Who is Arsenal's best option at right-back in the absence of Hector Bellerin?
The ongoing saga of Alexis Sanchez’s hamstring injury will dominate the headlines in the build up to Arsenal’s trip to Manchester United, but the absence of Hector Bellerin could be just as damaging. The Spaniard is one of the first-names on Arsenal’s team sheet along with Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny. Arsene Wenger has assembled a deep squad packed with quality, but right back is probably the area of the squad with the weakest set of backup options.
Carl Jenkinson has not played a minute of Premier League football in an Arsenal shirt for two years while Mathieu Debuchy would have moved on in the summer had a suitor met his hefty wage demands. The deployment of Sanchez as a centre forward has been a major factor in Arsenal’s sound start to the season, but you get the sense Arsenal have enough options in the last third to find a different formula. The loss of Bellerin meanwhile, leaves a very definite hole in the unit.
One suspects Wenger will probably opt for Jenkinson; he is after all the Gunners’ second-choice right back, so is in the squad for this very scenario. The Frenchman has a keen sense of meritocracy, and has been full of praise for Jenkinson’s application on the training pitch since he returned to London Colney this summer. The former Charlton man has also come back from a long-term knee injury, so Wenger might feel he deserves his chance.
Jenkinson started Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Reading in the EFL Cup fourth round and 3-2 Champions League victory over Ludogorets in Bulgaria. He didn’t do much wrong in either game, but Arsenal fans were pleased to see Bellerin back against Spurs. Jenkinson is always fully committed and whole hearted, and is a fantastic athlete; like Bellerin, he has the pace to overlap and whip crosses in. Where he falls short of Bellerin is in his recovery defending; the former Barcelona man is fantastic at bailing out the team by sprinting back and winning last ditch challenges. Jenkinson however, can appear a little panicked when an opponent gets the better of him, often conceding clumsy fouls. The Englishman is not quite as comfortable on the ball either, whereas the La Masia educated Bellerin can step inside and knit play together from midfield when required.
This is quite important in Arsenal’s system because in Theo Walcott they have a right sided attacker who is only useful in the final third of the pitch. Walcott does not have the skillset to drop deep and receive the ball to feet; the Gunners’ system is designed to let him play on the shoulder of the defence as much as possible. Therefore, the right back must be comfortable supporting the play in areas usually occupied by an orthodox right winger. Walcott has been far more effective this season since switching to the right, but his behaviours and movements are that of a striker not a winger.
Therefore, Wenger might shift Shkodran Mustafi across one place. The former Valencia defender has played as a right back for Germany in the past, and has impressed during his time in England. Mustafi’s distribution is excellent, he is very comfortable on the ball and has been involved in the build up to some important goals. It was his chipped ball into the area that led to Olivier Giroud winning a penalty against Southampton. Against Burnley at Turf Moor, Mustafi took it upon himself to play as an auxiliary full back; whipping in a succession of crosses, one of which led to a corner that brought the winner.
On a ‘Top Trumps’ basis, Mustafi is a better player than Jenkinson, but Wenger risks upsetting the balance of the side by playing the German at full back. It would mean making two changes to cover the loss of one player because Gabriel or Rob Holding would have to come in at centre back. Mustafi and Koscielny have had a few wobbles in recent games, but are still undefeated as a pairing. Arsenal’s long-serving manager places a lot of stock in the principle of cohesion, regularly pointing out that making too many changes in personnel can de-stabilise the team. Losing Bellerin is bad enough, so Wenger might be wary of making an unnecessary change to the back four.
Should Wenger decide that Jenkinson is not up to the task and that he wants to keep Mustafi and Koscielny together, he could play Francis Coquelin at right back. Some of the Frenchman’s early first-team appearances were in this role, and he certainly has the engine to get up and down the line. Coquelin is also the sort of dogged character Wenger will feel he can trust. The Arsenal boss also has something of a history when it comes to asking midfielders to play at full back, with Mathieu Flamini and Lassana Diarra deployed there in the past. Coquelin’s ability to defend in one against one situations would be a concern, and he wouldn’t give Arsenal much offensively. Who plays at right back is one the biggest decisions facing Wenger ahead of Saturday’s crunch game.
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