“It’s difficult because first of all we have centrebacks who do not like to play at fullback. We are a team who likes to go forward through the fullbacks so, of course, they are in a position where they have to produce different games. That is much more demanding physically. That exposes us even more to injuries, so I try to rotate people – one time right back, one time centreback. They do not use their positional play and do not get exposed too much physically [at centreback] because we have nobody ready to come back. I can use Squillaci, Miquel, Coquelin. Let’s be frank and honest, no solution will be ideal because whatever we do, two players will have to play out of position.” – Arsene Wenger, 20th December 2011. Arsenal’s subsequent form: P7 W3 D1 L3 GF9 GA9
For a man known for his astute approach, this represents an enormous gamble with €29.983mn per year income from UEFA for Champions League football.
So why? It can’t be a lack of recognition of the issues caused by playing players out of position, as demonstrated by the quote above. It can’t be a reluctance to spend money; over the last three seasons £40.2mn has been spent on defenders (Vermaelen £10mn, Koscielny £10mn, Mertesacker £10mn, Santos £6.2mn, Squillaci £4mn). It’s not the myth that Wenger can’t buy defenders and merely inherited his best defence; the Invincibles went a league season unbeaten with a Wenger-bought defence. And, it can’t be the concern of “killing” the prospects of players already at the club, as two fullbacks have been bought already this season.
More to the point, it’s not an issue which has only surfaced just before Christmas. If you consider Sagna-Koscielny-Vermaelen-Gibbs to be Arsenal’s first choice back four prior to the close of the transfer window and add Mertesacker and Santos to the options after that, then Arsenal have only played their first choice back four in four league matches this season, and not since 24th Septemer. Furthermore, at least one player has been playing out of position in the back four in each of the last eleven league games. Here is a table of players used by league game (personnel changes due to substitutions, red cards or reshuffles are listed in brackets):
The above table shows each player’s statistics including minutes in the back four, eventual match result, goals conceded whilst playing in defence and an extrapolated “goals conceded per 90 minutes” for each player. Players with few total minutes such as Ramsey and Walcott can be ignored, these were at points where Arsenal were chasing the game and they temporarily filled in at wingback. Also Squillaci has only featured for 9 league minutes this season, but out of position at right back after Arsenal had been reduced to 10 men at Fulham. We can further break down this table by minutes played in their regular position and minutes played out of position:
Minutes played in their regular position
Minutes played out of position
It is no surprise that the “first choice” players listed earlier in this article (Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs and Santos) have the smallest “goals conceded per 90 minutes” statistics when played in their usual positions. Surprisingly, Vermaelen’s statistics barely change whether he is playing at centreback or out of position at left back.
However it is much more telling that 27% of the total defensive minutes so far this season have been completed by a player playing out of position. To put it another way, on average one of the four defenders put out in every game by Arsenal has been playing out of position. The player most often used out of position has been Djourou at right back, and as if to prove how much this is costing Arsenal, they have lost 45% of the matches in which Djourou has featured at right back this season. Not that his single match at centreback was much better, losing 8-2 at Old Trafford. Regular readers of this site will note the frequent concern over Djourou’s defensive inabilities, and these statistics confirm that belief.
The other players’ statistics are presented above for analysis by the reader, but it is clear that Arsenal have been using square pegs in round holes for much of this season, with predicable consequences. Given the financial and footballing rewards of finishing in the top four, it is incredibly strange that Wenger has refused to bring in a specialist right back at around the £5-7mn mark, as surely it is a much bigger gamble to not do so and risk losing £30mn+ revenue from Champions League football.
With Sagna due to return shortly, the problem seems to be diminishing. But Arsenal have lost the last three matches with clear deficiencies at right back in each one, even while the transfer window has been open. They currently stand five points behind a faltering Chelsea, with a game between the two to come at the Emirates, and of course there is a huge amount of football to be played, but Arsenal fans will be hoping that the damage hasn’t already been done.