Arsenal’s off-field carnage has once more failed to address their on-field defensive chaos.

White is an undoubtedly modern player, but when will Arsenal realise the need in signing gritty, necessary, and competent hard grafters?

Rory Morrow

Lewis Dunk is somewhat underrated, overshadowed by glitzy ballers. At Brighton, he has been dwarfed by legendary leader Bruno, satisfactorily adapted to Potter-ball and now usurped by Ben White in auditions for the long-running comedy sitcom that is Arsenal FC. Have the Gunners, once more, signed unnecessarily? 

White might abracadabra Arsenal’s defence to something vaguely resembling coherent structure. But this is improbable. Arsenal’s botched defending flows from their botched systemic planning. The signing feels exasperatingly Arsenal. In the same goofball market strategy that allowed Aaron Ramsey a criminally – in football’s ridiculous, over-inflated economy – free transfer, what was the point of splurging £50Million on relevant inexperience? 

New Arsenal signing, Ben White (right), jostles with another young talent Emile Smith-Rowe in drizzly training conditions, Arsenal FC

If the current atmosphere resembles a black hole then without Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Martinelli, and Emile Smith-Rowe’s contributions, there would be a depressingly dark pit – more of a chasm really – of Bernd Leno guffaws, and overpaid senior flops flopping harder than a schoolboy bellyflop inflicted whilst pier-jumping. You know that saying, “light at the end of the tunnel”? Well, if Arsenal’s light is in their sprightly attackers, their tunnel through muddled midfield and botched tackles stretch longer than lockdown beards. Familiarity in Arsenal’s defence… haha! Good joke! Hector Bellerin is the longest-serving player but is injury hindered whilst Rob Holding, one of Arsene Wenger’s better late buys, remains, you feel, like a cast member backstage frenziedly flung into the harsh glare of centre stage. 

In addition, these defensive woes stem that from the declining Wenger days nobody so much as settled on a defensive system, never mind considering its personnel. When Wenger escaped in May 2018, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal loitered like out-of-date milk. They were fine club stalwarts yet their vulnerable stagnant athleticism was belittled further by weary bodies and often exposed by the oncoming era of pacy, gas-burning footballers fearlessly laying siege. Emery recruited David Luiz, who for all the snarky sniggers he endures, aptly reflects the disjointed chaos of Arsenal post-Wenger. Add in leader Laurent Koscielny’s bitter exit and frantic bidding for Tierney meant that Emery’s tenure was a muddled club mirrored by its slapstick defence. 

In Arteta’s opener, the back four consisted of full backs better deployed in midfield and a cumbersome Centre-Back pairing of Sokratis and Luiz. A season and a half on, defensive uncertainty continues to undermine progress. In fairness, recognising and acknowledging Saka as a more fruitful asset further forward has worked as has the slow exiles of Luiz and Sokratis who had also fallen behind with the new game of pace, lightning counter attacks and the necessity of rapidness in your defensive ranks. Gabriel and Pablo Mari’s hesitant integrations have been blighted by injury, silly suspensions (see Gabriel’s needless two yellow cards sending off against Southampton last season) and lack of continuity. 

Enter White. No defender Arsenal sign will fix their hotchpotch off-field transfer “strategy” that has derailed them with ancient centre halves and unfulfilled gizmos. White’s rewarding loan stint under Marcelo Bielsa combined with Graham Potter’s attractive, progressive philosophy means Arsenal aren’t so much signing a defender as a modern footballer. Is White, dainty in possession and passable in defending doggedly what Arsenal need? 

Peering deep into the mire of Arsenal’s defence, there isn’t much whiff of defender. Sure, you can dig through the rubble, check if Calum Chambers is rebootable or dust off Gabriel but really these players resemble ghost defenders. Sign for Arsenal to learn positional hesitancy, an inability to read danger whilst mastering the arts of botched tackles, blundering passes and replacing your gritty spine of resistance with an underbelly as soft as a marshmallow, ripe for toasting. Will White be lumbered by this? He may well win trophies and establish himself in Gunner folklore but is the Arsenal allure, still applicable? 

Potter is youthful too and Brighton have a glut of eager defenders to step in. Dunk is surely what Arsenal need. A defender who you feel would not discard all his defensive nous. A leader with many modern yet scantly appreciated attributes; agility, aerial prowess and steadily developing confidence with this new world order of ball-out-from-back, high-press, Guardiola idolised football. Furthermore, he adds a goal scoring threat and a guarantee of set pieces defended with conviction (on his part, anyway) and attacked with the Lion’s ferociousness of Aslan, leaping toweringly to conquer the White Witch of Narnia. 

Brighton captain, Lewis Dunk, celebrates his goal against Wolves last season, Brighton FC

For all Arsenal’s tiki-taka, in their Europa League departure against Villareal, they needed someone, anybody to stick the ball into the goal. Dunk provided five goals by pouncing, lashing, thrashing and stretching every head sinew last season. When teams desperately need a goal, style is not nobly applauded or what decides a trophy’s destination. Yes, Dunk has red cards against him but these are usually a result of overzealous passion, nosy neighbour VAR and rare misjudgement. Besides this Arsenal-like carnage would be well suited playing in front of the unpredictably entertaining goalkeeper Leno. Suspensions inflicted, Dunk has only missed nine games in four years. Thanks to Chris Hughton and the relentless Championship, he is drenched in resilient fortitude and crucial game management knowhow, cogs that are painfully absent in the Arsenal ranks. 

While White may flourish, his transfer alongside the gossipy move for James Maddison are emblematic of Arsenal’s inability/refusal to sign the untrendy necessary basics. Glamorous potential is where football is developing. Now, when entertainers are lauded, Arsenal are providing too much entertainment in their defending. Recent trophy winners are a blend of tenacious, sexy attacking, clinical finishing, functioning yet creative midfield and stubborn defending. Manchester City, Chelsea and Italy all represent these qualities and won major trophies because of defensive discipline. Dunk defines the dogged defender. Will this board ever see how fashionable investing in unfashionable, unflashy yet diligent, skilled workers? Arsenal may be buying the designer jeans they so craved but soon they’ll be without food. In rather Arsenal fashion, they may discover too late, their ideal of not defending will only ensure the revolving cycle of modern football’s evolution sinisterly chuckling right back at them.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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