Arsenal Need Bac to Sagna New DealPosted: October 18, 2013
Around this time a year or so ago, two things were commonly accepted among many Arsenal supporters: Bacary Sagna was way past his best, and he would be leaving in the summer. For a healthy proportion, the latter line of thinking strengthened the widespread acceptance of the former. It was sad that his exceptional – yet nowhere near as illustrious as deserving – Arsenal career was drawing to an end like this; so meekly, brought about by injury and with no trophy to show for his understated brilliance, but it appeared to be the only possible outcome.
The great ‘change’ in Arsenal’s 12/13 campaign is mostly acknowledged as having come in the 2-0 away win against Bayern Munich, but for Sagna himself it had come a few weeks prior. As Arsenal made their way to Sunderland, Thomas Vermaelen had been ruled out injured, while Laurent Koscielny and Ignasi Miquel made the trip despite being major doubts. The grim expectations were realised when Koscielny pulled out in the warmup, and Miquel was not fit enough to start. Sagna was shifted to centre back, with Carl Jenkinson drafted in to cover at right back.
Alongside Per Mertesacker, Sagna was sublime. And after Jenkinson’s red card, they had needed to be. It was the start of Sagna’s up-turn. Despite picking up an injury and missing the following few weeks (including Bayern away), he looked like himself once more upon returning. The injury rest had been his first time out since returning from the second leg break in October 2012. His remarkably swift recovery and instant return to form after the first break made it easy to forget the magnitude of the injuries. The second time around he was again thrown straight back in, this time against QPR (in October), without even a game with the reserves beforehand. It is testament to Sagna, that he was expected to have few, if any, re-teething issues.
As it happened, he (quite understandably) had some problems. The major difference in the side after the match at the Allianz Arena was, of course, the partnership of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta in central midfield. It was first pointed out to me by the excellent @RasDamAFC that almost all of Sagna’s poorer performances in 12/13 came with Arteta being partnered with Jack Wilshere. Wilshere’s high positioning meant Arteta had to sit further in-field which removed or affected Sagna’s easiest passing option and left him more open to being attacked. Theo Walcott’s lack of protection did nothing to help, either.
His only poor games since have been against Manchester United and Aston Villa at home. In the former, Ramsey was often higher up the pitch as he was tasked with pressing Michael Carrick, while against Villa, the midfield pairing was Ramsey and Wilshere, which is a defensive disaster zone. Otherwise, he has been consistent, reliable and wonderfully committed at every turn – just as ever he was.
He is not quite as athletic or fast as he was before his injuries, meaning he commits somewhat less going forward, but he remains a superb defender and outstanding right back, and his performances at centre back have most encouraging. That being said, his being used as both is a source for worry, if defensive injuries get in any way out of hand. But at the same time, the only position in which ‘super quality’ is more difficult to find than centre back is full back. Sagna is a rarity among those in his position. Most full backs are attackers who were moved back in their late teens or early 20s after being not good enough to make it further forward. For the majority within that, defending is an afterthought.
Héctor Bellerín differs from that basic outline in one very significant way: he was moved to right back at 16. He has been conditioned to think about defending from a far younger age than most in his situation and, by all accounts, it is showing in his progress. The most stylistically similar ‘full back’ to him at the moment is Jordi Alba, who is great to watch going forward because he is still a winger by mindset. He is defensively suspect because he is still a winger by mindset. He was only moved back at 20-21 and only became a full time left back when he was signed by Barcelona. Bellerín’s extra years as a defender are having the expected effect, while he still attacks like a traditional winger. He is in the process of becoming a very, very good right back.
But it remains a process, and it is currently in its infancy. Bellerín is 18 and has all of 10 minutes of professional game time to his name. And they came in central midfield. If he is seen as the heir to Sagna’s throne, it is at least two years away from coming to fruition. And however much he has improved, Jenkinson is only marginally readier than Bellerín is. Having Sagna and Jenkinson as the right back options make sense, just as having Sagna and Bellerín would; Jenkinson and Bellerín as the only two right backs – as early as next season – in a team that hopes to contend for the league and the Champions League would be insanity.
There has been talk about signing another right back, but as alluded to earlier, good right backs are extremely difficult to find. Sime Vrsaljko and Martín Montoya are two names that have been mentioned but they are 21 and 22 respectively and, just like pretty much every other attainable right back, they are inferior to Sagna. He is the ideal mentor to Jenkinson and Bellerín and will not stand in the way of either’s development. Sagna deserves a two year extension; Arsenal would be out of their minds not to give him one.