Balance and Imbalance, Volume One: The DefencePosted: April 24, 2013
This is the first in a set of three articles covering Arsenal’s outfield areas as themselves and the good and bad in each one. Rather than make it one ridiculously long article, it made more sense to try and evaluate across three.
Despite generally being filled with competent individuals, Arsenal’s defence has been fraught with various differing issues for a tedious amount of time. The problem this season has been balance, in most individual areas and in the team collectively. This has mostly manifested itself in the midfield and hence has had knock-on effects on the defence, but the back line itself has also had its troubles with it.
Going into this season, the expectation was that the first choice centre back pairing would be new captain Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny, the latter coming off an excellent 2011/12 season. However, an early season knock to the Frenchman gave Per Mertesacker a chance to re-earn his place after his solid first season. Koscielny’s injury was to prove a blessing in disguise to some degree.
It restricted the regularly-disappointing Koscielny-Vermalen partnership. It could have worked sublimely as a sort of innovatory defensive pivot, but it just did not, for a few reasons. The two players are stylistically similar as technically adept ‘ball-winners’, prone to attacking the ball. The main reason it did not, or rather has not worked, is that neither are prone to talking and organising; there is no direction as to which attacks and which covers, while neither are particularly strong in the latter department. Both being defenders reliant on their mobility, they often act on their instincts to attack the ball, especially Vermaelen, often leaving a plethora of space behind them when together, not aided by their willingness to push into a suicidally high line.
On top of that, Koscielny is far more comfortable on the left side of the pairing, despite his being right-footed, but this space is occupied by the left-footed Vermaelen when they are together. His positional discomfort led to an even more unsettled backline and rendered him (even) more error prone. It was not quite doomed to fail, but they have not yet been able to make it succeed and nor should it be allowed another chance to do so.
With the captaincy initially making Vermaelen a near-certified starter, Mertesacker had claimed the spare place. Theoretically, this pairing should have worked better than it did. Mertesacker’s lack of pace forces the defence to place themselves closer to the goalkeeper, which was far from a bad thing. But a combination of Vermaelen’s over-exuberance in attacking the ball and charging forward and the minimal protection in front of them left Mertesacker with a lot of ground to have to cover, with which he struggled. The lack of protection was the killer for this pair, but they exacerbated the issues between themselves. Early signs suggested that they had finally managed to keep a lid on the Belgian, but as the season wore on he slipped into his old habits. It is not that he is at fault for all of their defensive woes – far from it – but he is the player most exposed by the way they play and his supporting cast.
Vermaelen’s style is very much high risk and reliant on his excellent recovery and strength in the air. His raw aggression is a brilliant trait if he harnesses it well. His style is not a problem if his anticipation and spatial judgement are sound – the problem is that has has not, and they have not been for some time. That being said, spatial misjudgement was far from uncommon even when he was on top form, but he was often helped by a partner who was somewhere between Koscielny and Mertesacker, in the form of William Gallas. He is not entirely incompatible with the two, as long as the rest of the team is set up to accommodate, but there is nothing to say he cannot be replaced by someone better-fitting should he, as expected, join the list of departures.
He has been cast out of the side by Mertesacker and Koscielny, which is a brilliantly symbiotic relationship. The Frenchman shares the same basic instincts as Vermaelen, but he is far more measured, disciplined and, frankly, much better with (most of) them. He is an excellent defender, as long as he has that organising, calming presence next to him, which the German is, but he is better suited to playing alongside him than the captain. They have been helped by generally having Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey in front of them, but they have also shown greater aptitude under pressure after that barrier has been breached.
In terms of the summer, they definitely need one centre back, given that there are only three there now and should Vermaelen leave, they will need another. There is a question of which one of the now first choice two to ‘upgrade’. An upgrade on Mertesacker would be a defender with his qualities but quicker and slightly more aggressive. Adding those to Mertesacker’s own ability to exude such calm and maintain order so well in the back line is a £20million defender – Koscielny’s performances with and without him are illustrative of this. A player more similar to Koscielny is required: one with whom he will hold strong competition – preferably one less frantic than Vermaelen and more compatible with him.
Mertesacker has also cultivated a strong understanding with Bacary Sagna and has been instrumental in bailing him out on a few of his poorer performances this season. There is no denying Sagna is not the player he was before he two leg breaks, but a look at the midfield in his stronger and weaker games this year is interesting: almost all of his worse performances have come with Jack Wilshere in the deeper role. Wilshere’s high up positioning often means Arteta is a lot further infield when Sagna is looking for a ball out of the defence and when they are being attacked, leaving him more open to being run at, which he is less able to deal with now. Unfortunately, it now seems Sagna’s departure is inevitable.
Carl Jenkinson has had a good season but is still not ready or technically proficient enough to be first choice yet. There is talk in some areas that Héctor Bellerín will be promoted to fill the open space. It would be a huge ask of the 18 year old but, as the cliché goes, if you are good enough, you are old enough. It remains to be seen. Personally I would prefer a signing or, best of all, Sagna to re-sign, but the latter appears impossible. Sagna has been close to the perfect full back, brilliant defensively and adding great presence going forward, even if his crossing has been several shades of abysmal since his injury return. He has not had a great season but replacing him will be no easy task.
On the other side of the backline there is the intriguing battle for first choice between Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs. The latter’s tendency to take the ball to the opposition byline when attacking makes him a very threatening outlet, but his crossing is worse than Sagna’s has been. Monreal is the stronger defender and the better crosser, but is far more reserved, and tends to hang closer to the edge of the 18-yard box than really charge forward. It will be interesting to see how the situation plays itself out; my preference is Gibbs in home games and against bus-parking oppositions and Monreal in bigger games, in which they will look to maintain as much defensive stability as possible.
The defence has been a source of frustration and anguish for some time, but the issues within the unit are very much solvable. The likelihood is that there will be two sold and two or three brought in. The midfield has been a big cause of their troubles but the aforementioned issues it has had in itself have only made them worse. There have been clear strides towards fixing the defence as the season has worn on, if coming a little late. And who knows what difference a reliable defence could make.