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Arsenal “will become stronger defensively,” according to Unai Emery, after the Spaniard saw the Gunners keep a clean sheet away from home in the Premier League for just the second time in his tenure on Sunday.
Emery’s team beat Newcastle United 1-0 at St James’ Park thanks to a stubborn rearguard action underpinned by Calum Chambers. The player who spent last season on loan at Fulham earned special praise from his manager, per Ian Murtagh of the Daily Star Sunday: “Really last year was a good one for Calum because he played so many games for Fulham. After his pre-season, he deserved to play and he was very focussed while Sokratis was also very serious.”
Arsenal managed to keep a clean sheet without summer reinforcements David Luiz and Kieran Tierney. Former Chelsea centre-back Luiz stayed on the bench, while left-back Tierney is still dealing with a hip injury suffered during his time with Celtic.
The additions of both are a key part of the Gunners’ plan to overhaul a suspect back line threadbare and vulnerable in recent seasons. Arsenal conceded 51 league goals during Emery’s first campaign in charge, the same number the north London club shipped in domestic action during 2017/18, the final season with Arsene Wenger at the helm.
The problem was particularly evident in the Gunners’ travels, with a 1-0 win over Watford in April their only clean sheet away from home.
Statman Dave @StatmanDave
Arsenal already have as many league clean sheets away from home in 2019/2020 as they did in the entirety of 2018/2019 (1).
Mustafi was absent today… 😉 https://t.co/AfqoX6gXmM
Emery now believes he has better options at his disposal: “I want to have competition in every position and I think we can and will become stronger defensively.”
There is no denying Emery has more talent in defensive areas to choose from this season. Aside from the new recruits, Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin are still working their way back from injuries.
Emery offered a positive update on both after the win over the Magpies, per Football.London’s James Benge: “I want to have very competitive players in each position, with David Luiz, with Holding when he is coming to help us, training regularly and playing minutes. He is going to play tomorrow for the under-23s. Also Hector Bellerin is coming back, I think one month more.”
Bellerin’s pace and eye for a pass have been missed since a knee injury ended his season during a win over Chelsea in January. At least Arsenal have been able to rely on academy graduate Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a midfielder Wenger converted to full-back.
It’s taken a while, but Maitland-Niles has become adept in defensive areas and the demands of his not-so-natural position:
Squawka Football @Squawka
Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ game by numbers vs. Newcastle:
89% pass accuracy
4 tackles won
2 fouls won
1 chance created
Crucial at both ends of the pitch. 🔴 https://t.co/IRqNzfc4Cy
Maitland-Niles’ progression has helped the Gunners cope with injuries, but true strength in depth is needed at the heart of defence for Emery’s men to show genuine improvement. Chambers could provide it after the confidence accrued during his temporary stint at Fulham.
Chambers played as a holding midfielder for the Cottagers, but the 24-year-old originally joined Arsenal from Southampton in 2014 as a centre-back. Lapses in concentration and a worrying habit of getting bullied in the air have undermined Chambers’ attempts to become a fixture at the back for the Gunners.
At his best, though, he is quick across the deck, precise as a tackler and comfortable on the ball. All of those traits were on display in the north-east, offering hope Chambers can finally become the invaluable utility player an improving defensive unit needs.
Being stronger at the back is going to be the key to Arsenal’s success or failure this season. Emery’s squad is front-loaded with club-record signing Nicolas Pepe and Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos joining an attack already led by striker Alexandre Lacazette and Sunday’s match-winner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The Gunners’ embarrassment of riches in the final third, combined with recent frailty in defence, might have some believing Arsenal are destined for a plethora of 5-4, 4-3 and 3-2 defeats this season.
Yet the clean sheet at Newcastle is the early rebuttal to those concerns Emery would have wanted.
Knowing he can rely on squad players such as Chambers and Maitland-Niles, along with eventual starters Luiz and Tierney, has to give Emery the confidence Arsenal can earn enough clean sheets to complement a prolific forward line and book a return to the UEFA Champions League for the first time in three seasons.
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