A Deep Dive into Arsenal’s Right-Back Dilemma
By Mac Johnson
Arsenal are having trouble selecting a right-back at the moment. Ordinarily, there would be a clear hierarchy, as there has been for most of the season, but our right side has looked so leaky recently that questions must be asked about the personnel. Mikel Arteta answered some of those questions, by starting Ainsley Maitland-Niles in recent games, and to his credit, the Englishman was one of our better performers against Southampton and Everton, but he’s much more adept at the right-wing back role he occupied there, as opposed to the true out-and-out right back. And so, our selection dilemma continues. Here, I’ll take a deep dive onto the pros and cons of every right-back we have on offer, and hopefully get one step closer to figuring out who is our best option.
Hector Bellerin: The Pros
For starters, he is our best true right-back. I think few would doubt that claim. He’s top of the assist charts for Arsenal in the league this season, and has looked sharp going forward on a number of outings. He’s also very handy in possession, especially considering his skill at playing on the touchline. He also has good repartee with two other Mikel Arteta favorites, Willian and Rob Holding, who often bookend him on the right side. He’s a leader in the team furthermore—remember, he was elected co-captain by the players under Unai Emery—and he’s often central to the build-up for most of our goals (I know, small sample size), given that he’s one of maybe five players in this squad capable of beating somebody one-on-one using his pace. He’s a pretty solid defender when he allows himself to play out wide, and snuff out opposing wingers. He had good feet, and is hart to put off balance. However, he’s in a rut of form, and his confidence is shot. As we saw during Project Restart, he’s a world beater when his flag is flying high.
Hector Bellerin: The Cons The ACL is a big issue. Not because it’s bothering him, or preventing him from being selected. It’s a problem because he’s lost a step. He’s more consistent than he was two seasons ago, but he’s also two yards slower, and significantly less aggressive. Worse than that, he clearly still has trouble trusting his body. He often avoids heavy confrontations or large sprints, I believe partially because that’s how he got injured—a long sprint into a heavy challenge. His other issue is tucking in. Not the shirt, that’s an excellent decision. No, Bellerin almost refuses to defend wide, possibly because he’s afraid of being beaten. Often, and especially on opposing counter attacks, Bellerin slips inside of Holding, playing like a third center-back. We saw it against Aston Villa, and they tore us apart. So did Spurs. So did Wolves. Hell, even Leeds should have. Holding just doesn’t have the pace to cover those areas, and if you’re expecting Willian or Nicolas Pepe to defend those areas, think again. His connection with Willian and Holding, does also have some downsides. Our right side is dead going forward, partially because the three of them lack dynamism and inventiveness. Our game against Burnley was the most damning demonstration of that; I can’t count the number of times I saw them pass it between themselves, with no objective in sight and no cutting edge. Frankly, he’s just not as good as he used to be, and unless he can recollect his previous ability and form, his starting place will be in question. Cedric Soares: The Pros
By far the most experienced of the three players we have available, Cedric is also the most dependable right-back. He won’t ever set the game alight, but he’s solid at the back, and decent going forwards. He won’t give you many 8/10 performances, but he doesn’t often drop an absolute howler. He’s frankly average, but goes out every game doing what’s asked of him. If Mikel Arteta looks to implement a more defensive right-back in the near future, Cedric is likely the best candidate available. His best skill is his positioning; years of underdog performances at Southampton have taught him the skill of trapping wingers that are much faster than him. Cedric Soares: The Cons We can’t settle for average. Arsenal fans have been clamoring for a switch-up on the right side, with Cedric Soares often the beneficiary of that inquest, but it’s not that simple. There’s a reason Mikel Arteta didn’t start him against his former club when Bellerin was suspended. Cedric is a good player in his own right, and seems to have established a home in our Europa League squad, and as a backup for the Prem squad, but can’t quite make the breakthrough, which makes sense. He can no longer hit the heights of his 2016 EURO dominance, and we shouldn’t expect him to. He is, simply, not good enough to start week-in, week-out. He’s a decent backup, and I will trust him if both of our other options get injured (God please no), but he comes at a comfortable third on this list.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles: The Pros
Maitland-Niles, as per usual, is the intriguing option on this list. He’s a utility player through-and-through, able to succeed just about anywhere on the pitch, including the right side of a defence. He’s long demonstrated his willingness to play there too. He’s the quickest of the three, now that Bellerin has lost a step, and is by far the most dynamic too, as evidenced by his play against Southampton. He actually created chances off the right, and his movement gave the Saints some troubles, something we haven’t seen in a while. He plays with—and there’s no other word for it—swagger. And it’s really fun to watch. And he’s competent in one-on-one situations too—his unique combination of tenacity and composure means he can be a tricky customer, though he is noticeably better when the attacker drives at his strong foot.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles: The Cons Positional play is a big one. Wherever he plays—wingback, fullback, or midfield—he has a penchant for being slightly relaxed about his positioning on the field, and often relies on his physical talents to get him level. And, as has always been the criticism surrounding him, he’s too relaxed in general. His unbothered demeanor and constant smile is a blessing when Arsenal are leading, but can be frustrating if you think he’s not showing enough effort. Additionally, his laid-back demeanor contributes to his amazing composure, but can also cause a loose pass in a dangerous area, as it has before. He never changes his approach to the game, regardless of the opponent, which is to be commended, but at the same time, he’s never the voice shouting to get stuck in. He’s not a leader on the field, not yet anyway. And in order to claim that starting role, he might have to start speaking up. He’s also not a natural right-back, which isn’t a con necessarily. There’s just the chance it takes him time to readapt to playing on the right of a back-four. And time is one thing we don’t have enough of.
Final Verdict Maitland-Niles should start, at least in upcoming games in this busy schedule, as the most phsycially able. Benching Bellerin could be just the thing to light a fire under him, and Cedric isn’t good enough. The 22-year-old looked bright against Southampton and Everton, and we’ll need his pace to deal with the threat of Timo Werner against Chelsea But unless he wants to commit himself to the right-back position permanently, he’s not a long-term option. I still want to see Maitland-Niles through the centre of the midfield, and I actually think we could really use him there right now, to combat some of our mobility problems in that areas. In all likelihood, Bellerin will regain his starting berth, despite not deserving it in the slightest. But in the event someone else starts, all eyes will be on them to prove they’re good enough.