Calum Chambers has had a surprising renaissance this season. Solid on the opening day at Newcastle, after a month out of the side, he slotted into the right-back position seamlessly, providing the solidity that Ainsley Maitland-Niles failed to in the opening part of the season.
Chambers looks like a player who’s determined to carve out a future at Arsenal, and his passion has been warmly received by fans in an era of severe leadership deficit at the Emirates. However with Hector Bellerin now fully fit, Chambers’ time as first-choice right-back, as good as he’s been, now looks limited.
He will continue to provide a valuable alternative on the right side of the back four this season, but it appears his biggest opportunity to cement a spot in the starting XI will come in central defence. With that in mind, can the Englishmen actually displace Sokratis or David Luiz this season, and establish himself in the Gunners’ side? It’s been a long time coming.
A covering player Arsenal lack
A key asset Chambers has working in his favour is that his skill set as a defender are complimentary in their differences to the skill sets of Arsenal’s two senior defenders, Sokratis and David Luiz.
Chambers is a covering player and can provide balance to a backline that is often drawn to the ball. Part of the issue with Unai Emery’s defence this season has been the lack of a covering player.
Both Sokratis and Luiz are ‘proactive’ defenders, who prefer to leave their line and take risks in order to snuff out danger earlier, and present more attacking opportunities by winning the ball higher up the pitch. While this approach is a vital part of any modern defence, the fact that both these players follow a similar approach means an already risky style is exacerbated.
An ideal central defensive partnership is based on balance: a proactive player and a covering, reactive player who tucks in to cover as their proactive partner moves to defend in anticipation.
Think Koscielny-Mertesacker, Touré-Campbell or Adams-Keown. These successful combinations at centre-half were hallmarked by their balance of attributes. Where one was weak, the other was strong. Sokratis and Luiz are not this. They often don’t cover for each other, both are instinctively drawn to the ball, leaving space in behind for opposition attackers to move into.
Mistakes are made by every team’s defence in every match, but a big part of why Arsenal’s mistakes are so obvious is that there’s no one to mop up when they’re made. Such a gap presents Chambers an opportunity to forge a partnership to secure Arsenal at the back this season.
An understanding with Rob Holding
With Rob Holding finally back from injury, many Arsenal fans have been crying out for his immediate insertion into the starting line-up, after an impressive half-season last year before being cruelled by injury.
Since the start of 2018-19, Arsenal have conceded an average of 0.76 goals a game with Holding in the starting line-up, and 1.34 without him. For all his impressive performances, however, Holding remains a work in progress and consistently swapping his partner in defence will have a detrimental effect on his development in the long-term.
Holding and Chambers are friends – they’ve even lived together – and have an understanding the other Arsenal central defenders simply don’t. Given Holding’s flexibility in terms of which side of the pitch he’s comfortable on, and the style he plays (he can be both proactive and reactive), pairing him and Chambers seems like a viable experiment for Arsenal.
Implicit and instinctive understanding between central defensive pairings is a key element of their success. There’s no doubt Chambers and Holding know each other well, and it might just be the key to creating a more secure rear-guard at the Emirates.
What’s stopping Chambers?
Ultimately, Chambers’ reputation is still holding him back. There are still question marks, and rightly so, about his overall defensive ability.
Although he’s played well at right-back, this position is generally less exposed than centre-half, with errors in possession and position covered for by the other three players on the line, as the full-back is rarely the furthest player back and mistakes wide on the pitch leave the attacker with longer to get to goal.
Chambers’ success at right-back can also be partly attributed to the low base of performance with which he is being marked against. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, admirable in his application, is not a defender by any means and isn’t particularly good at any defensive attributes, however basic they may be.
Ultimately, to move Chambers to centre-half would risk undermining the confidence of a player finally beginning to find his feet at the Emirates. After all, he was dropped by Fulham last season, one of the worst defensive teams in Premier League history, as he stood out for his poor form in a team that included Dennis Odoi as a regular starter.
Unless Chambers has made some drastic and lasting improvement to his game in the last six months, it’s likely that he simply wouldn’t add anything more than balance if inserted into centre-half. A return to this position may simply result in a return to the Calum Chambers we saw in 2017/18 – shaky on the ball, uncertain in the tackle, poor in the air.
It’s make-or-break for the young Englishman’s career. Never has there been a better opportunity to break into the first team at Arsenal, particularly at the back.
If he can’t hold down a centre-half slot now, Arsenal fans will know once and for all that he’s not at the level required. If he can, though, the Emirates will have its newest cult hero. Move over, Rob Holding.