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Arsenal’s defense key to successful 2015-16 season

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In somewhat of a recurring theme in recent years, the 2014-15 campaign for Arsenal was a tale of two halves.  Following a 2-0 New Year’s Day defeat to Southampton, the Gunners were sitting in sixth place in the table and there were serious doubts on whether the north London outfit could extend their streak of 17 consecutive appearances in the Champions League group stage.

Nevertheless, the Gunners went on an absolute tear following the disappointing defeat to Southampton, winning 13 out of their final 18 league matches (only losing two games in the process) and finished in third place of the league standings.

While the Arsenal offense received plenty of praise for the turn around, as goal scorers generally do, the main contributing factor for the hot streak was in fact the team’s defense.

Over their last 18 Premier League matches during the 2014-15 season, Arsenal’s defense only allowed 11 total goals, while recording eight clean sheets in that particular stretch.  The team’s impressive record during the second half of the season was a total team effort.

Goalkeeper David Ospina was called upon following the benching of normal number one goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, after the Southampton match.  Ospina, who was in his first season as an Arsenal player, took over the reins and subsequently started every league game over the remainder of the season.

Although Petr Cech will now take over as the starter between the posts, Arsenal should seriously consider holding on to Ospina as the team’s backup, rather than the 25-year-old Szczesny.

Spaniard Nacho Monreal was a bit shaky at the start of the campaign, as he was forced into being deployed in the central defense for a chunk of the first half of the season.  However, the 29-year-old started 14 out of the final 18 league matches at his normal left back position and was nothing short of outstanding.

On the right side of defense, starter Mathieu Debuchy was injured for much of his freshman season in north London.  Teenager Calum Chambers performed quite well at the start of the 2014-15 season, but then began to fade as the campaign progressed.  The England youth international made 13 league starts at right back, but may be forced into central defense or even defensive midfield due to lack of pace.

Once Chambers began to show signs of fatigue, 20-year-old Hector Bellerin stepped in the Arsenal starting XI and didn’t look back.  The former Barcelona product made 15 out of his 17 Premier League starts after January 1st and was one of the surprises of the season (the other will be mentioned shortly).  The speedy defender was fantastic in his first full season with the senior Arsenal squad and will surely only get better with time.

The defensive midfield position has been a bit of an achilles heal for the Gunners in recent years and the team looked content using Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta once again during the first half of last season – that is, until then 23-year-old Francis Coquelin was recalled from a short-term loan at Charlton Athletic in December.

Although most Arsenal fans groaned at the thought of Coquelin taking over the defensive midfield role, the Frenchman was arguably the second-most important player of the 2014-15 season for the Gunners (behind superstar Alexis Sanchez).  Coquelin’s tough-tackling and keen eye for interceptions gave Arsenal the exact type of player that they so desperately needed.  The midfielder was rewarded for his excellent play by receiving a new long-term contract by the Arsenal brass.

Along with the aforementioned Cech, Monreal, Debuchy, Bellerin, Chambers, and Coquelin, Kieran Gibbs, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, and Gabriel Paulista round out Arsenal’s outstanding depth and talent in defense heading into the 2015-16 season.  If the Gunners can keep their momentum going, especially on the defensive side, the north London team will be challenging for the Premier League title come May.

 

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