Arsenal have been struggling since the beginning of the season, losing their identity and failing to keep up with the outrageously high tempo the Premier League pushes them to. Despite the threatening attacking players, the lack of balance between the lines and the fragile defence has torn the team apart and left them conceding 34 goals in the league this season. That’s only two less than Watford who are 19th (in the relegation zone) fighting to stay in the top tier.
Their ex-captain, Mikel Arteta’s arrival on charge did make things feel and look slightly better when it comes to the Gunners’ motivation and connection. But the overall picture still looks like a puzzle with tons of missing pieces.
By changing players’ roles and trying to improve their performance individually, the Spaniard managed to tighten up the lines and make them look structurally better. But there are no (and should not be expected) signs of Arsenal playing on their potential anytime soon.
And to start with the changes needed, you’d directly point out to the defence, but what would make the difference and be the first step to strengthening the backline would be improving their midfield performance. Many of the team’s struggles this term have come due to the lack of communication and a good connection between the lines. The defence itself needs an immense improvement but what would affect Arsenal’s performance immediately is having strong support in front of them.
Speaking of defensive improvement, Arteta needs to find a way and bring the best version of the players as soon as possible. He would be able to start this long process by working on their understanding and decision-making. He needs to focus on finding the best partnerships at the back and make them look like a well-oiled machine. What Unai Emery previously failed to do is pick the right players against the right opponents. Let’s take the centre-defenders – picking up two players with the same weaknesses and having no one out there to cover them seemed like the worst-case scenario.
The problem is that there was no one to pick from. And that is something the new manager needs to check on his list. The January transfer window is close to its end and Arsenal were linked with a few defensive players, ending up signing a loan deal for the Flamengo centre-back Pablo Marí on whom we will do an analysis in this scout report.
Background and abilities
Marí has struggled to find his place throughout the years. He signed with Manchester City in 2016 but didn’t get the chance to play for them. He was loaned for the consecutive seasons in Girona, NAC Breda and Deportivo La Coruna.
Last summer, he joined the Brazilian Flamengo permanently and featured in 22 of their 38 Serie A games, winning the league 16 points clear.
Marí has proved to be a good passer, helping a lot with both retaining possession in his own half and helping with the build-up from the back. Being confident on the ball and managing to slow down the tempo, despite the opponents pressuring him is one of his best qualities. His range of passing is impressive as he reached an average of 91,3% accurate passes in the past year.
Being able to circulate the ball at the back but also distribute it further has been crucial in his time at Flamengo. He contributes with perfectly measured long balls directly to the opposition half which have a huge impact against teams applying high press and pinning their opponents back. His ability to bypass the press with chipped balls or switch play could help a team immediately come into a better position and quickly transition into attack.
As a left centre-back, he covers quite wide areas, often positioning past the midfield line too. His intelligent positional play and tactical awareness helped his teams to keep their structure and cover the gaps. His physicality makes him great in the air, where he wins a huge amount of his duels. That instantly turns him into a good option for both defending and attacking set-pieces. He could be frequently seen in the opposition box helping out as an indirect set-piece threat.
Marí sounds like the perfect new addition, but he also comes with his flaws. One of his best attributes – playing the offside trap, could be one of his worst enemies too. At Flamengo, he most frequently played in a high line, where he mastered playing the offside trap effortlessly. But that’s where his lack of tackling abilities and aggressiveness come in place. He rarely dives into tackles and is most likely to be outrun by the opposition, which is extremely dangerous when the team is caught on a counter.
Due to his weaknesses, as the current Arsenal defenders, he needs a teammate to create a connection with and cover each other’s flaws.
Arsenal’s defensive issues and how he could fit
As already mentioned the Gunners struggle in many of their defensive actions. The amount of conceded goals is a result of multiple errors. Some of them being the lack of ability to defend set-pieces, being extremely vulnerable on a counter (and respectively committing fouls in dangerous areas five penalties) and losing the ball in key areas.
Defending set-pieces – Arsenal’s disastrous performance when defending set-pieces has cost them a lot this season. A combination of aerial inability and complete lack of positional awareness has resulted in them conceding 10 goals from set-pieces in the Premier League so far. Their wrong marking strategy was the reason for many of them on its own, but combined with the poor record in their aerial duels proved to be the breaking point.
Marí could be extremely helpful for improving that part of their defensive actions. His aerial performance and positional awareness might be the extra touch that Arsenal need in and around the box when defending set-pieces.
Counter-attacks and committing fouls in dangerous areas – The team conceded a goal after a counter-attack only once so far, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their defensive transition is good. They concede four counter-attacks on average per 90 minutes and it is safe to say they can’t handle them well.
Due to the full-backs attacking involvement and the centre-back pairing’s lack of good timing, Arsenal have been exposed on quite a few occasions so far. And what is their worst habit so far is committing fouls and individual errors in dangerous areas. The Gunners conceded five penalties and that’s only a small part of what they’ve experienced as a result of their mistakes.
That is an area that Marí might not necessarily be able to help the team. Due to his pace and tendency to not risk running with the opposition, hence not diving into any tackles, he would either do fatal mistakes or need someone to constantly cover him from behind.
Despite that, Marí is pretty solid in his defensive duels, winning 70,3% of them, which is a tad better than both players in the current centre-duo. That’s mostly a result of his confidence on the ball and his decision-making. His way to prevent the opposition from reaching their half would be using his positioning and tactical awareness to limit their movement and block the passing lanes.
Losing the ball – Losing the ball in key areas is another part of Arsenal’s issues. They have struggled mostly after losing the ball midway, but the defenders’ actions have been crucial too. Since Arsenal often allow the game in their own half and tend to build-up from the back, they need a solid defender who can keep on the ball. Marí seems like the perfect solution, as his record is way better than those of Mustafi and Luiz. He loses the ball barely 5,42 times per game (Mustafi – 8,61; Luiz – 7,34), but what is even more important is that only 42,3% of these losses are in his half (Mustafi 47,5%; Luiz – 51,6%). He also recovers the ball most frequently amongst the three.
Is he the player Arsenal need?
As mentioned, it mostly depends on the pairing at the back, but Pablo Marí could be a solution to some of Arsenal’s defensive problems. His tactical awareness and confidence on the ball could be crucial especially when the team is being pressured and forced back. He might not be the best choice against teams that counter frequently but with a good amount of work and strengthened connection between the lines it could work out. Signing him could be a step forward towards Arsenal’s defensive transformation.