One of my favourite tweeters to have on my timeline, and I’m sure one of yours too, the one and only @Artekkers posed a question recently asking his followers who they would like to partner Koscielny as centre-half. This question and its responses intrigued me somewhat as it shows that a few more than I expected are thinking similarly to me with regards to our centre-backs.
I’m a big fan of Vermaelen but I think that Koscielny has proven over the past two years that he is our top defender so Koscielny should rightly get the nod as our first choice centre-back. The responses to @Artekkers seemed to be in favour of Vermaelen over Mertesacker which didn’t surprise me as Vermaelen is a fan favourite but I was surprised at how many people genuinely think that Mertesacker is a bad defender.
I’m going to throw this out there. I think that Mertesacker is our best central defender. Koscielny has been our best performer but I still think that Mertesacker is our best defender and that Laurent and Per should be our first choice pairing.
I remember in summer 2009 having a discussion with my dad, who is also a massive Gooner, (and owns a great pub in Prague to drink, eat and watch the football if you’re ever out there) about Mertesacker. As he gets every game from every league he watches a lot more Bundesliga than I do and he was championing Mertesacker as the player to sort out our defence and I was passing him off as too slow. Fast forward to September 2011 and my dad was really happy we had signed Mertesacker and I was pissed off we didn’t sign Cahill or Jagielka. Fast forward to 2012 and I’m a massive fan of Mertesacker and my dad doesn’t think he’s right for the league (but hopes that he is wrong and Per adapts).
I don’t understand the negativity from some supporters toward Mertesacker. You don’t make over 80 appearances for the German national team if you are an average player let alone a poor one. Germany is blessed with great players so to get the level of caps Mertesacker has you need to have a little something special about you.
Mertesacker has been criticised for a lack of pace however I think it unfair to label him a bad defender just because of a lack of pace. When settled at centre-half (and at a similar age to what Per is now) Baresi, Maldini, Cannavaro, Moore, Adams and Bould were not possessors of great pace, they were possessors of great minds.
To me, a great defender is a defender who doesn’t need to tackle. Excellent reading of the game, superb positioning and the ability to force the opposition to move into closed space is more important than tackling and pace. I actually think the requirement of pace for a centre-back is a mark of inadequacy. If a player is blessed with pace then that is fantastic and an added bonus however the need to use that pace to defend on a regular basis is a shortcoming. The need for pace is for recovery and recovery (when not defending a counter-attack) is usually a result of poor positioning which is a sign of unintelligence. This doesn’t necessarily mean that those types of players are bad defenders, in fact it’s actually okay to have one in your team but only when you have an intelligent reader of the game like Mertesacker playing alongside them.
A great example of this is Kolo Toure. I loved Toure, I thought he was a fantastic servant to the club but I have always said that he is an unintelligent defender. Defenders like Kolo have power and pace which is great but they also tend to lack positional awareness and the ability to read the game at speed which is why they miss headers or see balls fly over their heads or get outsmarted by opposition attackers. Players like Kolo need intelligent defenders next to them. Kolo was fantastic for Arsenal because he had Campbell or Keown with him who could marshal him but was average at best when paired with a similar defender and had to rely on speed to protect the goal. When the time came for Wenger to choose between Kolo and Gallas the decision I suspect was probably easy. Kolo needed his hand holding which Gallas didn’t (although some medication might have helped William a bit) and his knees were starting to go and his weight was creeping up both of which had knock on effects to his pace.
In Vermaelen we have a player half-way between the reader and the recoverer which was fantastic for us and quickly cemented him in the first choice defender spot. Then we bought Koscielny who is also part reader part recoverer but brilliantly he has the speed of a recoverer but also the brain of a reader; a combination that will see him lauded as one of the best defenders in the league if not Europe very soon. A combination he shares with Vincent Kompany who we all know to be the best defender in the league.
Moving back to Mertesacker… Not only is Per a very tidy passer with excellent distribution he is also a surprisingly tidy tackler for a man of his size. He is rarely clumsy in the tackle and as such has a very low foul per game rate. Another reason he rarely fouls is his reading of the game. Per isn’t a recoverer, he is a reader and a fantastic one at that. If you watch him and I mean truly watch him in games you will see that he doesn’t need to fly into tackles or out-muscle other players. He just sets up in the best position to see play develop and casually steps into new positions as the game changes and he senses danger. More often than not this discourages players from attacking into the space he is protecting because they see that, like a great chess master, he has his lines protected and his next three moves thought out. To those caught up in the excitement of the game (which is entirely understandable, we don’t turn up or tune in just to watch one player) these subtle movements can go unnoticed and Per is only acknowledged when he screws up.
However I believe that if we all paid a little more attention to the incredible reading of the game that Per possesses and displays that we could all agree that he could be at the heart of a new back five the famous back five could be proud of. It won’t be easy and they’ll probably never be as good but if they came a reasonably close second in all time Arsenal defences they’d be the best defence in the league.
The level of composure and elegance that Mertesacker showed in his first season has filled me with great hope. I believe that he can work on a number of things and, like Koscielny, show his full ability in his second season. If Per can improve on his weak areas (mainly aerial duels as he’ll never get any faster) and can continue to display his superb reading and positioning I believe that he will be a big part of a new era of success built on the foundations of steady defence.
I do not believe that Szczesny is as good as Seaman just yet but he could be. I believe that his natural ability, sheer confidence and most crucially his concentration skills will take him very far indeed. With a solid back four you need to have great concentration as you shouldn’t be very busy.
In Sagna we have the best right-back in the league and I believe that in a few years he will have some competition from Jenkinson and possibly even Bellerin if he has stepped up by then.
Gibbs I am a great believer in. If he can stay fit I think he has the ability to be as good as or possibly even better than Cole. Many of us hate Ashley but if we take out the bitterness and emotion and remove the nostalgia for Winterburn and Sansom I think the majority of us would recognise him as the best left-back we’ve had and if Gibbs can emulate or surpass that then that would be amazing for us.
Mertesacker and Koscielny I think should be first choice and their partnership as experienced and adapted players would rival any partnership in the league in my opinion.
A dependable and confident goalie, two solid full-backs and two readers of the game at centre-back, one a insanely good reader of the game, the other a highly accomplished reader blessed with pace is the makings of a title-winning defence. All they need to do is stay fit, harmonise and work on keeping a line and with Bould coaching them and passing on his knowledge I believe that could happen very quickly.
We all know that the defence last year was our weak point but with a back five playing as a settled unit and Mertesacker at the heart of it I think we’ll finally have some stability and quality.
I leave you with this great video by @CWDcomps – until next time!
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