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Thursday, 24 May 2012

Squad Review Part 2 - Defenders

Koscielny - outstanding season

Part two today of the annual squad review. This post is all about the defenders that have been involved in and around the first-team this season.

Bacary Sagna
Despite suffering a broken leg on two occasions this season Bac has once again demonstrated his quality. He is a crucial part of this Arsenal team, and we look so much better with him in the side. Theo Walcott regularly looks a far better player when he has Sagna playing behind him at full-back, and telling him where and when to make his runs.
When Sagna was missing in the middle part of the season we simply didn't have the quality to cover for him (injury to Jenkinson and Coquelin didn't help) and Arsenal really suffered. For me he remains the best right-back in the Premier League and Arsenal are lucky to have him. I hope his recovery from his second leg break (about which nothing has been done, despite the quite obvious stamp on his leg) will be a quick one. We need Sagna to be fit for as much of next season as possible.
One other thing to say about Sagna is that he loves Arsenal. Anyone who follows him or, more particularly his wife Ludivine, on Twitter will know how much they enjoy being part of things. He also scored the goal, against Tottenham, that got us going and turned the season around.

Per Mertesacker
The tall German gets a lot unfair stick for his lack of pace. It is true that he can be caught out occasionally in that regard, but proper defensive organisation from the team would negate any deficiency in that area. If I have a criticism of Mertesacker it would be that he does not use his extraordinary height to enough advantage. Too often he fails to attack the ball properly in the air, and this can cost us against the high ball. At 6'6" he should dominate everyone he challenges, and there is improvement to be made there.
The positives with the BFG are his superb reading of the game, and his excellent communication and leadership of the defence. His ability to see what's about to happen can largely make up for his lack of mobility as he is usually in the right position. It is also no coincidence that the likes of Jenkinson were rarely caught out when he was alongside them, constantly organising his full-back on where to cover.
I like Mertesacker a lot and was gutted when he got injured at Sunderland. It looks like he will be fit for Euro 2012, so maybe the three months out will have done him some good, and the time he spends with Germany will see him hit the ground running (albeit slowly) next season. I believe he will have a large part to play, fitness permitting.

Thomas Vermaelen
This will come as a surprise to many Gooners but I have a problem with Thomas Vermaelen. That problem is that he lacks defensive discipline. It would be complete nonsense to say he can't defend, as he is outstanding at it when he actually troubles himself with his primary role. The problem is that he fails, far too often, to recognise when it is necessary to do so. A number of times this season, especially later on, he was found way out of position as the opposition would score a goal. We would regularly see Vermaelen wandering aimlessly towards midfield at a time when he should have been dropping off to cover the ball in behind. Other times he would be in the opponents penalty area, having launched himself forward to join the attack, only for Arsenal to be caught on the break. Two of the goals scored by Norwich recently fit these profiles.
Vermaelen has "got away" with this kind of play in many of the fans eyes, because he pops up with goals on a regular basis. However, there is a time and a place for such a gamble to be taken. In the last minute against Newcastle, when you need a winning goal, the sight of the centre-back appearing at the far post to win you the game is wonderful. In the first-half against Norwich, when you've just conceded an equaliser and are being comprehensively outplayed at home, there is a need to regroup and get some foundations in place, before the barnstorming football can get going again. The Verminator must learn this aspect of the game as it is hampering an already porous defence. Too often this season he was carried by Koscielny, and also by the roundly criticised Djourou, and that is not good enough.

Laurent Koscielny
The standout performer in the defence this season. I couldn't believe he wasn't in the PFA Team Of The Year, such was the standard he achieved. In a defence that conceded so many goals, he really was the shining light. Things would have been so much worse without Koscielny. As far as I am concerned he is behind only Robin Van Persie as the Arsenal star this year.
Koscielny had shown the odd glimpse of this form during his first Arsenal season, though circumstances led to him being overplayed at a time when he needed to settle in to the English game. This year he has added a yard of pace, been excellent in the tackle, and shown an aerial ability not seen before from him.
At Blackburn his Arsenal career reached its lowest ebb. It was one of the worst centre-half performances I have seen from an Arsenal player. From that game on he went from strength to strength, and has established himself as first-choice. I preferred his partnership with Mertesacker to that with Vermaelen. It will be interesting to see what Arsene does at the start of next season, fitness permitting all round. If Koscielny reproduces his form of this season then he could become some player for Arsenal.

Andre Santos
The "cuddly" Brazillian is a bit of a maverick. On his debut at Blackburn I think we were all impressed with his ability on the ball, and the way he defends in a one-on-one situation. We were probably also concerned at how rarely he was in the appropriate position, and also how unfit he appeared.
I like Santos. I like his ability going forward and, when he is in position, how well he defends. The problem lies in the fact that he is probably too attacking. We shouldn't be surprised as I don't recall too many Brazillian full-backs who actually defend properly(Silvinho was about the most defensive I've seen, but he was hardly a Winterburn, was he?) One thing that Santos has done is score important goals - at Chelsea and West Brom his contributions in the attacking third were crucial to our season. Like Vermaelen it is those goals that have probably kept him popular with the supporters. The injury he suffered in Athens (he shouldn't have had to play that night) set him back at a time when he was establishing himself ahead of Gibbs. Now he must improve defensively if he is to become first-choice. Santos provides an interesting option from the bench, but his deployment as a winger (ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain) was one of Wenger's stranger decisions. I think he will become a bit of a cult hero.

Sebastien Squillaci
Arsenal announced the players being released from the Club a couple of days ago. The absence of Squillaci's name confirmed that he was put on a three-year contract when he arrived. Good God. In my view Arsenal should have paid up his final year and got rid of him.
I thought he was going to be booted out at the end of last season, following his half-time substitution against Aston Villa. Towards the end of this season he was appearing on the bench a bit too often for my liking. Squillaci is, sadly, up there with the likes of Caesar and Stepanovs. Such is the way his career at Arsenal has gone that he is an accident waiting to happen. He produced one outstanding performance this year, in the Carling Cup, but apart from that his rare outings were littered with mistakes. It hasn't worked out, and Arsenal must find a way of shipping him out this Summer. I'm sure he's a nice guy, but he's simply not good enough.

Johan Djourou
The star of the defence in the previous season, Djourou is now firmly fourth-choice. His spell having to cover for Sagna at full-back has seen his star fall further with the supporters, but that is unfair on the Swiss who was having to play in an unfamiliar role. This reached its nadir against Manchester United when he struggled so badly against Nani that Wenger had to replace him with a novice at half-time.
As a centre-back I don't have too many problems with Johan. When he gets a run of a few games he does just fine, as did Senderos before him. The problem with being fourth-choice at Arsenal is that the run of games simply doesn't come. He impressed when coming in for Koscielny at short notice against Villa in March, and signing a new contract earlier this year indicates he's here to stay. Is he good enough to become a fixture? Perhaps not.

Carl Jenkinson
One thing to say about Jenkinson is that he will always do his best for Arsenal. Having grown up as a Gooner, with a Dad who is a season-ticket holder, Carl is living the dream we all wanted for ourselves. He was thrown in at the deep end early in the season, having been playing non-league football less than a year before. He struggled on occasion, as you would expect, but once he had someone at centre-back talking to him he improved. It may have been a blessing for him that he suffered an injury when Sagna first broke his leg, as I don't think he could have coped playing so many games at this level in his first year.That could have seen the crowd on his back, and he really doesn't need that.
My favourite moment with Jenkinson came at Old Trafford, when Theo Walcott clearly felt he could bully the youngster. He could be clearly seen telling to Walcott to "****-off!" and I like the fact that he knew he could, and should, stand up to a more senior player who wasn't doing his own job properly. A loan spell might do him a lot of good, and we would probably find out if he is up to the job.

Kieran Gibbs
Now established as the first-choice left-back, Gibbs again failed to make it through the season without being annoyingly injured. When he did play, in the first half of the season, he wasn't inspiring. It looked like he would be ousted by Andre Santos, but the long-term injury to the Brazillian allowed Gibbs to come back in when he finally got fit.
Late in the season I thought Gibbs got better and better. His defending has certainly improved, but his crossing of the ball in attack has regressed further. There are still questions to be asked over his positional sense, but he is still learning the full-back position. In the final minute of the season he showed he has the desire to put it on the line for Arsenal by making the tackle that secured our Champions League place. More improvement is required next season.

Ignasi Miquel
The Captain of Arsenal Reserves, Miquel found himself involved a lot early in the season. He came on early in the home game against Liverpool and, guided by Vermaelen, produced an outstanding display. He would also play at full-back at different times in the campaign.
If he can develop physically Miquel could yet have a future at Arsenal. He will almost certainly benefit from a loan spell, preferably to a Premier League side, but his relegation in the pecking order, behind Squillaci should ring alarm bells. Kyle Bartley returning from Rangers would push him further away from first-team contention.

Armand Traore
Transferred to QPR less than 24 hours after the Old Trafford debacle. Enough said.

Nico Yennaris
Ostensibly a midfielder Yennaris played at right-back for the first-team. I was impressed by him in the League Cup tie against Bolton, where he put the experienced international Tuncay in his pocket. He is skillful, and useful going forward. The way he defended, though, was what has impressed the most.
In a rare show of faith in an English youngster Wenger threw Nico in to the fray against Manchester United at half-time. Nani had dominated proceedings in the first-half, but was marked out of the game by Yennaris thereafter.
The boyhood Gooner (he was the mascot for Sylvain Wiltord's debut against Coventry in September 2000) looks a real prospect, though a loan deal at Notts County saw him play only twice. I don't understand why that was, but it maybe raises one or two questions. Another loan will beckon next season, hopefully in a higher standard.

Daniel Boateng
The young centre-half came on as a late sub in the Carling Cup win over Bolton. He acquitted himself very well and, whatever else happens in his career, will be able to say he played for Arsenal. Will he do so again? I'm not so certain.

I'll post the review of the midfield players tomorrow.

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