This afternoon, Arsenal have officially confirmed the signing of former Newcastle right-back Mathieu Debuchy for an undisclosed fee, believed to be within the realms of £10million-£12million. The 28 year-old has been sourced as a direct replacement for compatriot Bacary Sagna, who surprised many this summer by rejecting a new deal at the Emirates, favouring a move to Manchester City.
But is the France international the real McCoy? I’ll admit early on that I already have a number of lingering doubts.
They say the stats don’t lie and Debuchy’s from last season are incredibly impressive. Last term he made 71 tackles, 69 interceptions, twelve blocks and won 115 aerial duels, trumping now-Manchester City’s Bacary Sagna, with 45 tackles, 51 interceptions, seven blocks and 122 successful aerial duels, barring the final statistic, by quite some way. Going forward too, The France international claimed three assists in comparison to his countryman’s two.
Likewise, admirers of the 28 year-old aren’t hard to find. Throughout last season, he was linked with PSG and Bayern Munich to name a few, and the fact he selected as his country’s resident No.2 for the World Cup, over Sagna, tells its own story of how both defenders are viewed in the France fold.
Yet statistics can be misrepresentative when not put into the proper context. Let me hit you with this footballing proverb – is the better defender the one who makes the most tackles, or the one that doesn’t need tackle to at all? Chelsea’s John Terry, one of the Premier League’s most in-form centre-back’s last season, averaged less than one tackle per match.
The situation is a little different at full-back, where defenders are constantly challenged by tricky wingers looking to turn them inside-out. But the point remains the same; just because Debuchy had the eleventh-best tackling return of any Premier League player last season – 3.3 successful challenges per match – doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a good defender.
In contrast, Sagna, who averaged 1.7 tackles per match last season, relies far more on positioning than the ability to put his foot in, which in turn highlights Debuchy’s most fundamental flaw.
Perhaps it has become a trait of modern Ligue 1 defenders, perhaps it is a symptom of Newcastle’s disorganised backline that saw no defenders, with the exception of Mike Williamson, make more than 30 appearances last season. But either way, Debuchy has picked up the disturbing habit of misreading situations and leaving glaring holes between himself and his centre-back that the Premier League’s many, many, electric-paced attackers are more than happy to exploit.
Not only has this taken place domestically; the France international stepped up prematurely – as if the only defender out of four attempting the offside trap – on numerous occasions during the World Cup. Had Les Tricolores faced a more troubling run en route to eventual eliminators Germany in the quarter-finals, this intrinsic flaw would undoubtedly have been exposed.
Although Debuchy is a consistent defender when given instinctive tasks, such as tackling, his intelligence as a footballer leaves a lot to be desired. In turn, one has to question his diligence in concentration. The less Debuchy is directly involved in games, the less he appears to be in sync with what’s going on around him.
That being said, it’s not Debuchy’s defensive abilities that have particularly attracted Arsene Wenger. Shifting the ball out wide to a pushed-up Bacary Sagna has become Arsenal’s ‘Plan B’ over the last few years, especially when the Gunners are struggling for form. Averaging less than one successful cross per match, this is clearly a flawed policy, and in that regard, Debuchy remains a considerably better, more suitable option.
Likewise, it’s not as if the Gunners have asked for this situation – after his consistent form last season, Wenger was keen to tie Sagna down to new terms. It was his decision to join Manchester City and battle it out with Pablo Zabaletta instead. The result was a choice between the Newcastle right-back, Toulouse’s Serge Aurier and the Citizens’ Micah Richards, all of whom come with their own pros and cons. One can certainly argue that Debuchy is the lesser of three evils.
However, defeating the Premier League’s more rank-and-file sides, where Debuchy’s ability to contribute going forward will assumedly become most prevalent, has never been Arsenal’s problem. Whilst Richards and Aurier both boast almighty natural athleticism reminiscent of Sagna, that I believe could have proved vital in improving the Gunners’ poor results against their title rivals, Debuchy, not particularly tall, powerful or strong, does not.
Arsenal’s new No.2 is by no means a bad player, or even an average one. In fact, Whoscored.com – a statistical orgy of a website – rate him as the best right-back in the Premier League last season. But in my opinion, it’s incredibly telling that despite their rumoured interest, neither PSG nor Bayern Munich were prepared to even entertain the notion of matching the North Londoners’ double-figure offer. You won’t find too many Newcastle fans complaining about that fee either.
Have the Gunners just bought a dud? That seems a rather harsh, unjustified analysis. But in comparison to Bacary Sagna, who over the years has proved himself to be one of the most consistent right-backs in Europe, Debuchy can certainly be considered a downgrade.