Arsene Wenger won’t have many selection headaches going into the next few games, with Per Mertesacker the only senior centre-back likely to be available and the bat signal letting Sebastian Squillaci know his time is near.
It was typical, then, that this injury hammer blow to Arsenal’s central defence occurred as soon as the January window slammed shut. And in true Arsenal fashion, one of the centre-backs, Laurent Koscielny, was injured while on international duty.
The problem isn’t that Wenger has to decide upon a suitable pairing between his three options in defence, but rather the reality that three was never enough for a team like Arsenal, one who are competing on numerous fronts and who have a disastrous injury record.
It’s been said that Mertesacker is one of the worst defenders in the league and a shambles of an individual to man the Arsenal back line. I’m not buying that. For starters, Mertesacker seemed one of the few options available to Wenger in the market at the back end of summer 2011 – albeit a player who was on the radar for many months – but little thought went into how the German would fit into Wenger’s attacking philosophy.
We all know Mertesacker’s weaknesses, in that he lacks any noticeable physical pace yet more than makes up for it in quickness of thought. He’s not a bad defender or a stupid defender; the argument of support will always rumble back to the fact he has almost a century worth of international caps for Germany. But it’s not the player’s fault that he’s been thrown into a defensive line that pushes high up. He doesn’t have the pace to operate in that manner and in turn looks much worse than he actually is.
The issue isn’t that Wenger may have a tough time figuring out who to select of his three established centre-backs, but it does appear he makes his choices on form rather than what each player can provide against specific styles of opposition.
As suggested, there is no use in playing Mertesacker in games where the play will be open and at a high tempo. Yes, he has shown great defensive abilities against players like Luis Suarez and the Manchester City attack this season, showcasing his ability to read the game extremely well. This has supported the claim that Mertesacker is a natural first-choice due to his contrasting style to either of the other two options. Yet a player of his offering should be in against those who use aerial attacks as their prime weapon. Moreover, there is no way that Mertesacker, Koscielny or Thomas Vermaelen can last 50 games a season if any of them are selected as the first-choice pairing.
You look at clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and even Tottenham and acknowledge that they are well-stocked in numbers at centre-back, despite numerous injury problems they themselves face throughout a season.
Wenger should never have allowed Kyle Bartley to leave, even though it’s understandable that the player wanted to play regularly in the Premier League. It just goes back to the argument as to why invest so much time in developing youngsters only to sell them when they reach an age where contributions to the first team can be made. It’s a frustration that is compounded due to the fact Arsenal won’t go into the market if they see problems in the squad.
Three senior centre-backs fully fit at Arsenal is the least of Wenger’s problems. When games start stacking up and should Arsenal progress in the Champions League, those three options will become vital – and even then it might not be enough.
I don’t see anything wrong with any of the options currently available at Arsenal; the questions should be aimed at the tactics used and what is done to prepare the players during training.
The team currently have a good blend of options, however more needs to be added in the summer. For a club who are competing on four fronts each season, three centre-backs is simply not enough.