New German Centreback For Arsenal?
Defence, it’s a contentious subject for Arsenal supporters and divides us almost as much as we are divided by our opinions on Wenger (I’m going to pretend there isn’t a middle ground as those who occupy that middle ground, like me, tend to get blasted by both sides).
Some say that this is the worst Arsenal defence they’ve ever seen and put the fact that Arsenal has the 4th best defence in the league and the best away defence in the league down to how poor the league is. Others say that this is a result of better defensive drills and more work on the training pitch thanks to assistant manager Steve Bould.
Some say that we have to improve our defence no matter what and others say that our defence is fine but too exposed by the midfield. I say that both are right. I say that our defence is decent when protected by the rest of the team as defence should start at the top but I also say that if we can improve then we should improve.
Arsène Wenger has said on many occasions that he turned down the opportunity to buy certain players because it would “kill” one of our promising young players. I have the utmost respect for our manager but have always and will always disagree with him on this (not that my opinion means squat to him nor should it). I firmly believe that if a player is good enough he is old enough and that if said player is good enough he will break into the team at the expense of other players. We shouldn’t wait for players to come good by leaving their paths unbarred. If they wish to leave to advance their careers then so be it. I’m pretty sure we’ll end up with more David Bentley’s than Andy Cole’s.
So, thinking about improvements, I want to talk about a player I have long admired and long felt we should pursue and, if the rumours are true we are pursuing.
Benedikt Höwedes (I bet you thought I was going to talk about Hummels when you saw the title), the Schalke captain has long been linked with a move away from the Bundesliga and I hope that if he moves, he joins the growing German influence in N5.
If he was to join I might surprise a few readers who I know will vehemently disagree when I say I’d want him to partner Mertesacker rather than displace him. Höwedes offers something familiar yet different to what Arsenal currently have. Höwedes plays with more aggression than Mertesacker and with more accuracy and stability than Vermaelen for example who plays a reasonably aggressive game. Benedikt is adept at intercepting and disrupting attacks high up the pitch which would suit the high line that Arsenal play. It would also suit Mertesacker who statistically and realistically (to anyone who doesn’t wear manure-tinted glasses when watching Per) has been our best defender this season. Per has had his lack of pace exposed a few times this season but more often than not this can be attributed to a defensive error by others but moving on.
Playing such an aggressive game can leave you exposed if you misjudge the situation as Arsenal centre-backs have found to their detriment in this season and seasons past. However, I feel that Höwedes is very adept at this role and possesses a reasonable amount of pace, although not the sort of pace we benefit from Koscielny having, so when he goes to ground and doesn’t win the ball, which is rare, he is quick to recover. So recovery is another feather in his hat and he is a very good defender on his feet too.
Benedikt reads the game very well and has excellent positioning. A trait in Per that is appreciated by almost all Arsenal supporters despite their different opinions on his pace. Benedikt is an excellent interceptor and averages 3.2 interceptions per game (courtesy of WhoScored). Having a defender who is on you as quickly as Höwedes is makes it extremely difficult for opposing players to get comfortable in the match and find their rhythm. Against players like Aguero, Suarez and Bale this is an extremely useful tool.
A criticism of Arsenal’s defence in the Wenger years, with our attacking philosophy, has been the exposure in wide areas caused by a lack of support for the full-backs. This is often attributed to “lazy” wingers but as some point out, correctly, this is also down to a lack of support from centre-backs for their full-backs. In an age where full-backs are often deployed in advanced positions the support needs to come from behind as well as from in front. Höwedes understands this and often gives support to his full-backs and marshals his defence and central partner to do the same on the other side. Höwedes is a great defensive organiser and is an extremely vocal defender and leader. Arsenal often talk about having many leaders on the pitch and Arsenal supporters often bemoan a lack of a true leader in defence who will bark his orders like Adams did. Höwedes does this. His backlines are extremely well organised and if they fall out of line he makes sure he is heard over 60’000 screaming supporters.
Höwedes hold a good line and apart from Per wins more offsides on average than our centre-backs. According to WhoScored Höwedes has no apparent weaknesses however his dribbled past stats of an average of 0.9 times per game is quite a bit higher than Dave, Tom and Per on 0.2, 0.3 and 0.4 respectively however it’s a different league so I don’t want to beat him too hard with that stick. Even though his dribbled past stats are much higher than our lads he does have one of the lowest in the Bundesliga.
Timing of challenges are crucial as committed players are often the most carded players and Benedikt’s fouls stats is higher than our lads too but leeway must be given when it comes to fouls and cards as despite supporters of English clubs grumbles, our referees are a fair bit more lenient and likely to let play continue than their overseas colleagues.
One strength of Koscielny’s that is much respected and fondly remembered when Sol Campbell comes to mine is saving the day with last ditch tackles. This is a strength that Benedikt possesses and often uses to save Schalke. It is also a strength you hope your defenders never have to use but are glad they have it in their locker when the time comes. One-on-one situations has also been a criticism in the past of Arsenal defenders but Höwedes has incredible balance and is able to keep up with the pace and trickery of most attackers and rarely gives away the advantage with slow turns.
I have praised Per on many occasions for his ability to usher attackers in non-threatening positions, a trait that is underappreciated and often overlooked. Höwedes is also brilliant at this and is equally as good at using his reading of the game to position himself to repeatedly close down threats and angles just like Per. He is also very good at pressing and Arsenal’s best performances have come when they have pressed well.
One of the main strengths Benedikt possesses that I like is his concentration. He rarely gets so engrossed in a game that he is unaware of what is unfolding around him and judges the ball path very well and doesn’t allow himself to be tricked by players running in behind him or being dragged away by the wrong man. This concentration makes him good in the air when other defenders are easily distracted by the run of a man rather than the flight of the ball.
Fittingly for a team like Arsenal his passing and distribution is solid albeit it a little simplistic however this style of simple passing works extremely well for Per and is another overlooked and undervalued skill that often starts great attacking moves or eradicates danger. It also suits Arsenal’s counter-attacking abilities as both Mertesacker and Höwedes are great at getting the balls out to the flanks quickly and accurately.
Höwedes isn’t afraid to lump it/go long to clear danger which is something I know many Arsenal supporters would love as the cries of “clear it” or “get it out of there” or “smash it up the pitch” reverberate around wherever Arsenal supporters may be.
Benedikt is young and can improve further so would be an extremely astute and affordable investment. He could slot into the team next to Per or he could replace him as first-choice but either way we would have a very good player on our hands and with no significant departures we would finally have four very good centre-backs on our hands and would still be able to take advantage of the versatility of Koscielny at right-back and Vermaelen at left-back without compromising our depth at centre-half too much if we were hit with injuries.
There are plenty of options available to Arsenal this summer and I hope that Höwedes is one of them despite him signing a contract extension recently. We might go for him, we might not, but either way it’s going to be an interesting off-season.
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