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Friday, 12 June 2015

Squad review part two - Defenders

Mertesacker and Koscielny

This is the second part of the squad review, focusing solely on the defenders. There have been a number of defenders who have made at least the bench this season, and some have had better campaigns than others...
Mathieu Debuchy
Signed to replace Bacary Sagna he fitted in superbly at the start of the season. Despite lacking a little in height he was almost as good as Sagna in the air, and his better crossing meant that nobody noticed the join. Having got off to such a good start it was no surprise to see him get a bad injury (a total freak) against Man City. He was out until shortly before Christmas, and was then pressed in to action at centre-back. He wasn't unsuccessful in the role and scored his first goal for us at Anfield. Shortly in to January came the arrival of Stoke City and Debuchy was crocked again - nothing freak about this one as yet another Stoke thug banjaxed an Arsenal player with a totally needless act of violence. The FA did nothing about it and our only other sighting of Debuchy came as he was forced in to two hours of his worst display in an Arsenal shirt (understandable after three months injured) in the FA Cup semi-final. This saw him injured again and out for the season.
I like Debuchy a lot. He is much better than I thought he was when I watched him playing for Newcastle. It will be interesting to see how he goes if he can get a decent run without injury, but Bellerin is very much in the frame to play in his stead from now on. For my money Debuchy is still our best right-back, but his Arsenal stay might not make it beyond this time next year.
Kieran Gibbs
Gibbo will be disappointed with his season. Again he was to suffer his usual list of injuries - he is simply too fragile at times. When he did play he played pretty well (though he was also poor in the semi-final) and in the last two Premier League games it looked like he might have played himself in to the side for Wembley again. As it was he missed out on the big occasion this time and this needs to be a real warning to him.
Kieran got back in the England squad - regardless of not being in the Arsenal side he is still the best English left-back there is at the moment - and his defending continues to impress. He has got better and better in his positioning, is very good in the air, and tenacious in the tackle. I wish he would learn to cross the football as it really isn't that difficult and lets him down so often. He did contribute a superb equaliser at Anderlecht with an excellent volley on the run. A big season beckons for him next time around.
Per Mertesacker
Before Christmas he was simply dreadful. The BFG looked a busted flush and was consistently having to be carried by whoever lined up alongside him. By his own admission he struggled for motivation following the World Cup. After Christmas he got back to his best and, in the FA Cup Final, was truly outstanding - he actually jumped to win headers against Benteke! Necessity meant that, despite his poor form early on, he had to remain in the team. When Arteta got injured he took over as skipper and thoroughly deserved to share the lifting of the Cup at Wembley. The signing of Gabriel certainly seemed to have an effect on Per as there was no longer a comfort zone to sit in. I'm not sure how much longer he has at this top level, but few players read the game better than him and that makes up for his lack of speed so often. Oh, and he got his third Wembley goal to make it 3-0 against Villa.
We haven't actually seen that much of Gabriel since he arrived in January. His biggest impact has been that his sheer presence in the squad has seen Mertesacker step up his game. When he has appeared he has looked a no-nonsense kind of centre-half. He is very tough in the tackle and looks decent in the air. He is also quick across the pitch and the early signs are encouraging. Having been eased in this season he will be looking to kick on come August.
Laurent Koscielny
Our best defender by far. To me he is World Class and getting better and better. I was so relieved when he signed a contract extension. Arsenal look twice the team when Koscielny is available and he works so well alongside Mertesacker.
He came in to the season with an Achilles injury but Arsene couldn't give him the rest he needed as he hadn't signed another centre-back before the window closed. There were times when Koscielny was visibly limping heavily late on in games, even well in to the second half of the season, but he never stops working. By and large he has cut out his tendency to make a silly foul in and around his own penalty area and he concentrates much better now. It's a shame he's not a bit more of a vocal kind of player as he would surely be an ideal Arsenal Captain if he were.
Nacho Monreal
Few players in the World can have improved as much as Nacho did this season. Having missed out on the World Cup last year I thought he would leave Arsenal to try and get a regular game back in Spain. He lacked pace and was so often done for positioning that he didn't look a good Premier League defender. That has all changed.
Nacho was forced to fill in for Koscielny quite a lot in the early part of the season and he took to that role brilliantly. Yes, he got caught out once or twice as he naturally moved towards the left, leaving a small gap that could be exploited by decent players, but it wasn't his fault he was playing out of position like that. When he got to play at left-back he made the position his own. There was an extra yard of pace, a greater appreciation of where he needed to be at the right times, and his goal at Old Trafford was special indeed. We now have two quality left-backs at Arsenal and it will be a great battle between them next season.
Calum Chambers
Young Calum burst on the scene at centre-back for Arsenal and the media quickly had him in the England squad. One or two Arsenal fans got carried away and started comparing him to Bobby Moore. Some of us, though, were extremely cautious about a young man who kept making late fouls and getting booked. Something wasn't quite right. I think plenty were willing to offer the benefit of the doubt as he had never played at centre-half before he arrived at Arsenal and, if nothing else, with the ball at his feet he looks a fine footballer.
The answer to what was wrong came at Swansea. The sad fact is that Chambers is slow. Very slow. Pacy wingers beat him far too easily and you can only scythe them down once without getting sent-off. After Christmas he appeared only sporadically and he is certainly a work in progress. For me he should be loaned out next season to see if he can cut it in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger certainly can't seem to work out what his best position is and I fear he might have spent £16m of our money on a bit of a pup.
Semi Ajayi
Who? Semi can actually consider himself a bit unlucky not to have made an appearance for Arsenal having been on the bench on four occasions before Christmas. Again his presence was due to the fact that we had no centre-backs to replace Koscielny. For a youngster to constantly see Monreal or whoever being played out of position, in your place on the pitch, must make you realise the Manager doesn't really fancy your chances. Loaned out later on it came as no surprise to see him released yesterday on a free transfer.
Hector Bellerin
Following the game at Dortmund, when he was thrown in quite unfairly, I had the impression that Hector might not make it at Arsenal. Certainly he looked more likely to go out on loan in January than to become the regular Arsenal right-back. I believe the intention had been to loan him out last August but it didn't happen.
The injury to Debuchy, and the roasting Chambers got at Swansea, meant that Bellerin got another opportunity and he took it in a big way. His positioning isn't great, but he has the kind of electric pace that cures a lot of ills. Going forward he can be excellent and his goals against Villa and Liverpool were of the highest quality. My big fear with Hector is whether or not Barcelona start to view him in a  Fabregas type way, and that he views Barcelona in a similar fashion. Only time will tell, but if someone had said after Dortmund that he would start, and star, in an FA Cup Final victory you'd have laughed them out of town.
Stefan O'Connor
The youngster came on, out of position, at Galatassaray and looked understandably out of his depth. He is tall and rangy, but I don't know if he's got it. Needs a loan spell.
Carl Jenkinson
Yes, this is supposed to be about players who made the Arsenal bench this season and, yes, Carl spent the whole campaign elsewhere. But I have to mention the Corporal and say how well he did at Upton Park. He has been very unlucky not to add to his solitary England cap this season and I don't understand why everyone wants to write off his Arsenal career. There is talk of another loan to West Ham or a permanent deal. I would like to see him back at Arsenal next season replacing Chambers in the squad. With his height and his pace he can play anywhere across the Arsenal defence and we all know that's all he really wants to do.

Isaac Hayden
Just one appearance for Isaac this season, in the League Cup defeat to Southampton. In truth he played well that night but spent most of the rest of the season injured. He would have been on the bench for the games that Ajayi was without those injuries, but I don't know if he would have been selected ahead of Monreal and co to play there. And therein lies the problem - I suspect a long loan followed by a permanent parting of the ways is not far off.

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