A positive result at the weekend was somewhat soured by the injury to Shkodran Mustafi. Despite only being introduced to the team in September, Mustafi has forged an excellent partnership with Arsenal captain Koscielny; since their amalgamation, Arsenal have conceded a miserly 10 times in 11 Premier League games and remain unbeaten in that time frame. Wenger has suggested that it is a ‘good’ strain meaning he may only be absent for 21 days but with fixtures coming thick and fast, Wenger will hope that his squad can step up and continue to thwart opposition attackers. Arsenal have a natural replacement in Gabriel but it is unclear whether the Brazilian can match the front-footed nature of the German defender.
Before Mustafi’s arrival, I penned an article on who could complement the outstanding Koscielny; I put forward the case of Mustafi alongside Virgil van Dijk and Diego Godin. I rationalised that with Koscielny’s predilection for intercepting passes and refusing to allow strikers to receive the ball unchallenged, a potential partner would be require to cover Koscielny, tackle onrushing strikers and be powerful in the air. Mustafi’s relatively small stature of 6ft has not hindered the German from winning 3.4 aerial duels per game. However, rather than offsetting Koscielny’s skillset, it seems that Mustafi is mirroring the French defender. Both players rank highly in interceptions and relatively low in tackles and clearances. (It’s safe to assume that teams who come under sustained periods of pressure are more likely to incur more clearances and attempt more blocks – and this seems to hold true with van Dijk, Scott Dann and Michael Keane all featuring heavily in the top ten defenders for clearances and blocks.)
With Arsenal’s penchant for keeping possession, both players have bought into the philosophy of winning the ball back as early as possible, often attempting to cut out danger before it has a chance to cause any damage and play direct passes into the midfield. This seems to be a tactic that Wenger has utilised throughout the team, with Sanchez leading the pack and even Coquelin pressed into a higher position at times. This has also been the case of the fullbacks. Both Bellerin and Monreal have been excellent at reducing dangerous attacks; this was particularly evident in the second half of the West Ham game when Monreal was quick to snuff out a Lanzini chance. This tactic is high octane, high reward; and is currently paying dividends for the team.
Gabriel is also a front-footed defender. He often marks his opponents touch tight and is more than willing to battle for possession and challenge strikers on the turn. However, does his prowess for stealing possession match that of the exceptional Mustafi? Doubted. The Brazilian has been waiting for his chance to play and it has come but only through injuries to Bellerin and Debuchy and a decimation of confidence of Jenkinson. Now with Mustafi suffering from a hamstring strain it seems that Gabriel will get an opportunity to compete in his favoured position.
It is easy to overlook some of the good things Gabriel does. His versatility and his robust nature are often ignored when his name appears on the team sheet, usually accompanied by groans or grumbles of complaint. But the 6ft+ defender has shown enough promise and resilience in his time at Arsenal for Wenger to have faith in him. His strength may prove an asset when we travel to play Lukaku Everton this evening. Additionally, with the suspension of Aguero, Gabriel will not be subjected to the examination that one would normally expect when playing Manchester City. NB: if Pep decides to play with a false 9 as he is likened to do, the fluid forward line of de Bruyne, Silva, Sane et al could prove more problematic than the traditional centre forward play of the brilliant but raw Iheanacho. Post-City, Arsenal face the buxom pairing of Rondon and Benteke in successive games; both fixtures and set of strikers are favourable in terms of the style of play Arsenal will be tasked with frustrating but will still undoubtedly test the resolve of this makeshift pairing in Mustafi’s absence.
Injuries are part and parcel of the Premier League. Liverpool have struggled when the excellent Matip has been unavailable, City continue to flounder in the absence of leader and seemingly sole defender Vincent Kompany, United have found an unlikely partnership in Jones and Rojo in the absence of Bailly and Smalling and Chelsea have had to change their entire system to equipoise the deficiencies of their defence. Arsenal now face the challenge of coming through the next four fixtures unscathed – enough time to make or break a title challenge.
Til next time,