Arsenal’s defence instils confidence once more
This post first appeared on Life’s a Pitch.
In the six years it has been since Arsenal lifted a trophy, there has been one common factor throughout: a problem with our defence. Whether it’s been a dodgy goalkeeper, the defensive personnel or trouble with set pieces, it’s nearly always been our downfall.
There have been several high-profile defensive mistakes at Arsenal over the past six years. Manuel Almunia has made a large number of them – for one, his fumble against Birmingham in March 2010 signified the beginning of the end of Arsenal’s title challenge. That season had seen us still in with a chance of lifting the trophy late in the season, but defensive mistakes, among other things, saw us fall away. Losses to Tottenham, Wigan and Blackburn – all littered with goals that should have been easy to prevent – were the final nails in our coffin for that season.
While other things have contributed to us not winning trophies (refereeing mistakes and injuries come to mind – these can also be traced back to St Andrews) it has long been the case that defensive troubles have been one of the main reasons that we’ve struggled for consistency. The fragility has always been clear to everyone, and you could sense that a mistake could come out of nowhere at any time.
Now, things seem to be different. Arsenal’s first choice defence finally seems to be one to be proud of; the reliable Wojciech Szczesny, one of the best right backs around in Bacary Sagna, our solid vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen, the ever-improving Laurent Koscielny and the enthusiastic (yet temporarily injured) Andre Santos. Left back is arguably the only first choice position which can be questioned – Santos has only been at Arsenal for a few months, and although he’s shown good signs he’s still yet to be tested to the best of his ability.
However, Arsenal have been a lot more solid in defence of late. Szczesny has proven himself as a top goalkeeper worthy of his position, Sagna has always been top quality, Vermaelen has few remaining critics after a storming first season, and Koscielny has set about proving all of his nay-sayers wrong with some outstanding form. Santos has also provided calm and experience, despite his liking to maraud forward – which has in fairness improved our attack too.
In fact, a case could well be made for Koscielny and Vermaelen potentially being the best central defensive partnership in the league. They haven’t played together at the heart of the defence as much as Arsene Wenger would have liked due to various injuries, but when they have they’ve impressed.
The perennial high line seems to have been ditched in favour of a more efficient, versatile style, and the Gunners have had far less problems in the air – be that from set pieces or from long balls. While not the tallest pairing around, Vermaelen and Koscielny are both deceptively strong in the air, and the statistics back that up.
While it may be too late for Arsenal to mount a proper title challenge this season due to a late awakening because of Wenger’s apparent wish to press the snooze button until the end of August, we seem to have sorted out the problems that have haunted us season upon season. The spine of the team is now strong, and we have a tough, efficient base to build upon. Without the shakiness at the back the rest of the team can feel more at ease and more able to do their own jobs, instead of worrying when the next defensive cock-up will come.
Not only have we improved our first choice back-line, it seems obvious that our back-up options are better now too. Instead of the often-erratic Eboué (see the penalty he conceded against Liverpool at the Emirates last season) we have the young, hard-working Jenkinson – while he is still learning, he has incredible stamina and a wicked cross. At centre half Squillaci is making fewer appearances thanks to the shrewd purchase of Per Mertesacker; although he has made a couple of errors, he’s still getting to know the Premier League and has given us a vital boost of experience, according to Robin van Persie. Johan Djourou now seems ready to fill in whenever needed effectively across the defence too, instead of destabilising our defence like he once did. And Kieran Gibbs now offers a more reliable alternative at left back than he did a few seasons ago (when he’s actually fit!).
So you can keep your Gary Cahills (overrated and not at all versatile) and your Christopher Sambas (definitely not what we need, thanks) because we’ve solved our defensive problems on our own. As the old saying goes; Arsène knows.