only 30 years old, he would appear to have a few years left in him. And—just as he seemed to do in the closing months of last season—he could use the January signing of the Brazilian Gabriel as further motivation to hang on to his place. As a motivational tool, the former Villarreal man proved to be a pretty good one.

The 24-year-old is much more than that, of course, and his integration into Wenger’s plans looks to be one of the more fascinating aspects of Arsenal’s season to come.

On reputation alone, you’d presume that he would serve as first reserve should anything befall Mertesacker or Koscielny. But Arsenal’s sheer amount of games means he’ll get a fair amount of chances, with Wenger’s initial reservations over his lack of English, relayed by BBC Sport, presumably eroding with time.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - OCTOBER 22:  Kieran Gibbs of Arsenal (L) celebrates with team mate Nacho Monreal as he scores their first and equalising goal during the UEFA Champions League Group D match between RSC Anderlecht and Arsenal at Constant Vanden Stock St
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Should Arsenal need Gabriel for a longer run in the team, then he’ll find the warmth of the spotlight upon him. But the promise is there, and the quality looks to be, too.

And so we arrive at the left-backs, Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal, and perhaps the area of the Gunners team that brings about the most scratching of heads.

During last season, you almost knew what the year was by the player at left-back for Arsenal, with Gibbs holding down the position in the latter half of 2014 and Monreal, somewhat surprisingly, at the beginning of 2015 and beyond.

As had so often happened before, that opportunity had come around for the Spaniard because of a heel injury to Gibbs. But Monreal took it impressively and resurrected an Arsenal career that appeared to be heading for closure. In June, he reiterated his desire for a new contract to Darren Lewis of the Daily Mirror, and there will be plenty who’ll say he deserves it.

Is he good enough to be the starting left-back in a title-chasing team, though? And will Gibbs ever be fit enough on a consistent enough basis to routinely deliver on his promise?

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 30:  Francis Coquelin of Arsenal looks on during the FA Cup Final between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on May 30, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

The upcoming season will bear that out, but the pair are certainly good players and ensure the position they are fighting over doesn’t need immediate surgery from Wenger, who will head into the season with a crucial comfort blanket in place for Monreal, Gibbs and all the defenders listed here: Francis Coquelin.

The Frenchman isn’t a recognised defender, but as far as Arsenal’s defensive unit goes, he is surely the most important player in Wenger’s squad.

Arsenal defenders have played without a recognised shield in front of them for years—a player who is only interested in running, tackling and passing.

By selecting Coquelin in his team right from the beginning of the campaign—something Wenger will surely do—the manager is giving his defenders some protection. And it is that protection that could go a long way toward helping them prosper in the title race.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal smiles after the second goal of Olivier Giroud of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Newcastle United at Emirates Stadium on December 13, 2014 in London, E
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Of course, the notion of having a defence good enough to challenge for the title depends on what that challenge for the title is like. After all, Liverpool went close in 2013/14 despite conceding 50 goals in the Premier League.

But with Chelsea as last season’s top dogs and all set to start the new campaign as favourites, you can be certain that keeping things tight at the back will be a vital ingredient of any title challenge.

Arsenal certainly have the defenders to do that, and with Cech behind them and Coquelin in front, they could end up near the top of the table.

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