After Arsenal’s goal-less draw against Liverpool on August 24, the Gunners’ form has been on a see-saw. The North London club registered shut outs against both Newcastle and Stoke City, and in the second match especially, despite winning 2-0, it felt like Arsenal were capable of far more. An optimistic fan might have hoped for better things on the horizon, to believe that the half-dozen missed chances against Stoke might become two, perhaps three more goals in their next match.
Instead, they were godawful.
The next match they dropped 2-1 to Dinamo Zagreb, handing the Croatian side their first ever victory over any Premier League club. ‘Handing them’ is perhaps unfair, as Dinamo played a very good game—but Arsenal looked lackadaisical throughout.
The following weekend, Arsenal saw nine men on the field finish out their 2-0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. With suspensions and an FA post-facto imbroglio to deal with in the game’s fallout, Arsenal needed to refocus, and would have to do so in a place packed with thousands of fans intent on making sure that focus was the last thing the Gunners would enjoy: White Hart Lane.
Mathieu Flamini came, saw, and conquered North London. The Frenchman’s two goals (and, if you haven’t seen the second, you really should do yourself the favor) gave Arsenal the edge over their arch-rivals, and the Capital One Cup fixture—a match that, with different opposition, would have been all but an afterthought in Arsene Wenger’s calendar—reignited a sense of positivity and capability in the fans.
Again, that spark would carry through to a second game, as an Alexis Sanchez hat-trick helped Arsenal thump Leicester City for five goals, winning 2-5 and ending the home side’s unbeaten streak this season. Again, that momentum would stall. Again, Arsenal would help assure that a club who have historically struggled in England would enjoy a historic night in Europe.
If you’re a neutral football fan, then a game with five goals is something you’d eagerly sign up for; if you’re an Arsenal supporter, Tuesday’s 2-3 loss to Olympiakos was an ugly affair. In their previous 12 games against Premier League opposition, Olympiakos had a -36 goal differential. If you put that into the context of a full 38 game EPL season, that would put them on pace to end the campaign with a -114 goal differential.
And then Arsenal came along, saying Hey, have you seen the back of our net? It’s just lovely, you really should come round sometime—and bring that football with you!
In 90 minutes at the Emirates, the Greek side tripled the number of goals they had scored in the previous 12 games.
The Gunners’ roller coaster form has many arguable causes, and although their occasional wastefulness in front of goal is without a doubt a key factor in Arsenal’s form this season, the heart of the problem lies in the center of defense.
Despite a clogged calendar of fixtures in multiple competitions, with several weeks including two match days, Arsenal’s 2-5 win over Leicester saw Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker paired as Arsenal’s two center backs for the first time in more than a month.
In recent years, the partnership between German and French internationals has been the cornerstone of Arsenal’s defense. Yes, the emergence of Hector Bellerin has helped greatly. Yes, Francis Coquelin’s unexpected meteoric rise has also been very helpful to ease the pressure.
Still, it is nonetheless Koscielny and Mertesacker by whom Arsenal’s defense lives and dies.
Some might point to Arsenal’s opening match—a 2-0 loss to West Ham United—as evidence that Koscielny and Mertesacker are no magic solution to Arsenal’s woes. Indeed, they did both start that game, but their presence alone is not enough. It is their partnership that is key.
Despite the friendlies and the training ground, regardless of Community Shields and Emirates Cups, no team hits the season opener in perfect match-ready form. And since that first match this season, due to a combination of illness, injury, and squad rotation, Mertesacker and Koscielny have not been afforded the opportunity to grow into full match fitness as a partnership.
For Olympiakos’ third goal on Tuesday, which came less than 60 seconds after Alexis’ equalizer, Arsenal looked to be a team desperate for both clear communication, and sound leadership at the back.
When at their best, Arsenal’s two top center backs have been lovingly dubbed Mertescielny by the Arsenal faithful. This season, we’ve seen Arsenal concede soft goals to derail what might otherwise build into a good run of form; we’ve seen Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker both play a handful of games, twice even playing together.
We have not seen Mertescielny.
If the Gunners are to challenge for the Premier League title, or have any prayer whatsoever of qualifying for the Champions League knockout rounds, we’ll need to.