Lee Dixon. Tony Adams. Steve Bould. Nigel Winterburn. Martin Keown. David Seaman.
Lauren. Kolo Toure. Sol Campbell. Ashley Cole. Martin Keown. Jens Lehmann.
First, George Graham, and then Arsene Wenger, have managed to build two great defensive units in the past for Arsenal. While Graham managed to build a resilient, hard-tackling English unit, which lasted a good part of a decade, winning 3 championships, Arsene Wenger built a defence, mixed with both English and multicultural talent, which went on to win 2 league titles, one of which was an unbeaten campaign. This unit was more adept in going forward, and blended amazingly well with the talented array of players going forward.
However, over the last few seasons, the Arsenal defence, which had been renowned for so long, has disintegrated, and is a thing of the past. Arsenal shipped out Lauren, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, by 2006. Taking their places were young Swiss centre-backs Phillipe Senderos and Johan Djourou, along with Kolo Toure’s Ivorian teammate Emmanuel Eboue and Ashley Cole’s understudy Gael Clichy. The defence put in some massive displays in Europe as Arsenal went on to the Champions League final, before eventually losing. William Gallas was soon added to bolster the defence. The defence had some much needed experience now, in its heart and had two bombing full-backs. And, by 2007, Arsenal had signed French international Bacary Sagna to replace the erratic Emmanuel Eboue, who played second fiddle. Arsenal came so very close to silverware, before Eduardo suffered a horrific injury.
By 2009, the last of the Invincible’s defence, had gone, as Kolo Toure departed for Moneybags City. Arsenal secured the signature of a tough tackling Belgian centre-half Thomas Vermaelen, to partner William Gallas. Also, joining was former Manchester United defender Mikael Silvestre. In January, Wenger resigns Sol Campbell on a short term basis. But, a spate of poor performances, and Campbell, Gallas and Silvestre were shown the door. Phillipe Senderos, who has turned out for AC Milan, and Everton in the last couple of seasons, finally leaves on a free transfer. In came, two more unassuming Frenchmen Laurent Koscielny, and Sebastien Squillaci. The club has had a host of goalkeepers in this period, including Jens Lehmann, Manuel Almunia, Lukasz Fabianski, Vito Mannone et al. By 2010, Arsene Wenger handed a contract to young Academy graduate Wojciech Szczesny. In the summer of 2011, Arsenal let go of Gael Clichy, to Moneybags City, while snapping up Brazilian interbational left-back Andre Santos and German centre-back Per Mertesacker.
So, after all the circus that’s taken place, Arsenal’s first choice defence reads,
Bacary Sagna. Laurent Koscielny. Thomas Vermaelen. Andre Santos. Wojciech Szczesny.
While, the second choice backline reads,
Carl Jenkinson. Per Mertesacker. Johan Djourou. Kieran Gibbs. Lukasz Fabianski.
With reserves such as Nico Yennaris, Sebastien Squillaci and young Spanish defencer Ignasi Miquel. The question I am asking is how good is Arsenal’s defence. Let’s take a look.
Szczesny has been a breath of fresh air. He is passionate, young, talented and determined. He seems to be the answer for all of Arsenal’s goalkeeping woes in the past, and has pulled off some amazing saves this season. He is a fine goalie, but he isn’t the best when it comes to facing free-kicks.
On quite a few ocassions this season, the two Rooney free-kicks at Old Trafford, Larsson’s free kick in the Sunderland game and the Pedersen dead ball goal against Blackburn are proof. Szczesny was a bit late in reacting, and failed to read the flight of the ball, and when he did, he had little time to react. He has saved some mammoth penalties this season, including the di Natale one in Udinese and Dirk Kuyt against Liverpool. He remains the best bet for being goalkeeper in the coming seasons for the club.
The French right-back has gone from strength to strength, and is probably the best right-back in the league. His performances have been consistent throughout the season. Defensively, he has the ability to break down attacks from the left, with ease. He showed his tenacity against players such as Martin Petrov, Stewart Downing and Gareth Bale, essentially left-wingers. However, when up against very skillful forwards, Sagna does tend to get caught out. For example, Luis Suarez or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic managed to waltz his way past Sagna numerous times, in the 4-0 thumping at the San Siro. What Sagna does best is provide the right platform for Theo Walcott to bomb forward on the right wing, while himself being able to provide thrusts from the back.
The emergence of Alex Song is vital for the good form of Bacary Sagna. What Song does best is rotate in the midfield area right in front of defence. This gives Sagna time to drop back. Though on some instances, Sagna gets caught out when the balls are played far behind him, and he is up against a pacy winger.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Koscielny is Arsenal’s most improved player this season. He must have felt, what can be called as a ‘culture shock’, when he arrived from Lorient at the start of last season. He was seen as a weakly built defender, who could not get to grips with the pace of the Premier League. However, this season, we have seen nothing short of brilliant from Koscielny. He has been comfortable in dealing with top strikers, the likes of Ba, Aguero, Ibrahimovic, Sessegnon and Adebayor.
What helps Koscielny is his nimble movement, which allows him to transfer his weight while defending against quick opponents. A clear case is how he kept Messi under wraps last season against Barcelona. His reading of the game has improved. In the second leg against AC Milan, it was quite visible the number of interceptions he managed to make. Another feature of Koscielny’s game is getting behind the striker, and taking hold of possesion in crucial positions. By early January, Koscielny ranked 1st in the league in between center backs for tackles at 2.7 per game, 1st in the league between center backs for interceptions with 2.8 per game, 2nd overall with 1.6 off-sides won per game and 30th overall with 5.7 clearances per game. He has put in some fantastic performances this season, which include the win in Marseille and at Chelsea, also the second leg against Milan.
As Arsenal’s best defender, Vermaelen brings a lot to the team. Sorely missed through the entirity of last campaign, Vermaelen has played lot more games this season, more so at left-back. He is probably today’s version of Tony Adams, and what Arsenal have missed for so many seasons now, that little bit of steel at the back. Vermaelen, despite his short stature, can get over the striker, to make vital clearances, while his tackles also possess bite. His abilities also mean he has filled in at left-back, which has been a problematic spot for Arsenal this campaign.
The Belgian also brings with him natural marshalling abilities. He knows how to organize defences, to brace for an attack or a corner. His ability going forward is also unquestionable, when he thumped in important goals, namely the equalizer against Fulham, and the winner against Newcastle. What Vermaelen, at times, does lack, is alertness. In the Spurs match, he left acres of space, for Saha to score the first goal. And, against Manchester United, he was not quick enough to react, allowing Valencia to score the opening goal. Also, he can be suspect to that extra bit of injection of pace, as was visible against players like Bale, Robinho and Suarez.
Santos was signed from Fenerbahce on the last day of the transfer window. He has since appeared 14 times, before his season was cut short in the meaningless Champions League game against Olympiakos. Santos has it in him to be Arsenal’s left back for the next few seasons. He is adventurous, pacy and scores goals. He did take some time to settle into Arsenal’s style of play, but when he seemed like staking down his place, he was dealt with the injury.
Santos loves going forward, probably because of his Brazilian genes, and the fact that he has to fill the boots of a certain Roberto Carlos. He can really bomb up and down the pitch, and scored two fine goals, one against Olympiakos and the other against Chelsea. However, criticism is that he forgets his defensive duties far too often, and that puts pressure back on the central defenders.
Fabianski is a bit of a question mark, still. He is usually deployed in cup games, and dead rubber ties. He was horrendous in the Olympiakos game, but did manage to pull of some fine saves in the cup games. However, he is still second best to Szczesny, and I expect him to leave in the summer, for more first-team football.
Jenkinson, all of 19 years old, was signed from Charlton during the transfer window, and was thrown into the limelight very early, against Udinese in the Champions League and Liverpool in the Premier League, coming on for injured players. He also played in that game at Old Trafford. However, as his performances gradually began to get better, he suffered an injury.
Jenkinson, like Sagna loves to go forward, and like Santos, forgets he is still a defender. Gareth Bale, proved that for a few minutes in the league game in October. Jenkinson needs to work on his pace a bit, and also balancing between defence and attack.
Mertesacker, like Santos was a deadline day signing, probably a desperate signing, rather. He struggled at first against pacy opponents in the Premier League. For example, the game against Norwich, where he was completely caught unaware, or even against Fulham, where he came up against the physicality of Dempsey, Ruiz and Zamora, and against Swansea, where he had to contend with the quick Swansea passing.
However, Mertesacker’s performances have gradually improved. He has vast experience at the international level, donning the German shirt over 70 times. He may lack a bit of pace, but his reading of the game was second to none. His performance against Manchester United stands out, where he kept Danny Wellbeck, the swift striker, quiet for large parts of the game. But, unfotunately even his season has been cut short by injury.
Let’s put this into perspective. Johan Djourou is not a bad option for 4th choice centre-back. He has been at Arsenal for 8 years now, and has represented Switzerland 30 times, and he is just 25. The problem with Djourou is, he just cant seem to put in that performance where he can quiet the critics. But instead, he goes from one shambolic display to another. But, is it really his fault that he was played at right-back for most part of the season, whereas his favoured position is centre-back. He had a torrid game against Fulham, and a pathetic game against Manchester United, where he was subbed at half-time. He conceded a penalty against Milan, without which, we had a great chance of going through
Flashes of optimism remain though. He was massive last season, more so in the game against Barcelona where he kept the best attack on the planet, unusually dormant. He played remarkably well in a few games this season, out of position, as well as providing a fine assist in Marseille. Yes, but he still needs to do a lot of work on his defending as well as his pace, if he wants to be a success at this club.
Gibbs comes from a long line of left-backs in the Arsenal production centre, which has produced the likes of Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy and Armand Traore, all of whom ply their trade elsewhere in the league. Gibbs, essentially, is very similiar to the player I mentioned, in terms of his game. He is defensively sound, and good going forward, and does have the ability of scoring an odd goal in a season.
He does have pace, but at times can be easily knackered by bulkier, more physical opponents. However, he seems willing to improve. He is all of 21, and has put in a fine performances this season, in the few times he has played. I do expect Arsene Wenger to keep Gibbs as second fiddle to Santos.
Yennaris has been one of the revelations this season, though not to the scale of, say, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He played in the League Cup games against Shrewsbury and Bolton, but his biggest performance, was against Manchester United, when he came on to replace a hapless Djourou. He tracked Nani exceptionally well, and never allowed the Portugese winger to get in some decent crosses. He provides good stability at right-back.
One of Arsene Wenger’s poorest signings, again, though, I have to say, he is not a bad player to have as 5th choice centre-half. He has appeared over 20 times for France, and has experienced French and Spanish football. Of course, the English game is a completely different ball game, and at age 31, I wouldn’t expect Squillaci to flourish much. He could be shown the door at the end of the season.
Another young player to look forward to, Ignasi Miquel looks a polished young defender, at the raw age of 19. He has put in some good performances, usually out of position at left-back in the League Cup and against Manchester City and Swansea in the league.
So, now that we have seen Arsenal’s defenders, what really is Arsenal’s best defensive unit.
At right-back, there can be no question about Bacary Sagna. He has been Arsenal’s most consistent player over the last 4 seasons.
At centre-back, Arsene Wenger has a pleasant problem on his hands, as he gets to choose between 3 world-class defenders. While Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, look a great pair, and complement each others styles, Thomas Vermaelen adds that extra bit of steel to the defence. I think Laurent Koscielny is one of the first names on the team sheet. The choice between Vermaelen and Mertesacker is a tough one, but I think Vermaelen just edges it.
At left-back, too, Arsene Wenger has a happy problem. Andre Santos has bags of experience, while Kieran Gibbs is young, raw and English. I think Andre Santos edges it here, because of his overall play.
So, the answer to the question, how good is Arsenal’s defence?
Martin Keown, in an interview recently told that Arsenal’s defence is as good as any other in the league. I certainly think so, they are. A defence of Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen and Santos looks strong on paper. Arsenal need to stop making ridiculous errors, if they are to win any silverware next season. They have already conceded 39 goals in just 28 games, and that number needs to reduce.
I am no big football analyst, but Desi Gunner is. I read this amazing article, about Arsenal’s defensive issues. It is a must read.
Jai Arsenal 🙂