Reading 5-7 Arsenal: What Was Learned

Theo vs Reading

Blimey. I mean, seriously, what was that? Even on FIFA I would deem a 7-5 ‘a bit excessive’ (and I once attempted to play a 3-2-5 formation – to varying degrees of success). Without a doubt the most stupid and ridiculous game of football I have seen in all my (admittedly few) years, and probably the most the majority of us will ever see. Seeing a team the size of Arsenal go down by four goals is bizarre in itself and even more so is seeing any team recover from a four goal deficit, only for both to be topped by perhaps the most shocking and surprising of all: Marouane Chamakh scored. Twice. On a football pitch (fnar). Insanity reigned.

 

Here is a screenshot of the notes I made at half time. Here are the ones I made at around the hour mark. I stopped making notes at that point, and just watched the madness unfurl. A truly abysmal start saw Arsenal 4-0 down after 37 minutes. The team looked like strangers to one another; somewhere between inept and a completely uninterested from the eleven players on the pitch

 

– Of the first half notes, a few carried through right to the end: Ignasi Miquel is a talented centre back and while the reasons for playing him on the left are understandable – namely that he is capable of playing there, is left footed and there’s no fit more senior player who can, he clearly has no long term future there. He lacks the pace and the knowhow to play at full back, but he definitely has a future at centre back.

 

– There are two schools of thought on Laurent Koscielny and very little in the way of middle ground: he is either exceptional or terrible to most. Any who have seen him for any length of time know he is very, very good, but his start to the season has been appalling, by his own standards. Against Manchester City his goal rescued him from criticism for what was an uncharacteristically error-filled performance; against Chelsea he was poor and today he was quite shockingly bad. He was unfortunate with the own goal, for which Damien Martinez should have done better, but he was pushed around the pitch by Jason Roberts and was fortunate not to be sent off.  His 89th minute goal resurrected the comeback, but it was about the only thing that could have rescued his game. On this form, he has little chance of reclaiming his place in the first team from Per Mertesacker any time soon.

 

– Serge Gnabry seemed to be the only player who wanted to play until he was withdrawn after around an hour. He seemed eager to make an impression, showing off strong dribbling and long range shooting, but was unable to turn the game in Arsenal’s favour. Promising from the young German.

 

– Reading about the players coming through at Arsenal, all that I have read about Martinez is praise, with some even willing him to take Vito Mannone’s place while Wojciech Szczęsny has been injured, but his naïvety was evident. He struggled physically against crossing and was at fault for Reading’s third goal after a weak parry from a distance shot. Improvement needed.

 

– Even though Emmanuel Frimpong is recovering from a serious long-term injury, his lack of off-the-ball tracking was abysmal. He often left huge space behind him and was very susceptible on counterattacks. This was noted by many as a severe flaw of his game before his injury, while he was at Wolves, and it is something that will need rectifying if he wishes to break through at Arsenal.

 

– Theo Walcott very much strengthened the case for his being rewarded a new contract and for playing time as a centre forward. In the first half he barely got onto the ball but the goal he scored came from a run through the middle; a true poacher’s goal, as was his second (or was it third?), which made it 6-5 – a tap-in from Andrey Arshavin’s rebounded effort. In more open games he can be used through the middle. His back-to-goal work is not of a high enough standard for him to be played there every week but he can certainly be used there to positive effect, and they should be doing all they can to keep him. All you can ask from him at this stage is to prove he is worthy of the demands he is making. And it is difficult to argue with what he is producing when given the chances (which he did from the 45th minute onwards).

 

– Marouane Chamakh is not ‘back’, nor did he show that Arsenal do not need a striker in January. If anything, he showed even more that he needs to move on. He was terrible, with the exception of his two goals; which, in fairness, is a pretty large exception. He was never a bad footballer, but his attitude was awful and it was reflected in his performances. He could not have looked less interested if he tried in normal time and his two shots that led to goals were the only times he even came close to threatening. With regular game time, he could definitely be the player who Arsenal saw in his first six months, but he will never show himself at Arsenal on a consistent basis again.

 

– On Chamakh, Olivier Giroud is in no way, shape or form some new incarnation of him and the Piers Morgans of the world who have used this tag will soon look stupid in the extreme… not exactly a feat for Piers Morgan, though. His introduction changed the game; he worked extremely hard, made himself a nuisance to the Reading defence and trying to impose himself on the game. He did this very successfully, topped off by his excellent header to bring the score to 4-2. He built well on his impressive game against QPR, and Arsenal will be hoping he goes further at Old Trafford on Saturday.

 

– Thomas Eisfeld was introduced with Giroud and despite a few erratic long shots, he looked like a player with real talent. His movement and positioning are excellent – any who have watched him know his knack for turning up in the right place at the right time – and his passing was very good. He looks like a very clever and exciting player.

 

– One of Manchester United and Chelsea will go out tomorrow; Manchester City are already out. The League Cup may not be a proper trophy, but it could have its use in sending the ‘seven years’ jibes into oblivion. There is a good chance of winning it, but victory in it can only be counted as a ‘success’ if it is used as a foundation for bigger and better things.

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Serge-ing Towards The First Team

Serge-Gnabry

This piece first featured on SabotageTimes.com (link).

There was very little to be positive about exiting the stadium after Arsenal’s 2-0 home loss to Schalke, but three things stuck in the memory: the performances of Per Mertesacker and Francis Coquelin and a brief cameo from the youngest German player ever to play in the Champions League, Serge Gnabry. In 10 minutes he managed to mustre more shots on target than the rest of the side had the entire game, and looked to be the only player with the ability to break through. Just as in his other first team substitute appearances, in the League Cup win against Coventry and the League loss at Norwich, he illustrated his qualities: speed, skill and two strong feet.

 

He is relatively reminiscent of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. They can play in the same positions and share the aforementioned attributes, as well as being of a similar physical standing; neither particularly tall, but both stocky and strong, with the former sprinter Gnabry being the more athletic. The 17 year old joined Arsenal in 2011 after he was plucked from VfB Stuttgart’s youth side. He started the 11/12 season in the Under 18 side, but towards the end of the season his impressive performances saw him move up to the Reserve team, in which he scored two goals in six appearances, as well as earning caps at Under 16 and Under 17 level for Germany, with 3 goals in 12 games for the latter.

 

Arsène Wenger has spoken about him, praising his abilities and even talking him up for a spot in the first team. Before the Coventry match, he said of him ““[He] is a great hope for the future, I rate him highly. If he continues his development, I think he could play in the first team this season. At the moment he needs to work and ensure he remains fit. He [similar to] Oxlade-Chamberlain and [Theo] Walcott – guys who have great power, great pace and good dribbling skills. He has goalscoring potential and good vision as well for the final ball. He can play centrally behind the striker or on the flanks.”

 

This week he has gone further with his commendation of the forward, saying “He is a guy who can play in all the offensive positions… even play centre forward. He has a kind of efficiency in his game, and can get on the end of things. He has big potential, creative potential, finishing potential. Serge is 17 years old and strong for a boy of that age. It is difficult to compare with anyone. He is not small, he is stocky with good body balance. He glides, he is fluent.” High praise indeed from a man who has worked with the players he has.

 

Gnabry is clearly a player who has special things awaiting him if he has started as he means to go on. He looks set to start in Arsenal’s League Cup match against Reading, and if he is to follow Cesc Fàbregas’ as yet unrepeated feat of becoming something close to a first team regular at 17, he will need to make an impression in games like this. The talk of him taking Theo Walcott’s place in January, should he leave, is premature, in my opinion. There can be no doubting he is a supreme talent with exceptional potential, but he does not have the experience to take over from a figure who is as important to the Arsenal squad as Walcott is. But in time he will have as much, or possibly even more importance to the club. The last player so young Wenger talked about having a first team role was Jack Wilshere. And that looks like it will go pretty well.


Arsenal 1-0 QPR: What Was Learned

Mikel QPR

This piece also featured on SabotageTimes.com (link).

Arsenal have never been ones for making life easy for themselves. Faced with a team who had not managed a win all season and had conceded five to Liverpool (!) , they managed to look about as threatening as a kitten in a pillow fort. Another pathetically meek loss followed, this time at home to Schalke. The misery surrounding the Emirates was palpable. The home game against winless wonders QPR suddenly became vital. The over-complicated 1-0 win gave them a massive lift, one which could set them onto a run of good results, and the game revealed more about the side than the average scraped 1-0 win over a side of relegation strugglers.

 

– The most significant aspect of the day was the return of Jack Wilshere. Considering he has spent the last 15 months since his last appearance in the Arsenal shirt, he was extremely impressive. Arsène Wenger said going into the game that physically he was “about 80-85%” and his performance was about 80% of the player he was in 2010/11. As ever, he looked confident on the ball, his dribbling was stronger than I remember it being and he played as the ball-carrier Arsenal have missed in midfield since Abou Diaby’s latest injury. He was on the end of a few nasty challenges, but they caused no damage, though he did admit he was cramping up on the hour mark. It seems Wenger plans to start him at Old Trafford next Saturday; fully deserved from his encouraging performance today.

 

– Arsenal desperately miss Kieran Gibbs. Andre Santos has been given a lot of stick these past few days: most of it deserved, some of it overstated. He has looked like the player he did when he first arrived and was struggling to adapt, not the one who looked quite sound defensively who showed himself as October wore on in 2011. They are mainly missing Gibbs’ attacking influence. Santos’ first instinct when charging forward is to run inside, whereas Gibbs stays closer to the touchline. Santos’ movement limits the effectiveness of Lukas Podolski, as it forces him to play as a more orthodox wide player, which he is not. When Gibbs is attacking down the left, Podolski is often seen to run into the box, acting as a second centre forward, or towards the edge and have Santi Cazorla take his place on the left. With a more orthodox winger Santos’ runs are more destructive but playing him with the German it bordering on becoming an exercise in futility.

 

– Aaron Ramsey on the wings is a tactic that should be used more in away games in which Arsenal are playing more conservatively, looking to be more responsible on possession. At home it does not allow them to be as direct as required and makes them narrower. He looked far more comfortable after Wilshere’s substitution when he moved back into the midfield. Although he needs to work on his long passing, which is erratic.

 

– Santi Cazorla looked very tired in the second half, which he has done in quite a few games so far. It is understandable: he has moved to a more physically intense league without a pre-season after having played a summer tournament. The sooner Tomas Rosicky is back and ready, the better. He also illustrated that he has to work on his finishing through his awful miss late on. It has been a problem in other games and could have been extremely costly had Mikel Arteta not rescued them (and not for the first time). His finishing is the only thing really lacking from his all-round game.

– Andrey Arshavin demonstrated again that he has something to offer. I wrote this in September about the frustrating Russian and whether he can still be of use to the team; his technical ability was never lacking, but his motivation and physical state were. In his time on the pitch he looked committed and showed again the ability he has to create in tight spaces that even Cazorla does not have with his cross that eventually led to the goal. He even worked defensively! Depending on the extent of Gervinho’s injury, he may be getting more playing time soon.

– Gervinho’s injury, despite his unimpressive recent form, is potentially very bad news. The specifics are unknown at this point, so it may yet prove not to be serious. He is the only proper wide player in the squad, and the only others who are played there are Podolski, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arshavin and Ramsey, none of whom are natural wingers.

– It may be time to end the freezing out of Walcott, for the good of the side. The reasons for leaving him out have been understandable, but if Gervinho is out, he will be needed. His introduction changed the game and saw Arsenal’s attacks became bolder and more focussed. His future appears to be swinging towards his departure, but short of replacing him with someone better – not an easy task in the slightest, contrary to what many think – he is an important player for them.

– Olivier Giroud was very good. He flitted between being a target man, which is not his general remit, and being a team-enabling centre forward, opening up space for the rest of the side with clever movement. He himself did not get any very clear chances, but fashioned a few for others and was a constant source of irritation for the QPR defence. He is adapting to the system and style around him and it too is adapting to him.

– A brief mention for Bacary Sagna: he picked up exactly where he left off before his injury at the end of last season. He showed no signs of rustiness, he went straight back into the side and was pristine. He is consistency incarnate. Although Jenkinson has done very well in his absence, he has some way to go before he reaches Sagna’s levels.

 

– The performance was not the best, but the result was all that was needed. For a side shot of confidence, winning is the perfect remedy and ahead of the huge game against Manchester United next week, some source of hope. If they are to get anything there they will need to perform much, much better, but a team who has gone 180 minutes without scoring is unlikely to storm forth and trounce their opponents 4-0.

 

– Between now and the trip to Manchester there it the League Cup clash with Reading. It is not a proper trophy, but 7 years down the line they will take any trophy, proper or not. Manchester City are already out and one of Chelsea and United will go out this week, meaning it is a good chance to get the drought monkey off their backs. If they can claim another win there their collective confidence will only grow. Hopefully they are walking their way back to a run.


Arsenal AGM – Reaction

Arsène AGM

This piece also featured on SabotageTimes.com (link).

If the Arsenal board had been given the opportunity to move the Annual General Meeting of shareholders to any other week, they would probably have grabbed it with both hands. The general mood within the room reflected the grey skies and cold air around the stadium, following the abject defeats away at Norwich and at home to Schalke. With their recent ailing, the issues of the summer and the summer before rose back up to the fore – namely the sales of big players and the club’s overall stagnation. The board were all present, including the elusive majority shareholder ‘Silent Stan’ Kroenke, who did not do an awful lot to work against his nickname.

 

For any who have listened to or read Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis’ statements before on Arsenal’s financial position, his speeches were more of the same. He maintained that the board still wished to push forward and win titles and made a point of comparing Arsenal’s position to those around them and reiterated that they were looking towards the Holy Grail that is the enforcement of Financial Fair Play (FFP) by UEFA in 2014. He alluded to FFP being the catalyst for the club’s long term financial strategy and the security it would bring, as well as stating that they were prepared to compete between now and then. His words promised a new era, with the financial stability as the foundation for it. It was encouraging, to a degree, but the promise of 2014 has been fed to the fans before, and will be for the next two years now that, to paraphrase him, the moving process is coming to an end. The South African has a significant number of detractors, but he is becoming, if he is not already, the public face of the board, and is the right man for the job. He is well trained in PR and does take the time to respond to and meet with supporters groups, unlike notable others around him, although they apparently do not see it that way.

 

‘Silent Stan’ finally spoke and while scant, his statements were unintentionally illuminating. His brief speeches seemed like interruptions to his boredom. His hesitation in speaking was evident and unimpressive. When asked directly about whether he plans to take dividends from the club, he talked about his record with his other sporting investments – which, if you speak to fans of the St. Louis Rams or the Denver Nuggets, is not exactly uplifting – and described it as a ‘board decision’. His evasion of the point is worrying and shows that it is in his plans. He was also called out by the opinion-dividing Tim Payton, chief spokesman of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust (AST), on his official promise to meet with fan groups, which he has not done. Payton’s response elicited a huge round of applause from the floor. The closest he has come is attending the AGM, but he claimed otherwise, even though it simply is not true. Payton attempted to press him further but the situation was partly diffused by Gazidis and his efforts to move the discussion along.

 

If Kroenke was unimpressive, we will soon be needing a new word to describe Chairman Peter Hill-Wood’s performance. Any who remember 2011’s AGM will agree with the decision to give the task of answering questions to the smooth Gazidis, rather than the badly ageing, out-of-touch man who sat at the centre of the table. His closing line showed better than anything the extent to which he does not ‘get it’: a thinly veiled jibe at those he saw as intruding on private matters – thank you for your support and your interest in our affairs”. The reaction to this was as you would expect. A few in rather stunned silence, a few jeers and the odd hollow laugh. Very much reflective of the general opinion on Hill-Wood, and of the board as a collective. Too old, too detached from the fans and in need of replacing. Gazidis and Arsène Wenger are the only two members beneath the age of 65.

 

Wenger looked more subdued that his usual self; the last week appears to have taken its toll. He opened with a joke, apologising for the Schalke result, but his overall speech had a more sombre tone than others in the past have. He harked back to the 11/12 season, and the importance that finishing third has had amid the difficulties within the season, but described the downturn in fortunes in the last two games as “unexplainable”, although this was probably in lieu of being seen to make excuses. His comments on ‘achievements’ are the ones that most have run with. He ranked them in order: 1. Premier League; 2. Champions League; 3. Champions League qualification; 4. FA Cup; 5. League Cup. The ranking of Champions League football over the two domestic trophies has been a sticking point and a source of extreme frustration for many. He recounted a tale from the Geneva Managers’ Conference in which one of their number had a Europa League semi final and an important league game in their hunt for a Champions League place and was fretting over which to prioritise: the general consensus was ‘if you care about yourself, go for the semi final; if you care about the club, go for the league’. He closed with a call for unity, offering to meet unhappy fans at the end of the season, in stark contrast to the majority shareholder, who has actively avoided it, perhaps showing a divide between the board and the management. He came across, as ever he does, as someone who knew what the fans wanted, but knew what had to be done. Without a doubt the best person the club could have in the role.

 

The overwhelming feeling afterwards was that a board overhaul was of the essence. On top of this, near-30% stakeholders Red and White Holdings, chaired by Alisher Usmanov, should be allowed a say in matters, given their standing. On a personal level, I have felt for some time that the board needed radical changes, but had also thought that Kroenke was the lesser of two evils in the ownership tug-of-war that is currently afoot. Now I am not so sure. Kroenke has not put a penny in as of yet, sees no need to change this and clearly has plans to take money out. Arsenal appear to be reluctant to allow Usmanov onto the board, but it may spark the drastic changes that are so desperately needed. Gazidis receives stick but is very much the shield to the rest of the board. 2014 is the benchmark of something real in the way of change and movement forward in the eyes of the club. Until then, there are cash reserves, a fantastic manager and a squad that is a couple of additions short of being their best for some time; if success is achieved, it will most definitely be despite the board and not because of it.


Potential Worth Mülling Over

Thomas Müller is in a somewhat strange position. It seems odd to say of a player of such magnificent talent, but he has become something of a utility player for Bayern Munich. His ability to play in any of the four advanced positions has seen him used across the forward line, but predominantly behind the main centre forward or on the right hand side. Curiously, although he is the only player (including goalkeepers) to have featured in every Bundesliga game since the start of the 2009/10 season, he has voiced some reservations about his “situation“, which are strangely understandable.

 

Müller’s role has become somewhat uncertain since the emergence of Toni Kroos, who can play in a deeper midfield pair or as a number 10. Bayern barely had a full squad at any point last year: Bastian Schweinsteiger’s dislocated shoulder saw Kroos get numerous chances further back and Müller behind Mario Gomez, while a long term injury to Arjen Robben saw him get time on the right, as well. It is unknown, at this stage, whether he is will be first choice when the squad is full. On the few big occasions in which they have had no notable absentees, the DFB-Pokal final against Borussia Dortmund and the Champions League semi final legs against Real Madrid, Jupp Heynckes chose Kroos, perhaps illustrating he has greater faith in the 22 year old. His versatility means a decent amount of playing time will always be forthcoming, but he is too good a player to be a seat-filler, even at one of the best clubs in the world.

 

There is a big question as to where his future lies, positionally. He has shown he has the qualities for the wings and to play as an attacking midfielder; he has pace, strength and very good technique. He can modulate between being a tremendously direct counterattacking outlet to being a team’s central creator. He’s a brilliantly clever player, and his greatest asset is his phenomenal off-the-ball movement. When deployed on the wing he tends to roam inside and similarly drift wide when played centrally, dragging his markers around the pitch, creating masses of space for himself and the rest of the team. If the essence of attacking play lies in the ability to exploit space both with and without the ball, Müller is a master.

 

He has suffered for occasional profligacy in front of goal, but with his relative youth there is more than enough time for him to rectify this. His movement dictates that he will always get plenty of opportunities. He is very like Robin van Persie, in that sense; he was well-trained as both winger and number 10 when the time finally came to become a central striker. They share great intelligence, as well as a similar physique. Despite Müller’s technical inferiority, his ability to locate space is even better. The Dutchman is also quite a wasteful player, but he more than makes up for this flaw with his positioning and ability to create space for team mates. If the German were given a run as a ‘number 9’, he could become a striker as complete and maybe even better than the Dutchman.

 

But for Bayern, he is extremely unlikely to be given time in the position, with Mario Gomez, Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizzaro all ahead of him in the pecking order for the role. With the uncertainty over his place at the club, his disagreements with key players Robben and Franck Ribéry and the fact that his contract expires in 2015, perhaps he will end up leaving the club he supported since childhood and played for since he was 10 years old for the good of his career, if he cannot be assured of first team football when the squad is full. He has had a fantastic start to this season, amassing 4 goals and 5 assists in 6 league games – almost as many as he managed all last season (7 and 7). If utilised correctly, he could become one of the best.


Arsenal vs Olympiacos Preview

Following the highly disappointing result and performance against Chelsea on Saturday, Arsenal will be looking to reclaim their prior good form with a win versus Greek champions Olympicos. This will be the third time these two teams have met in the Champions League group stages in the last four years, with the two sides sharing two wins each, both in their respective home grounds.

 

Wojciech Szczesny remains out for the next three weeks (just as he would two weeks ago; one to look out for) and Lukasz Fabianski is also officially injured, although this did not stop him being called up for Poland at the end of August – an odd one by all accounts – so Vito Mannone will continue to play, much to the delight of friends and family of Mannone, but few others. He has not looked anything close to dependable in this brief stint but short of giving Damián Martinez a second first team start, there are no alternatives.

 

Three of the four spots in the back line are assured for Carl Jenkinson, Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs, but there is an open space at centre back. The contest between Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker is explored further in this and given the Frenchman’s relatively poor showings thus far, my reckoning is that Mertesacker will regain his place.

 

The inevitable injury to Abou Diaby created an opening for one of Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and it was anyone’s guess as to who would take his place. The news that Mikel Arteta is now a doubt after missing training on Tuesday morning means that Coquelin is now almost a certified starter. Arteta’s importance to Arsenal is likely to dictate that any fears over his fitness will see him rested, given that they should have enough to overcome Olympiacos with Coquelin in his place. Assuming Arteta will not play, my guess is that Ramsey will start; if Arteta does, I expect him to play alongside Coquelin.

 

Santi Cazorla is almost certain to start in the ‘number 10’ role. Despite his overplayed struggles my belief is that Olivier Giroud should and will start up front and Lukas Podolski on the left, and there is another chance for someone to impress on the right hand side. It appears that Walcott will not be started again until he signs a new deal, so the options are the infuriatingly inconsistent Gervinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain and perhaps Serge Gnabry, who it is said will be included in the 18-man squad. The latter is an outsider but not impossible – Chamberlain was given his first Arsenal start against Olympiacos a year ago at a similar age.

 

My prediction is a Chamberlain start. He has had a tendency to be somewhat absent in away games, meaning he probably will not start at Upton Park and Gervinho will. So a likely line-up of Mannone; Jenkinson-Mertesacker-Vermaelen-Gibbs; Coquelin-Ramsey-Cazorla; Chamberlain-Giroud-Podolski. Although now I’ve said that expect Arsène Wenger to start Koscielny, Squillaci, Gervinho and Chamakh.

 

An Arsenal side in disarray managed to (just) see off the Greeks at the Emirates last season and the home side will be fielding a far stronger side and Olympiacos, seemingly, a very different one, too; only five of the team who started at the Emirates last year were in the eleven for their 2-1 loss at Schalke in the last round of games. While for Arsenal, only Mertesacker, Chamberlain and Arteta are in contention for a start tomorrow, of their starters in this fixture last year.

 

Arsenal should be able to see off the challenge but they do have a habit of making things needlessly difficult for themselves. The absence of Arteta could be damaging but realistically, any problems will probably be of their own making. With the talent they have and their being at home, it should be relatively easy. But when is it ever with the Arsenal?


The Continuing Growth of Per Mertesacker

This piece first featured on SabotageTimes.com (link).

Modern football is entrenched in short-termism. A new signing is given all of five games to prove himself, after which he will have had his reputation made. At Arsenal, we have seen both sides of this in recent years. There is the lingering smell that is Sébastien Squillaci, who was considered a solid centre back after his early games. Yes, really. With the benefit of hindsight, this seems all the more ridiculous when juxtaposed with Per Mertesacker. Maligned by the foolish and the unaware alike after his first few performances, he has completely overturned the perception of him from some areas of the crowd.

 

His start was not the easiest and he did struggle, but only a fool would write off a defender with 75 German caps (now 82). His main misfortune came from the fact that his poorer games (Blackburn, Norwich and Chelsea – all away) were televised, and so those who saw the difficulty he was having all quickly became experts on him. Shortly after he settled he became instrumental in Arsenal’s post-crisis recovery, before succumbing to injury on the potato field of a pitch at the Stadium of Light.

 

He started the 12/13 season well paired with Thomas Vermaelen, in a settled backline (with Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs as the full backs) which kept three clean sheets in a row and conceded just two in five overall – one a penalty, the other a mistake by Wojciech Szczesny. The very, very tall German looked pristine, his perennial calmness transmitting through to the rest of the back four. The biggest challenge to confront him was Luis Suárez, a player against whom many expected him to struggle, given his speed and agility, but with the exception of one clever turn from the Uruguayan at the start of the game, he was unable to get past him.

 

His best game came away against Manchester City, where he put in an outstanding performance. Against a forward line of Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko, with the creative talents of Yaya Touré and David Silva behind them, Mertesacker was near-perfect, making a brilliant seven interceptions, not committing a single foul and completing 87% of his passes (46/53). City did not provide a great threat, and Mertesacker was a big part of keeping them at bay.

 

It was therefore a big surprise that he was moved to the bench for the following week’s game at home to Chelsea. The thinking behind it was clear: against the quick Chelsea forward line, the fast Koscielny was arguably more adept for the task. Although it baffled for many reasons: namely Mertesacker’s aforementioned good performances, Koscielny’s relatively poor game at Eastlands (despite his goal) and the ability Mertesacker showed to handle more mobile, agile players.

 

And it did not go as planned. Koscielny was far from his best and the game was lost. The game was ideal for Mertesacker: Arsenal defended fairly deep, while Chelsea did not look to play with Torres running at their defence. Mertesacker’s finest qualities are his positioning, his reading of the game, his intelligence and his calmness. Koscielny is a more athletic player, but is also a strong reader of the game. He came in at third in Arsenal’s 40m speed tests in the spring behind Theo Walcott and Benik Afobe. He often recovers from being out of position with his pace.

 

On top of this, the Frenchman is more comfortable on the ball. Arsenal will face many games this season in which they will be playing against ‘parked buses’. In these games they will look far more to dominate possession and to push their opponents further back. With this, they themselves will take on a higher line of defence, potentially leaving them more susceptible to counter attacks, thus utilising further Koscielny’s speed and aptitude in possession.

 

Mertesacker, with his height, is ideal against opponents who will seek to bombard Arsenal aerially (which is not to say Koscielny is by any means ill-suited to them) and in others when they are pushed deeper by stronger opponents, as they were at City; here, his abilities are best shown. Vermaelen, in his captain’s notes in the programme for the Southampton game, spoke of what an important influence Mertesacker had become on the pitch as a ‘talker’ and an ‘organiser’; two things Arsenal could have done with on Saturday.

 

Arsène Wenger has made clear that his preferred pairing is Vermaelen and Koscielny, but that could be set to change if Mertesacker continues how he has started. He has developed a strong understanding with the new captain and their respective traits complement one another well and give the team a solid balance. It could end up being very harsh on Koscielny, who is a magnificent defender, but with Vermaelen a certified starter, the remaining place is Mertesacker’s to lose, for the time being.