The Arsenal defence. A much talked about subject throughout the lest few decades, for positive and negative reasons. Arsenal's defence has not enjoyed a great reputation since the famous back four was dismantled and ended their long, glorious careers. Even the Invincible defence that only conceded 18 goals in the season has not enjoyed the recognition it deserves. Since those incredible 49 games we have not had the best defenders at the club though and surely the loss of great, world class defenders and 'keepers has contributed to the 6% fall in matches won since 2005 of the Wenger era.
Silvestre, Senderos, (and probably the worst of the lot) Squillaci have not enjoyed ceremonious times at the club. And will certainly be remembered for their bad qualities rather than good. Worst of all has been the Goalkeeping situation. The Arsenal has had a long tradition of great 'keepers. Wilson, Jennings and Lukic who was followed the greatest of them all Seaman, and Lehmann - who has to be remembered in this company. Following Lehmann seems to have just been mistake, after mistake after mistake. And a certain Spaniard has been at fault for most of them, despite the best efforts of Fabianski.
But have tides finally changed?
We now have a great goalkeeper, and when we get our full-backs back we will have a great defence.
Szczesny has everything to be a top quality goalkeeper, and has already shown he is one of the best in the league already, better than the 20 million euro De Gea anyway. The Pole exudes confidence and has improved the defence by giving them someone they can trust behind them. Arsenal have a history of great goalkeepers, and in recent years we have not even had a good one. But Szczesny seems to have the capability to become the best of them all.
It may sound strange, and is something we would never have imagined to have seen during the Wenger era, but our defence is not the main source of our problems. Sagna has suffered a freak injury - a fracture - and when fit is known throughout the country as the best right back. It is not easy to be chosen in the best Premier League XI, but Sagna has done just that. He was painfully missed in the 8-2 mauling at Old Trafford, and is one of the only right backs in the world capable of dealing with some of the best left midfielders as he does.
Tucked in next to him is a possible partnership which could do anything. Vermaelen has struggled with injuries after that un-diagnosable strain he picked up last season which left him out for over 6 months, and has led to smaller niggly injuries this season. When fit though, he is easily in the category of the best defenders in the league. Quite simply he is our Vidic in everything but stature. Moreover, whilst still very much underrated by the majority of the footballing world, Koscielny is vastly improving his game with every minute he plays. He may have been at fault for the Carling Cup final, but he has easily been our best defender this season. His reading of the game is something you saw from the best Italian defenders in the 90's and he has worked hard on improving the physical aspect that he encounters in the Premier League.
Centre-back could even possibly be considered as our most covered position on the pitch. Who else in the league can call on an international with over 80 caps? And that country is not one that hands out caps for fun. Mertesacker has captained Germany before, and has been central to their successful World and European cup runs. He may have been criticised at time this season, but he has not had an easy job. I doubt he's ever played in the same back four two matches in a row since signing. Despite all the madness around him, he has settled well and even though he doesn't have the physique of a Samba or Vidic, his reading and positioning and tackling is up there with the best in the league. If only he had a bit more pace..
If worse came to worse, and we were missing more than one of the defenders mentioned above. We can then call upon other capable players. Djourou is certainly not the most capable right back, and will never be the most coveted defender in the world, but I would prefer him than Savic and Evans. After all, he did feature in THAT game against Barcelona, and restricted them to only one goal. Furthermore, Miquel has featured at left back in the majority of his first team forays. But he is a natural centre-back, and will be a great one too. He has something about him, despite his slender figure and can learn a lot from those in front of him. He is also only 19 and can certainly become a great, great defender for club and country.
Left back is certainly the most difficult position in the defence. At the start of this post I said "when we get our full-backs back we will have a great defence" with the emphasis definitely on "when". Sagna is now back in training, and should be back for the Milan and Tottenham ties by the end of February. Gibbs and Santos on the other hand are still unknown re their return dates. The most recent team news is that the loveable Brazilian is out for the season, whilst Gibbs is meant to return soon...ish. But can we rely on Gibbs, who has so far not been able to put a run of 15 games together to last for the rest of the season, with no cover. Maybe we should have gone for a left back.
When they are fit though, I think both Santos and Gibbs are very underrated, Santos especially. He is referred to in an almost "jokey", sarcastic way by commentators whenever he plays, which is very unfair to him. He is great going forward, offering more in terms of goals and assists in his opening 3 months than Clichy ever did in 3 years. The archetypal Brazilian wing back, he has a wicked left foot and the change in our fortunes since his injury (a stupid decision to play him against Olympiakos) is definitely partly down to him not being here. Defensively he needs work, but I don't think he is any worse than Clichy ever was, and he is bound to be caught out occasionally due to his penetrating attacking runs. Ashley Cole would have been the same, but the work Gilberto Silva and other players put in to cover the ground he left behind him meant it was almost unnoticed. Santos is a good left back, and whilst he is not the same player as the world class cunts at Chelsea and United, he was an astute signing from Arsene.
A short mention must also go to the stop gaps who have featured bit-part role in our makeshift defences. Jenkinson has endured a tough spell since signing for his boyhood club, especially after the 8-2 mauling, but before his (yet again a freak injury) injury he was turning into a competent defender with bags of energy. We have certainly missed him with Sagna's injury. Moreover, another young boyhood Arsenal fan is Nico Yennaris, who has come through the ranks as a midfielder in a team featuring Benik Afobe. He has not played a lot but in his few appearance he has been very impressive. His debut against Bolton had him keeping Tuncay completely out of the match, whilst his most recent games against both Leeds and Manchester United have seen him probably overtake Djourou as first choice at the moment. Sunday's game was particularly impressive, as he came on for his PL debut and stopped any attacks down United's left hand side which had torn apart Djourou earlier in the game. We can also not forget Coquelin who has made up for the nightmare he had at right back against Stoke in the FA cup a few years ago, with energetic, classy performances on both sides of defence recently.
The defence is not the best in the world, in fact it is nowhere near that level, but it certainly is not as bad as it is made out to be. Our main problem this season has been defending as a team. The 433 formation is meant to support us both attacking and defensively, but it doesn't give nearly enough cover to our full backs, and the makeshift defenders we have there at the moment simply have not coped. Djourou was overloaded by Nani, Evra and even Giggs during Sunday's first half, while Walcott (and at times Chamberlain) was standing on the half way line, that is simply not good enough and surely not something Wenger is coaching them to do.
The midfield 3 also need to work harder, and it is notable how much Arteta's absence has cost us in 2012. With Wilshere's emergence in the next month, we will have more depth, energy and vitality in there and that is only a good thing. Ramsey, Song and Mikel have played too much football and especially over the Christmas period looked quite fatigued. Coquelin could also be given a chance that quite frankly he deserves. He is great on the ball and has a reading of the game better than most players twice his age, which can help break up the attacking moves that tear open our team far too easily.
You only have to look to this evening's Classico to witness how defending as a team is so vital in the modern game. Both sides have taken that to the extreme, with unbelievable pressing games that win the ball back almost instantaneously. We do not have to copy this tactic, but more pressing and hard work will work wonders for our goals against collum.
Hopefully we can see a calm, consistent back four in the near future, because our first choice defence is the best its been in years.