Whilst Swansea City‘s passing philosophy, started by Roberto Martinez and developed by Brendan Rodgers and now Michael Laudrup, has been critically praised by football pundits and talking heads ever since their ascension to the Premier League two years ago, the starting XI has been propped up by a speedy and resolute defence, with Wales international Ashley Williams at the heart of it.
The centre-back’s consistent form, having now maintained a high level of performance for two consecutive seasons and captaining the Welsh club to their first ever lifting of the League Cup, has convinced many that Williams has a higher calling than playing for a middle order team, leading to the tabloids linking him with a summer move to either Liverpool or Arsenal. But which of these two clubs need the 28 year old’s services more? At which team will he be most successful? And from Williams’ perspective, whom represents the best career move?
Both Liverpool and Arsenal can be accused of looking rather frail at the back this season. Whilst the Gunners may have conceded the fourth fewest goals in the Premier League, it is their performances against clubs of a similar or higher stature, at the top end of the table, which has lead to such aggressive scrutiny of Arsene Wenger from the British media. Furthermore, being unable to hold shape and effectively defend as a team has always been an underlying flaw of Wenger’s attacking philosophy, but it has been the performances of key defenders that have let the side down this season.
The Gunners’ skipper Thomas Vermaelen has done anything but lead by example, being rather embarrassingly exposed for his lack of defensive nous in the North London derby, and although the Belgium international may be a fantastic athlete, there are clear weaknesses to his game that are now being exploited by his opponents. The collective opinion on Vermaelen seems to have changed for the worse since his supply of goals from set pieces has begun to dry up.
Similarly, Bacary Sagna’s woeful performance against Liverpool will live long in the memory and would make good footage for an educational video to show young defenders entitled ‘What not to do if you are a right full-back’. At the same time, Laurent Koscielny appears to have taken a step backwards from last season where he finally appeared to becoming acclimatised to English football, and Per Mertesacker will clearly never put in anything more than a slightly above-average performance.
It’s a similar story at Anfield, with the Reds finding themselves over-reliant on the soon-to-be-retired Jamie Carragher. I am not slating the 35 year old, indeed he has put in some exceptional performances this season, but Liverpool should be at a point by now, and more importantly, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel should be at a point by now, where their ageing veteran is not such an integral part of the team.
Skrtel’s dip in form has been well documented, with rumours that he is set for a summer departure, yet I’d argue that Agger has similarly been found wanting this season. A particularly poor showing against West Brom comes to mind, where the Danish international was solely responsible for both of the Baggies’ goals in a smash and grab display. I feel Agger and Vermaelen are similar in their action-packed, forward-thinking style, and thus why they have earned ameliorative reputations, but in terms of actual defensive capability, both are worryingly over-rated.
It’s clear that both clubs need some new blood in their backlines, but which club would benefit most from Williams’ presence next season? The Welshman epitomises the modern day centre-back, being pacey, incredibly physical and good on the ball, which would fit the Arsenal mould well. You’d assume the transition from the style of football at Swansea to that of Arsenal would be a relatively process, considering both clubs have a shared understanding of how the game should be played and a similar emphasis on attack.
Yet, there is an argument that Williams is too similar a player to Vermaelen, in terms of his strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, is another decent, but not top class, centre-back really what the Gunners need to project them back towards the title race? There is a huge, intangible difference between being a success at a rank and file Premier League team and being at an Elite European club, which is something Wenger has overlooked with many of his recent signings. Similarly, Arsenal appear to face a monumental struggle when it comes to defending set pieces, and the 28 year old, measuring in at just 6 foot, will do little to solve the first team’s height issues.
Perhaps therefore, Liverpool would be the more sensible option for the Welshman. He’d get the opportunity to link up with former boss Brendan Rodgers, whom is attempting to carry the Swansea ethos over to Anfield with the Reds’ progressive passing game. Furthermore, the Liverpool gaffer’s desire for his defenders to play out of the back would suit Williams perfectly, in comparison to Martin Skrtel who quite frankly does not have enough composure on the ball to carry out the tactic effectively and consistently.
Unlike at the Emirates, where Williams will be up against Koscielny, Vermaelen and Mertesacker on a weekly basis for a slot in the first team, breaking into the Liverpool’s starting XI would be a relatively simple task, with his current form providing enough evidence already to stake a claim to being a regular starter next season.
Similarly, the expectation at Anfield is arguably less high than at Arsenal, where their next campaign will be a career-defining year for Wenger, as it becomes clear the fans have had enough of maintaining their Champions League status without ever pushing for the domestic title.
On Merseyside, the supporters are rather more patient. They too will be hoping for a top four finish next season, but with a team of exciting youngsters rising from the ashes of a squad formerly composed of over-paid has-beens, missing out on Europe’s top club competition would be an acceptable failing as long as there is a clear sign of overall improvement.
But it’s time to view things from the perspective of the player. The fact is, in the modern game, a footballer has to be a careerist first; there is no longer a place for any form of loyalty. Similarly, with the Champions League now being the Holy Grail of European football, any professional will do anything in his power to get as close to it as possible, even if his wings are burnt by flying too close to the sun. And even if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time under Arsene Wenger this year, you’d expect to see them return to the competition much sooner than Liverpool, who are still a long way off from returning to their former glories.
Perhaps on paper, Liverpool appears to be the best option; Williams will undoubtedly receive more playing time, less would be expected of him and he would become an important element in a team created around Brendan Rodgers’ youthful and progressive philosophy. But if the decision came down to the Welshman, with both clubs throwing a contract in front of him come the summer, I have no doubt he’d choose the Gunners, for the sake of European football, despite the Reds needing the centre-back’s commanding presence considerably more.