Craig Burley says Arsene Wenger is talking more nonsense than ever after his comments about not changing Arsenal’s style.
When Arsenal sold Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool, they effectively got £40 million for a utility player. For all his talent, the Ox never nailed down a regular position in the Arsenal XI, and spent the last few months as the immediate deputy to Hector Bellerin for the right wing-back role. While losing Oxlade-Chamberlain is not a major blow, it does leave the Gunners without recognised cover for Bellerin. For Thursday night’s Europa League tie with FC Koln, it could be that teenager Reiss Nelson is afforded a chance to shine in an unfamiliar role.
Wenger is going to have to find a wing-back somewhere. Despite speculation that he would switch to a back four for the Premier League clash with Bournemouth, he stuck with three central defenders, suggesting that the system is not going anywhere in a hurry. The left side position is not a problem, with both Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac capable of marauding down that flank. However, on the opposite side, Bellerin is the only natural wing-back.
With a hugely important Premier League clash with Chelsea just a few days away, Wenger is likely to rotate his side heavily for Koln’s visit. The question is: Who will step in to afford Bellerin a rest? Calum Chambers and Rob Holding have both had stints at right-back, but neither seems to have the athleticism or technical ability to play in a more advanced role.
Francis Coquelin might well have been a surprise contender. The midfielder has had spells at both full-back positions, and briefly played as a left wing-back during a loan spell with Freiburg. He might not be known for his forays into the final third, but he has the tenacity and the stamina to be an effective blocker on that flank. However, the Frenchman’s hamstring pinged to spectacular effect against Bournemouth, and he’s likely to sit out the next few weeks of action.
Mathieu Debuchy might now view this as an opportunity to get back into first-team contention. Debuchy is very much the forgotten man of the Arsenal squad, and fans will be wondering how he’s still at the club. Despite being clearly surplus to requirements, he has clung on to his place in the Gunners squad — presumably due to other clubs’ unwillingness to meet his salary. In his prime, Debuchy had many of the core attributes required of a good wing-back. However, there must now be real doubts about his ability to withstand the physical demands of the role. What’s more, at 32 and with only a year remaining on his contract, it hardly seems sensible to embark on the project of converting Debuchy to a new position.
Instead, Wenger is likely to opt for a younger talent. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is certainly an option — he’s extremely versatile, having played as a winger and a centre-half already in his young career.
It’s time for Arsenal to give Reiss Nelson more game time to see what the youngster can do.
However, it’s Nelson the fans will be eager to see this week. Wenger has already publicly intimated that the decision to sell Oxlade-Chamberlain was partly informed by the desire to grant Nelson a path to the first team. He’s a hugely exciting player who in every outing for the U-23s seems to confirm he has outgrown academy football. Not since Jack Wilshere broke through in his mid-teens has there been this kind of optimism about a young English player at Arsenal.
Nelson is not, by trade, a wing-back. He’s more comfortable operating as a supporting forward, but he has to be realistic about his chances of getting game time in that role. Wenger has regularly used youngsters out of position in order to round out their game, and Nelson would undoubtedly benefit from assuming some defensive responsibility.
Going forward, he has everything you’d want from a wing-back. He’s quick, skilful and remarkably confident for a 17-year-old. He drives at defenders at every available opportunity, demanding the ball from more senior teammates. There’s a fearlessness about him that is thrilling to behold.
Bellerin may not need a rest yet, but Nelson needs this chance. He’s in a rich reign of form, and should be blooded with the first team while his confidence is high. Playing as a wing-back isn’t ideal, but Nelson’s talent seems enough to overcome that mild inconvenience. Come Friday morning, Arsenal fans might just be saluting a bright new star.
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.