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The Gooner Perspective – The Centre-Back Dilemma

We may have witnessed just two games so far in pre-season, but it was enough for the skeptics to begin their usual talk of how Arsenal is still not good enough, as the game against Hangzhou Greentown of China seemingly brought back some of Arsenal’s demons that haven’t been exorcised, in particular, our defensive frailties when it comes to set-pieces.

While I remember saying on Twitter that it will be very stupid of people to say that it will be easy to judge our chances at winning silverware by looking at how the team performs in pre-season, I have always tried to make my stance clear about our defenders, and whether we need another defender or not.

So again, just to clarify my position here, I will not be speaking on behalf of the ultra-positive fans who quickly pointed out that we are in pre-season, and Arsene is testing out the entire squad by making wholesale changes to his starting lineup at the end of the first half. I will also not speak on behalf of the so-called cynics and prophets of doom, because to be honest, I do not identify myself with the joke that is ‘In Arsene We Rust’.

Don’t agree with this. But that doesn’t make me an AKB!

Don’t agree with this. But that doesn’t make me an AKB!

I was unfortunately unable to watch the game against Hangzhou, so I’m going to be judging this based what a bunch of reliable Arsenal fans I know thought of the game, and the highlights of the game that I found on YouTube.

Although saying that we are still in pre-season, and the Asia tour was primarily meant for Wenger to test out his entire squad is a completely valid point, it isn’t too hard to understand why so many people needed to find a scapegoat when Hangzhou scored in the 15th minute of the game, and seemed like it was there for everyone to see – yet another goal conceded through a set-piece. “Wenger needs to get Cahill or Samba!” the skeptics said, while the ones that didn’t agree with them retorted, “What’s the point, neither of them will make the starting lineup!” – again, I do not believe that the right answer lies with either group.

Some people have gone as far as saying Mannone was the only player to blame here, but let’s set the record straight; while he did not handle the attempt on goal in the best way possible, he takes part responsibility; not full. Our central defenders should have taken care of the free kick that came in before that shot was taken; neither Squillaci nor Djourou went up to head the ball, and both of them were caught out of position (Traore as well, if you look at the highlights carefully), which left three Hangzhou players clear on goal, although they needed just one to get a clear shot.

Defensive issues highlighted yet again? (but it’s only pre-season!..)

Three Hangzhou players in on goal, Squillaci, Djourou and Traore left helpless. Not the best display of defending.. (But it's only pre-season!)

Yes, I know. It’s only pre-season. Moving on…

Just two minutes before that goal was scored, there was another incident that was picked up and scrutinized, when Djourou was caught way out of position after he followed a Hangzhou player up field, which left Pezzolano open on goal for a few seconds (Squillaci was also caught out of position, take a look at the highlights). Squillaci ran back and made an awkward challenge that didn’t get him the ball – but Sagna, arguably our best defender last season was there to cover for Djourou, as he awkwardly cleared the ball after a Hangzhou shot hit the post.

Besides this, Arsenal had a much better second half, playing at a higher tempo and creating a number of chances that were unfortunately not put away by various players. Walcott was one player that did not make the most of the few chances he had, which doesn’t really help his recent ‘I want to be played as a striker’ case, although as some people will be happy to say ‘It’s just pre-season!’ 

BUT ITS ONLY PRE-SEASON!!

"BUT ITS ONLY PRE-SEASON!!", you yell.

Yes, I know.

But again, from what I heard, when Vermaelen and Koscielny came on, Arsenal’s defence looked a lot stronger than it was, and with good reason considering that this is almost definitely going to be Arsene Wenger’s first choice pairing assuming he does not go out and buy another centre back.

I think it is clear that while most of our midfielders and forwards may not have been at their best, there is no doubt that most of our players will be at their best sooner or later; the pre-season is all about regaining match fitness and figuring out which players will be a part of the starting lineup and which players will be demoted to the bench.

But why all the hullabaloo about our defence not being good enough?

It’s a question that is fairly simple to answer. Djourou and Squillaci were not up to the mark yesterday, and while it is easy to say that it is only pre-season and they will be ready in time for the start of the Premiership, when people say that we need another defender to shake things up a bit, it is out of pure concern for Arsenal, concern that our defending does not go the same way as last season.

The consensus on one side seems to be that having another defender will only complicate things for Arsene Wenger, especially because signing someone like Cahill or Samba for a sizable amount and then putting them on the bench in favour of a Vermaelen-Koscielny partnership at the back may not sit well with Cahill or Samba themselves.

Cahill/Samba

Bringing in either of these players who are known to be good in the air, or any other player that fits the bill for that matter, will only help Arsenal.

But this is something I cannot agree with; people point out that even teams like United do not have 5 defenders who are all competing for a first team spot, they have 2-3 experienced defenders, the rest being reserve/youth players used as backup defenders. But this does not mean anything to Arsenal; United do not have problems at the back, after last season, it is clear that we do when it comes to set pieces. Each club has it’s own situation, it is fallacious to think that following what a club that is currently successful does is the right way. Yes, Vermaelen and Koscielny are good players; Vermaelen is easily one of the best defenders in the Premiership, but it is quite obvious that Ferdinand and Vidic are one of the most competent centre-back combinations in the Premier League. Comparing Arsenal’s situation at the back to United’s is therefore, not the best way to judge where we stand.

Even if Arsene Wenger does decide that no matter what, Vermaelen and Koscielny will be his first-choice centre backs, having another experienced centre back will only help Arsenal. Increased competition for a spot in the first team will help Arsene Wenger rotate defenders without having to worry about the quality of our back four changing. It is not the quality of our best defenders that the cynics are worried about; they are worried about the players who are on the bench, who will be called on to come in and replace either Vermaelen or Koscielny (or both), if either of them are injured or when Arsenal are in tight situations, playing two games a week for a month or so, which usually happens in the middle of the season.

Arsenal fans know that Vermaelen staying fit for the full season is crucial to this side’s chances.

Arsenal fans know that Vermaelen staying fit for the full season is crucial to this side’s chances.

To put it simply, bringing in a player who is tall and/or has a strong physical presence at the back will be a step forward in helping Arsenal move closer to the top, even if they do not make the starting-11. It is quite clear that neither Djourou nor Squillaci are very good in the air, as they proved on many occasions last season, and bringing someone who can help fix this problem in our defence, a reliable defender who can be depended upon when he is brought into the starting lineup, can only help Arsenal’s chances. Spending around 10-13 million or so on a quality centre back will be a great buy for Arsenal, and will give us more depth at the back, a problem that has persisted over the last 6 years. I know that there will be people who will not agree with me on this, but this is the way I see it.

It is rather obvious that Vermaelen and Koscielny will not be able to play every game this season for Arsenal – which means that we either have to hope and pray that Djourou and/or Squillaci step up to the plate and perform, or we end up losing out again. At the moment, to me, it seems a little unlikely that Arsene Wenger will buy another centre back, because he has, and always will, defend his players no matter what.

Some people are of the opinion that Kyle Bartley, a 20-year old Arsenal player who spent last season on loan at the Rangers and Sheffield United, breaking into the first team seem more likely (albeit as a third/fourth choice centre back), although there is a good chance that he will return to Scotland on loan, again, at Rangers FC, simply because he is not ready to play for Arsenal (yet).

To sum it up though, I do think we need one more defender, just one. I leave you with a quote that I had used in a previous article, a comment on a post on the Arsenal FC Blog that was written after the Carling Cup final, that I believe Arsenal fans can relate to –

We have an element of apprehension in almost all our games where as fans, we are nearly expecting the part in the game where something goes terribly wrong and I personally am sick of that feeling.”

Arsenal fans that are cynical of our chances with our current defenders are only cynical because this element of apprehension has not completely disappeared. We are still on our feet, biting our nails when our defenders are caught out of position, or left behind by forwards ready to head the ball into the net, only because the last few years have shown us that there are times where our defence can spontaneously disintegrate, and with it, our chances of silverware.

There is a very good chance that Vermaelen and Koscielny are the players that will hopefully remove this feeling that most of us have, this feeling of ‘Oh damn, something’s going to go wrong sooner or later’. But one thing is for sure, bringing in another experienced defender will only help our chances of winning silverware, not hinder it.

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