Lucky Breaks, Unlucky Breaks and Heartbreak: Arsenal’s Right Back Dilemma

Funny thing life is. Had someone told me a year ago we’ll have a right-back dilemma I would have laughed.

At the time we had Sagna as our only recognised full-back. He had a pretty good season along with Koscielny, Mertesacker and Gibbs and, despite some sound thrashings, Arsenal’s defensive record was one of the best (my rough guess is behind Chelsea and just a little worse off than City).

Sagna played a big part in keeping our goal under lock and key, thus helping Szczesny amass 16 clean sheets and become the joint winner of the Golden Glove. The thought of the Frenchman leaving was terrifying. Most were still not convinced Arsene was ready to spend and spend big on reinforcements (count me in on that front) and the prospect of seeing a hard-working, but far from impeccable Jenkinson week in, week out sent goosebumps down my spine.

Sagna warms up City's bench.

Sagna warms up City’s bench.

Sagna left to warm up City’s bench when his contract expired on July 1st and for almost three weeks every Arsenal fan was nervous as hell. It was less than likely Wenger would buy anyone before the World Cup Final and yet, and yet. Most feared Wenger would want to play his usual brinkmanship game till August 31st.

Those fears turned out to be unfounded. Amid rumours linking us with Micah Richards and Serge Aurier, Mathieu Debuchy made his grand entrance on July 18th. Most were underwhelmed Arsene chose experience over youth (namely, Debuchy over Aurier), I was excited. I’ve seen enough young prospects to feel a genuine sense of relief when Mathieu was unveiled. Jenks became solid back-up instead of an unconvincing №1.

Eight days later we signed Calum Chambers for a ridiculous fee of 16 million. I say “ridiculous” not because it’s that inflated (Luke Shaw was bought for 25 million. 25 million pounds for a defender who has never heard of Tony Adams), but because Calum became (and remains still) our most expensive back-four acquisition. He cost us more than Debuchy, an experienced right-back, №1 for the French national team. A 19-year-old kid who had one good season at Southampton. Poor old Jenko was shipped out on loan five days later. His smile when he held West Ham’s shirt was the most painful thing I’d seen in quite some time.

Debuchy banjaxed his ankle a month into the campaign and the real fun started. A kid under the name of Hector Bellerin emerged, had a debacle of a performance against Borussia (not that he was alone, mind you) and was seemingly consigned to history books. Until mid-January, that is. On January 11th Debuchy was cynically shoved into the advertising boards by Arnautovic and dislocated his shoulder. Chambers was down with illness and so Bellerin got a second chance.

And now here we are, with a very real right-back dilemma on our hands. Who is the current number one, who has a future at the Club and who (if anyone) will be sacrificed when the current season ends? Let’s try and figure it out together.

Debuchy looks to be the current number one number 2...

Debuchy looks to be the current number one number 2…

Mathieu Debuchy

I’ve seen very little of the Frenchman I have to confess. I simply do not have the time to watch the Premier League all weekend long and thus couldn’t pass judgement on how well Mathieu fared in his time at Newcastle. I’ve heard from some Newcastle fans he’s left a generally positive impression there and most were sad to see him go.

The Frenchman was described as sometimes having disciplinary issues (got one or two reds in his rather short stint with the Magpies) but overall was considered a very solid right-back of a conservative type. One who prefers to stay back in order not to get caught out of position, nonetheless with a good shot and decent crossing ability (an ability Sagna never mastered). What is more, Mathieu was portrayed as an able aerial fighter and this quality was of great importance to us. Someone (I think over on Arseblog) noted that Szczesny’s two favourite recipients were Giroud and Sagna when the Pole opted to clear his lines and thus it was vital for Bacary’s replacement to be good in the air. And despite Debuchy’s height of only 5 ft 10 inches he’s pretty impressive there from what I’ve witnessed.

Two serious injuries hampered Mathieu’s season greatly, but I remain convinced he is our current №1. He reminds me of Arteta a great deal. Experienced, disciplined, never loses his head under pressure. I’m sure that, once fully-fit, Debuchy will play the vast majority of remaining games and this trend may well continue for several more seasons, as the Frenchman only turns 30 this July. I’m fine with Debuchy as our №1. He was bought as a direct replacement for Sagna, and he looks an upgrade to me.

Hector Bellerin is the revelation of the season.

Hector Bellerin is the revelation of the season.

Hector Bellerin

This kid means business. Despite only turning 20 a couple of days ago, a phrase dropped by Mikel Arteta at the outset of the season is bandied about:

“I think he’s a top player.

He can be the right back of Arsenal for many years in my opinion, provided he gets the chance. Mentally, he handles what is requested to play at the highest level. He’s got pace, he’s got technique, and he’s a very positive guy.

I talk to Hector a lot. He’s been around for years and we’ve been talking to each other for a long time. I know him well because he’s taken part in pre-season a few times with us already.

He’s a very confident guy and we treat him as any other player because he’s part of our squad. Hopefully he’s going to become a top player at the club.”

Getting such high praise from one of the most level-headed players at our Club speaks for itself. And it’s fair to say Bellerin not only got his chance, he grabbed it with both hands.

The young Spaniard had a pretty rough introduction. He started his first senior game against Borussia and, unless I’m much mistaken, his second start came against Stoke away. Not pleasant at all.

But Bellerin recovered. He played some brilliant football in our 4-1 win against Newcastle, starting the move for the first and getting an assist later on. As Debuchy got crocked in a 3-0 win over the Orcs at the Emirates, Bellerin came on and hasn’t looked back since, making 8 Premier League starts in 10 games, bagging two brilliant goals in the process.

The Spaniard has been a true revelation this season:

“He’s one of the surprises of the season. He was at Watford on loan last year and didn’t get the games. He’s just 20 years old, if you look at what he does at 20 years of age… Maybe he still has some experience to gain but defending one against one is good and going forward is good as well. He [also] scored an important goal in a big game and that always shows that the guy has the mental quality to be there.”

It’s interesting to see what happens next year. Will Hector be shipped on loan to gain experience? Should we do that? I don’t think we should. Bellerin showed he is ready to play at the level required, keeping and playing him at every possibility should be our priority. I won’t go as far as to say that Debuchy is injury-prone, God knows he is the unluckiest person on Earth to sustain two such horrific injuries in one season, but he can’t play 50+ games a year. And that’s where Bellerin comes in.

New Tony Adams?

New Tony Adams?

Calum Chambers

We bought Calum as a right-back & that was exactly the role he played for almost four months non-stop. Right now Chambers has amassed 35 games overall (28 starts) and at one point I was really worried about his energy levels. It was pre-Stoke, December 5th, if you want the exact date. Chambers made 21 appearances by that point. That means in less than three months, as he was back-up to Debuchy from mid-August to mid-September. I was not alone in expressing concerns, especially after Calum’s rather weak performances against Swansea and (subsequently) Stoke:

“For a 19-year-old player, he has played too many games. They all hit the wall after 15, 17 games. You have to give them a breather, refresh and get them back again. At the moment, to have that responsibility in every single game is a lot on a player of that age.”

However, these bleak performances weren’t representative of the quality Chambers undoubtedly possesses. They say the first impression sticks and my first impression of Chambers was the Community Shield game against City. He played that game in central defense alongside Koscielny, as Mertesacker hadn’t yet returned from his World-Cup-winning escapades with Germany.

And Chambers was brilliant. He was calm on and off the ball, his distribution from the back was superb and the way he snapped into tackles left people in quiet awe:

“I saw him there (at centre-back) when I bought him and I play him there. For a 19-year-old he had an outstanding performance today. The kind of performance he delivered today is very promising. It’s impressive because he hasn’t got a long history in this position because he was a right back and I think if all goes well he has a good career in front of him.’

And this is where I think Calum’s future lies. At centre-back, not at right-back. I’ve included him here because he played a vast majority of games at right-back and is a more than able stand-in, but for me he is a central defender

If Debuchy’s qualities remind me of Arteta, then Chambers is a ready-made replacement for Mertesacker if there ever was one. Not Gabriel, not Koscielny: Chambers.

He’s tall, he’s calm, he’s good in the air and good at positioning himself. His distribution is decent and, most of all, he relies on his positional awareness rather than his speed to break up attacks. True, his performances at centre-back were largely unimpressive (bar Community Shield), but that’s because he played alongside Mertesacker, not Koscielny.

The prospect of seeing Chambers pair up with Kos is mouthwatering. To me it’s more enticing than a pair of Gabriel and Koscielny. I mean it. Chambo and Koscielny may not be a pair for all games (just like a Mertescielny axis isn’t), however it’s a partnership with great potential. Hope we see those two play together on a more regular basis next season.

Jenkinson scores against Norwich.

Jenkinson scores against Norwich.

Carl Jenkinson

Poor Jenko. That’s the second time I’ve used this phrase, but really, Carl’s future doesn’t look all that bright. He was in a bad spot already after Debuchy and Chambers came in, the emergence of Hector Bellerin left him fourth in the fight for the right back spot. Wenger denied Hector’s performances will have an impact on Jenko’s future, but is that because Arsene’s mind was already made up when he loaned Carl to West Ham? Or do these words really mean AW will be able to find a place for Jenkinson in the current side? Right now I can see only two ways of that last option coming to fruition:

  1. Wenger views Chambers ONLY as a centre-back, sends Bellerin out on loan to gain experience and regular playing time. Thus Jenko becomes back-up to Debuchy and gets his fair share of games to demonstrate he’s worthy to become our number 1 right-back. In this case Jenkinson will have to jump higher than Bellerin AND wait till Debuchy either retires or is consigned to a substitute role
  2. Wenger does something drastic with the personnel he has to clear room for Carl. Like, for example, viewing Bellerin as a right winger instead of a right-back and playing Chambers either at CB or DM. Jenko will still have to deliver and out-wait Debuchy’s tenure at the Club

Both options don’t seem very likely even to me, truth be told. Which sees me retrace my steps and explore the first scenario: Jenko will be sold when the current season draws to a close and today a £10 million tug of war between West Ham and Liverpool is predicted so good luck to him!

Jenko is Gunner at heart

Jenko is Gunner at heart

This fills me with sadness as I really like Jenkinson. I like how he fares at West Ham, I love the fact he’s an Arsenal fan and I know that in him we have a man giving it all for the shirt simply because the shirt means a lot to him. I’m not saying it doesn’t for Bellerin or Chambers, but with Jenko I’m sure. Just look at the emotions flowing through the guy when he scored in our last PL game last season.

I’m aware football doesn’t always have fairytale endings. Sometimes even managers as soft and understanding as Arsene Wenger have to make harsh decisions. That’s the reality of competition. However, as I’ve stated above, I have a soft spot for Jenko.

Imagine Wilshere loses his race to Ramsey and/or Cazorla in a year. Imagine we’ll have to sell him because of his high wage demands, a rather peripheral role and a contract due to expire in 12 months. Would any of the parties be happy with such an outcome? Wilshere, a fan of the Club? Wenger, the guy who nurtured Jack, made him who he is? The fans, for whom Jack has become iconic, almost an idol?

Same with Jenko, only the extent is lesser.

The verdict

Quite an Arsenal we have, don’t we (pun intended, of course)? Four players for one spot. Some in a more privileged position than others, but those others are unlikely to give in. You can almost write a script and shoot a movie about our situation.

If it wasn’t so complicated for everyone involved. Competition is great, it brings out the best of everyone, but there will still be those who miss out. You can’t keep everyone happy, at least I can’t see how we can do this. I hope Arsene has an idea or two

That’s it for now. If you stuck with me for the duration of this article, I take my hat off. Hope I gave you something to think about.



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