One of the commonest criticisms of Arsène Wenger is that he can’t “pick” a defender.
We know he loves attackers and will sit up half the night fantasising about the striking skills of a Thierry Henry or a Robin van Ungrateful.
But when it comes to identifying the qualities required in a top flight defender, he is like a blind man shopping for sex aids in a greengrocer’s (it all ends up a bit messy).
Or at least that’s what the critics would have you think.
But is this fair?
To my mind, not at all.
In my lifetime, which spans 13 World Cups, 10 Prime Ministers and three top 10 hits by Jethro Tull, there has only been one season in which the Arsenal defence remained unbreached.
That season was, of course, 2003/4 – the season of The Invincibles.
And what was the first choice back four of The Invincibles? As if I need to remind you! It was, of course, Lauren, Toure, Campbell and Cole. All signed by Arsene Wenger or (in the case of Cashley) promoted to first team action by him.
People (including me) still talk in hushed terms of the great George Graham defence that went on to be the bedrock of Arsene’s early trophy years. Dixon, Bould, Keown, Adams and Winterburn were simply amazing. But they never managed to go a season unbeaten (although they went close in 1990/91). Truth to tell, they were not as good as The Invincibles back four, who matched them for grit and defensive solidity, but outdid them for creativity and attacking threat.
Cole was more dynamic than Winterburn; dead-eyed Lauren was every bit as impassable as Dixon; Kolo Toure could play on the ground better than any of George Graham’s central defenders; and Campbell was as big and brave a rock as Tony Adams.
But Arsene never really gets the credit for creating that impregnable back line and it’s still routine to read comments to the effect that all his trophy success was down to the legacy of Gorgeous George (the famous-back-four bit of the legacy that is, not the brown-paper-envelope bit).
Since then his defensive signings (or home growns) have included the likes of Clichy, Eboue, Gibbs, Gallas, Sagna, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal and Jenkinson.
Admittedly there have been mistakes, like signing Mikael Sylvestre from Manchester United and bringing back Sol Campbell.
But there were mitigating circumstances. Sylvestre was signed as an EPL experienced utility squad player who could cover centre back and left back – but a really unfortunate spell of injuries meant he ended up playing more often than anyone would ever have wanted – including Arsene Wenger.
Campbell, ditto, was meant to be a squad player but the same injury crisis thrust him into the front line (where, even as an aging player, he was far from shabby).
But most of Arsene’s defensive choices have been very good players.
I know some of you will be already reaching for your keyboard to tell me how rubbish Vermaelen is, or that Mertsesacker is too slow, or that Gibbs is too injury prone. But rhey are all good players who have been doing their best during a period of intense transition and upheaval for Arsenal.
For the past two seasons the defence has been playing without the support of a recognised defensive midfielder and with an ever-changing succession of callow or careless goalkeepers behind them.
That, along with Arsene’s preferred style of attacking play, has led many to conclude that our back line is poor and that this is because of the quality of the players. Who chooses the players? Arsene! Therefore, case proved: he’s can’t find good defenders.
But I happen to think there’s nothing wrong with the personnel. We just need a bit of stability and a run of results to restore confidence and make us seem hard to beat again. (*NOTE: since I wrote this Post, we have had two away wins and two clean sheets, so I fervently hope a corner has been turned).
I would prefer to see us have a more traditional defensive midfielder in the team (which is not to knock the excellent Mikel Arteta – it’s just that I feel he could do a better job further forward and a more defensive-minded midfielder would be a boon to our defence). But that’s just my opinion.
I also happen to think that some of Arsene’s defensive “flops” (including Squillaci, Cygan, Senderos and Djourou) are better players than the fans have realised. It’s not so long ago that we were raving about Djourou marking Drogba out of the game when we beat Chelsea at the Emirates.
So, to conclude, do you think Arsene is unfairly judged on his record of signing defenders?
Who do you think his bad choices have been?
And who are his good ones?