Ring Out The Old, Ring In The New: The Defenders
These are, of course, the words of Lord Tennyson, a favourite poet of mine who I fancy would have been a fan of The Arsenal had his life played out just a wee bit differently. That line gains relevance as I sit here: the season has ended and I consider exactly what, if anything, significant has come out of 2010/2011 from the perspective of red and white. Of course, it’s not just the past that interests me, but also the coming years, next season in particular.
Last July and August fans were engaged in debate on the issue of what changes the club would see in the coming season. Perhaps the most significant of these predicted changes centered around whether or not there would be major additions to the squad, with a close eye paid to the defense, which needed strengthening. Most people I know took the argument that a new keeper was of primary importance, since neither Almunia or Fabianski were suitable to wear the #1 shirt. As the transfer season came and went there was dismay over the fact that Wenger did not sign a new keeper; rather he chose to keep Alumina and work on Szczesny while planning on keeping Fabianski as a second choice. This worked well until Almunia began to suffer from making mistakes and losing the confidence of supporters and Wenger himself. An injury gave Fabianski a chance to prove he can be better than he had been at the end of the 2009/2010 season.
At this point many started to lose hope even though it was early in the year. Our second place keeper became our #1 for much of October-December, but when he sustained a serious shoulder problem, Szczesny took over and did an amazing job. For such a young keeper (20 at the time he took over in goal), he was truly sensational week to week and his hard work, dedication, and love for the club shone through and not only gave people hope, but for a while at least many of us believed we no longer needed to buy a new keeper. At the moment these talks seem to have settled somewhat, Szczesny having found his way into the hearts of many fans (even David Seaman, Arsenal legend, has reportedly said he believes the young Pole to be the answer, though it may take a few years).
Yes, the back four; perhaps the one topic that has seen as much talk as the Cesc-Barcelona love affair. After having a couple centre-halves leave the club at the end of the 2009/2010 season there was serious worry about our strength at the back. Vermaelen proved himself to be top class last year and had he stayed fit this season things could possibly have turned out differently for us, but that was not to be as his prolonged achilles “problem” kept him out for nearly the entire season. In his place Wenger brought in Sebastien Squillaci, an experienced defender with many titles and accomplishments behind him, and the relatively inexperienced Laurent Koscielny, who had never before played top flight football. The former seemed to fit in first, showing some skill and confidence at the back for some of his early games, even scoring a goal in the Champions League against Partizan Belgrade. The issue came to be that, perhaps due to his inexperience in the English game, he seemed to lose confidence as mistakes or misreadings of some plays by English opposition crept into his games. Needless to say, he has fallen out of favour with fans, though I still consider him valuable for his experience.
Djourou took over as the favourite starting centre half after Squillaci ran into bad form. The Swiss defender was crucial to our play mid-season and arguably was the most important player in starting us on that decent run we had between November and February. He seemed to make the right clearances, solid decisions when it came to tackles, and was excellent at marking his man. An injury sustained in the horrific 4-4 draw against Newcastle, though not season threatening, would mark the beginning of a period when he seemed tolose some of the sharpness had shown previously. Towards the end of the season he too began making some mistakes and wasn’t as effective as he had been early on. I think he’s been amazing for us this time around and would love to see him get some games in next season.
Koscielny started his first league game by getting a red card against Liverpool, leaving us with questions as to his possible contribution. As the season went on, however, he proved to grow as a player and performed very well (we shall never forget how he kept Lionel Messi in his pocket in the first game of the Champions League against Barcelona, still one of the highlights of the season for me). He could be rash at times, making questionable tackles that, in certain circumstances, gave away penalties (let it never be said, however, that he came close to producing as great an error as Eboue did in the 1-1 draw against Liverpool, one of the lowest points of the season). I think Koscielny has shown enough to give him a shot at finding a place next season, though it may be in a cup side, rather than in the Premier League. Of course, this all depends on whether or not Wenger buys during the summer, which is, if nothing else, completely uncertain.
Clichy has been having difficulties at left back of late. Though he’s a strong player and always first choice for his position, he has weaknesses, primarily in his decision-making and his lack of ability when it comes to crossing. We’ve seen it time and again: an opposition winger comes down the left side and Clichy tackles and regains possession, but he has this thing where he needs to play the ball around rather than clearing it or making the safe play. This has gotten us caught on more than one occasion and it’s perhaps his single worst quality. Gibbs has been used in cup ties and shows promise that one day he may take over as the first choice at the left, which is what I’d like to see, though injury has hampered his progress at the club. He plays the ball forward in the opposition half in a way that’s more effective than Clichy and tries to get himself and the ball into areas that can result in a cross or even a scoring opportunity.
Sagna has been a solid rock for us this year and, with the exception of a couple games when he wasn’t at the top of his game, he always gives 110%. He’s scored a couple of goals and is a decent crosser, perhaps our best. He thinks quick on the ball and closes down attackers in his zone of influence. He’s the kind of player you really miss when he’s not on the pitch and I see no way Wenger will be replacing him during the summer. Eboue, while having some good moves on the ball, has not been there for us when we really needed it. I hate to rate a player on one game, but the penalty he gave away against Liverpool was one of the laziest challenges I have seen this season. If Eboue leaves I would not be surprised, regardless of how much he contributes to the locker room in terms of laughter and attitude.
I’m not the type to recommend specific transfer targets for whom I think Wenger should make moves toward; he’s Le Boss and that’s his area and I am nowhere near qualified to make such suggestions. That said, I do think it’s important he buy at least one defender of quality who is familiar with the English game; he need not be English, but should have played English football for a number of years to have gained the experience that the recent buys Wenger has made lack. A large, vocal, commanding and committed centre-half would be the single best acquisition Wenger can make during the transfer window and I will be looking forward to seeing just what materializes over the summer.