When was the last time you heard the words “Wenger must buy” followed by any of the following: Jagielka, Cahill, Samba, Hangeland?
It seems only weeks ago that were as many headlines linking us with other clubs’ defenders as there are stars in the sky or skeletons in John Terry’s closet.
Now… nothing. They are as a rare as a Howard Webb follicle or an Alan Hutton brain cell.
The manager who was “past it” and “can’t pick defenders” suddenly seems to have made the centre back position one of the strongest at the club. You certainly don’t hear anyone now crying out for a Jagielka or Cahill.
Although injuries to our four leading full backs have played havoc with team selection of late, there is no question that we currently have three excellent centre halves at the club, with several strong back-ups behind them.
What’s interesting is how different the three of them are.
I’m expecting to get shot down for this, but when we had that amazing threesome of Adams, Bould and Keown, they were all (to my eyes) fairly similar players.
They had different strengths and qualities to some degree, but overall their approach was broadly the same: they were big, hard men who bossed the opposition forwards, enjoyed putting themselves in where it hurt, were dominant in the air and strong in the tackle. They were defenders first, footballers second.
But our first choice CBs this year are far less homogenous. Let’s look at their individual styles:
Thomas Vermaelen (the Lion of Flanders)
TV’s absence for most of last season was a huge blow. We’ll never know whether his presence would have steadied the ship enough to enable us to have a real tilt at the title or win the Carling Cup – but it might have done.
He is an out-and-out warrior and, in his style of play, is the closest to the Adams/Bould/Keown mould. He repeatedly wins aerial duels against taller opponents purely on the basis of power, determination and technique. When we’re on the back foot, he’ll be the one throwing his body in the line of fire and encouraging those around him by example. As he showed against Manchester City, he can also be a real handful when he marauds into the opposition half and already has a decent goal haul since joining us.
Per Mertesacker (the Big FOOTBALLING German)
A lot of assumptions were made about big Per when he joined us. With the height of a small office block, it seemed a no-brainer (aka a “Hutton”) that he would add a previously undreamt-of level of aerial dominance to our defending and would be a huge attacking threat at set pieces.
By those lights he has somewhat disappointed. Although tall, he does not have a big jump and, whether paired with Koscielny or Vermaelen, is often the one less likely to be making the aerial challenges. He also made a few costly blunders as he adjusted to the pace of the Premier League and has seemed slow on the turn.
However, from a footballing point of view the BFG is the best central defender we have had for a very, very long time. In fact I would say you have to go back to David O’Leary at his best to find someone who was as good.
Mertesacker’s reading of the game is second to none, which means he often snuffs out moves before they become perilous. It’s less spectacular than the last ditch tackle, but a lot easier on the old ticker.
Further, he is just SO comfortable on the ball. I watched him very carefully in the Villa game – a game in which we came under a great deal of pressure at times. Whenever Per got possession at the back he was able to find space and time and play really intelligent balls to the midfield or attack. He never loses possession and always chooses the right out ball. I don’t want to go over the top, but his time on the ball and his distribution are reminiscent of Bobby Moore.
You would not want two Mertesackers as your CB pairing, but one BFG paired with a more combative and mobile CB is a match made in N5 (Heaven).
Laurent Koscielny (The Limo*)
I don’t want to seem clever after the fact, but I have been trumpeting Kozzer’s qualities since he first joined us.
He can man mark as well as Martin Keown, but he’s as nippy as a winger and has the turning circle of a London taxi on ice. Famously, he had a 100% tackle success rate in his last season in the French Ligue 1. You’re never going to win all your tackles in the EPL, but he is an astonishingly good tackler – technically almost perfect.
Added to that he is ludicrously brave. Last season he seemed to get brutally clobbered in every single game – sometimes by an opponent, but often by the head, boot or fist of one of his own team mates. He would lie pole-axed for a while, shake his head, then enter the fray. Despite this, he never pulls out of a challenge with leg or head, which must mean he is staggeringly courageous or staggeringly stupid. Hopefully the former. Like Vermaelen he regularly triumphs in aerial battles he has no right to win.
Finally, he is also a pretty decent ball player. In fact one thing all three of our first choice CBs have is a footballing ability that puts them a level above Adams/Bould/Keown.
The obvious point to make is that we are fortunate to have three such excellent CBs (and fortunate to have a manager capable of seeing their qualities and signing them).
But, when our full backs have returned, it does raise the question as to which two should be in our starting line-up. Obviously all three will get games, but when it comes down to that big, big match-up against either of the Manchesters or the Spuds, which two should get the call-up?
When Rasp did an overview of selection issues in various areas of the team in early November, he ran a poll on this very subject. Over 70% of respondents thought that Vermaelen/Koscielny should be our first choice pairing. Vermaelen and Mertesacker scored just over 25% and Koscielny/Mertesacker just under 4%.
I want to frame this poll somewhat differently.
I’m starting with the idea that we choose an out and out first choice CB, with whom either of the other two can play. Is it Vermaelen with one of the other two? Or Mertesacker? Or Koscielny?
I’ll admit to a bias in doing this. Although I love Vermaelen and Koscielny, I feel that Mertesacker has to start in our strongest line-up because of the immense calmness and control he brings to our back line and our ability to transition out of defence. So for me it would the BFG plus either of the others.
What do you think?
*Koscielny hails from the Limousin region of France.