Over the course of his 18 years at Arsenal, one of Arsene Wenger’s specialities has been converting players - generally new signings - from one position to another.
Thierry Henry is perhaps the most obvious example, but Henry always had the hallmarks of a forward, even out on the wing. More surprising were the positional journeys of Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure and Lauren to become reliable members of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ backline, having initially been naturals in more advanced positions.
Calum Chambers is a curious case. He’d experienced an impressive campaign at Southampton, starting just under half of last season’s league matches at right back. It seemed he would battle Mathieu Debuchy to become Arsenal’s replacement for Manchester City-bound Bacary Sagna, but Wenger saw Chambers as more versatile.
"He looks to have more qualities to play through the middle than through the flanks"
“I rate his quality and intelligence,” Wenger said. “He is only 19 and can play at centre back, right back and central midfield. I hope he will give us competition for the players in those three positions.”
However, Chambers wasn’t simply providing competition. He was thrown in at the deep end for Arsenal’s 3-0 Community Shield victory over Manchester City, and Arsenal’s clean sheet was a fine reward for his excellent display against Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic. He won the ball quickly and efficiently, also starting a fine attack from deep. “It’s impressive, because he hasn’t got a long history in this position,” said Wenger.
Chambers made his Arsenal league debut in the 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace (see graphic, below right). It was notable how frequently he made tackles (green triangles) towards the touchline, perhaps evidence of his history at right back, refusing to let opponents have a moment’s time on the ball. His clearances (purple triangles) were in more traditional centre-back positions.
His following performance, away at Everton, was more impressive for his distribution - he finished with a 96 per cent pass completion rate, the best on the pitch.
Chambers quickly established himself as a centre back who can play elsewhere, rather than a right back deputising in a central position. His first six Arsenal appearances - two in the Emirates Cup, one in the Community Shield, two in the league and one at Besiktas in the Champions League - came at centre back. It was his seventh appearance, the return leg against Besiktas, where he first played at right back in Arsenal colours, as a substitute after Debuchy’s red card.
"He’s reminiscent of Laurent Koscielny, always one step ahead, winning the ball proactively rather than waiting to see the move unfold"
Wenger sees Chambers’ long-term future in the centre. “He looks to have more qualities to play through the middle than through the flanks,” he says. “On the flanks you want explosive players. He is a strong runner, he is a good reader of the game - that helps his anticipation.”
That final quality - Chambers’ reading of the game - is so impressive at this stage of his career. For now, he lacks the physicality of many of the Premier League’s centre backs, but his anticipation skills are excellent. He’s reminiscent of Laurent Koscielny, always one step ahead of the opposition centre forward, winning the ball proactively rather than waiting to see the move unfold.
He shares a younger Koscielny’s tendency to dive into tackles a little too readily, which was particularly obvious in the 2-2 draw against Everton, but that impetuousness is natural for young defenders. Chambers has the potential to become a steady, dependable centre back perfect for Arsenal’s style of play.
“At centre back, I feel more confident than at right back,” Chambers told the Arsenal matchday programme recently. “I feel like I read the game better, I feel more assured in myself. I played at centre back when I was at Southampton Under-16s, and then a couple more times for England Under-19s. Right back can be more demanding physically, because you have to get up and down the pitch more.”
Having made his England debut in September, as a substitute right back, it’s clear Chambers has a healthy future for club and country, whatever his position. And, on that question, even he doesn’t yet know what he’ll become.
“I’ve been thinking about [my best position] for the past 10 years! I’ve played in every position over that time. At the moment, I’m enjoying it at centre half. I can play in holding midfield as well so I might end up having a go at that too...”
His development over the next few years, in terms of both position and raw quality, will be fascinating to watch.
Copyright 2022 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.