“There’s only two things for a full-back. You’re either a failed winger or a failed centre-back. Nobody wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville.”
Those were the words of Jamie Carragher on 16th September 2013 on Monday Night Football in one of his first punditry appearances since retiring from football the previous season, and just like Alan Hansen, the Liverpool legend’s words have aged poorly.
Fast forward to 2019, and full-backs have been elevated to one of the most important positions on the football pitch.
League and continental titles have been won on the basis of teams having exceptional fullbacks that can both add solidity in defence and fearlessness in attack, and the position is slowly becoming a place in the starting XI kids aspire to play.
The boy from Barca
One of the players to lead the fullback revolution is Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin.
The Spaniard, who came to North London from Barcelona as a 15-year-old, came into the Gunners side in the 2014/15 season as injuries, typically, piled up for Arsene Wenger’s side in defence.
Since then, Bellerin has flourished into one of the most dynamic fullbacks in European football and has established himself as one of the most important players in the Arsenal team.
The appointment of Unai Emery in the summer of 2018 has only seen the Barcelona-born defender improve on his game, being more a creative force for the Gunners and putting more of a shift in the defence.
However, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for Bellerin as the Spaniard tore his ACL against Chelsea in January, ruling him out until as early as the start of next season.
It was a heart-breaking moment for the Arsenal faithful. Not only a month earlier Rob Holding, who too was revitalised under Emery, had suffered the same season-ending injury away to Manchester United, and now the Gunners are to deal with another job filling in the void left by a key player.
So who should Arsenal turn too to replace Bellerin?
When Emery joined the Gunners in the summer, one of his more surprising signings was that of Juventus defender Stephan Lichtsteiner. The motive of the acquisition was to bring in experience and maturity to a squad that needed a clear sense of direction.
Off the pitch, there is no doubt Lichtsteiner has been a boost to the dressing room and the mentoring of Bellerin. On the pitch, though, it has been a total car crash.
A 35-year-old fullback who hasn’t had real pace in some seasons isn’t exactly whom you want in your starting XI for a Premier League side, but Arsenal have resorted to this in the absence of Bellerin, and it has backfired horribly with shambolic performances against Manchester City and Liverpool.
The fans are not in favour with Lichtsteiner taking up a starting XI role for the remainder of the season, and Emery has turned to other options. Those being Arsenal youth product Ainsley Maitland-Niles and fan favourite Carl Jenkinson.
Before even managing an Arsenal game, Emery emphasised that he was excited to work with Maitland-Niles and help his development. The Ilford-born midfielder has been touted as one of the best Hale End academy products in years, and it’s easy to see why.
The England U21 international is one of Arsenal’s most versatile players, playing in multiple areas of the pitch from central midfield to left back to right wing, but with the absence of Bellerin, Emery has been keen to see Maitland-Niles fill out his role.
The forgotten man
The last and final candidate is the one and only Carl Jenkinson. A player you likely forgot was at Arsenal still until I mentioned him a few paragraphs ago.
Yes believe it or not, ‘Lord Jenko’ as he called by the Arsenal faithful, is still at the club, and Emery has actually been using him.
Jenkinson has been a regular in Europa League games as well League Cup and FA Cup games, but it was only recently the right-back made his first Arsenal league start in over two years where he started against Bournemouth in a 5-1 win for the Gunners.
Although his game time has been limited, Jenkinson might just be the most sensible option to replace Bellerin for the remainder of the season.
The 27-year-old defender has the right level of experience to be a solid enough right back in the Premier League, and when has played for the Gunners this season Jenkinson has put in positive performances for the north London side.
Losing a player like Bellerin will damage any side, but it also allows once underappreciated players to show the manager and fans what they can do on the pitch, and Jenkinson could just be that man for Arsenal.