It’s fair to say that, of late, Arsenal’s all-round performances have been underwhelming. In particular, the last two games have highlighted not just the lack of cutting edge but the decline in the form of individuals who had previously been deified by Gooners. Take Thomas Vermaelen: an exceptional defender with a penchant for balancing no-nonsense tackling with superb technique. Arsenal fans were greatly relieved when he signed a new contract earlier in the season, and rightly so. However since January his, and the other Arsenal defenders’, form has suffered – culminating in a 4-0 hiding in the San Siro that almost seemed a generous score line for the Gunners.
Any accusations concerning a poor Arsenal defence will, rightly, be protested by those who raise the issue of Arsenal’s full back crisis, and it is an extremely relevant point. However Arsenal have had good and bad defensive performances whilst playing without recognised full backs. The lynchpin of any decent defensive record is the central partnership. So far this season Arsenal have turned out nine different centre-half partnerships in their starting elevens alone (i.e. not including substitutes altering the defensive make up).
The Milan game was particularly interesting to watch not just because Arsenal were so easily penetrated but because, in the eyes of many, it was Arsenal’s strongest defence. Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen and Gibbs sat in front of Szczesny; yet time and time again they were made to look mediocre at best. This raises the question of which players would currently make up the club’s ‘best’ defence?
The debate surrounding Gibbs and Santos could not possibly be settled until both are fit simultaneously and are competing for places. Clearly Sagna is Arsenal’s best right back and Szczesny is the number one keeper, which leaves only the centre backs.
Per Mertesacker was supposed to provide composure, stability and experience to an often flappable Arsenal backline but for many fans he is too slow and too immobile, with the pace, not to mention running style, or an ungainly, two legged giraffe and the turning circle of an oil tanker. Yet these hindrances to his game, which we all knew before he signed for the club, should not detract from what has been an impressive first season. What Mertesacker brings to the Arsenal defence is balance.
Both Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen like to attack the ball and, on occasion, both wander slightly too high up the pitch. Whilst this is no cardinal sin when Mertesacker is behind them covering, when they play together it means that both are often caught out of position at the same time. We saw against Milan that, whilst Koscielny was playing well before his injury, the fact that they have a similar style put extra pressure on the full backs, who were also being caught out of position. Whilst Mertesacker might not seem like the most reliable defender in the world in his absence you can really notice his strengths. As I watched both Sagna and Vermaelen being caught out by the Milan strike force I couldn’t help but imagine the position in which Mertesacker normally stands when the others push forward. He sits ever so slightly deeper from the rest of the line ready to mop up any runs or passes that might evade his defensive partners in higher positions.
We have seen this year with Chelsea the danger of having a central defensive partnership that is not properly balanced. David Luiz and John Terry suffer from a similar problem where neither defender’s positioning really helps the other and it has been one of the most obvious causes of their defensive fragility.
Gary Neville’s analogy of Luiz looking as though he was being controlled by a ten year old on a Playstation was apt, and at times similar statements could be made about Vermaelen and Koscielny when they play together. With both of them attacking the ball there is no room for error and this theory is backed up by the stats.
I calculated the goals conceded to game ratio for each defensive partnership and the points won per game for each partnership and it looks like this.
Partnership Games played Goals conceded per game Points won per game
Mertesacker – Koscielny 20 1.1 1.9
Vermaelen – Mertesacker 5 0.6 2.6
Vermaelen -Koscielny 5 1.2 1.2
Vermaelen – Djourou 2 1.5 1.5
Mertesacker – Song 2 1 1.5
Koscielny – Squillaci 2 0.5 1.5
Vermaelen – Squillaci 2 2 1.5
Djourou – Miguel 1 1 3
Djourou – Koscielny 1 8 0
*These figures indicate the partnership that started the game
Clearly there are extenuating circumstances which need to be take in to consideration for the statistics to be properly understood such as opposition, who the full backs were and whether or not we were playing at home. However there are still certain patterns you can take from this. Firstly, with the exception of Djourou/Miguel and Koscielny/Squillaci who were playing in the Carling Cup, Mertesacker is involved not only in the defence with the best defensive record but also the partnerships with the most points won per game.
Whilst it may well be the case that Vermaelen and Koscielny are, individually, the two best centre backs at the club both appear to play better with Mertesacker than they do with each other, and that is despite the fact that Mertesacker barely even speaks proper English and Koscielny and Vermaelen both speak perfect French. If Per Mertesacker can come straight in to the team and form a solid partnership without speaking the language and at the same time trying to adapt to the Premier League then think what he can do when he is fully settled. Yes, he may look clumsy, yes he is slow, no he doesn’t seem to win many headers despite being a giant but clearly his style of play fits better with the other defenders. Even his partnership with Song was pretty good and Song is a midfielder. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have room for improvement but what I am saying is that perhaps he is they key to forming a solid defence. You also have to consider that Mertesacker played almost every single game during Arsenal’s strongest run of the season. It’s just a shame for Arsenal fans that they won’t see him before the summer.