[Editors Note: The season is almost upon us, last season was unpredictable to say the least, with all the top sides forking out television money with gay abandon, it is going to be even tougher to guess where the title will end up at the end of the season. Few backed Leicester City at the start of the season, the few that did will be quids in and perhaps it is time for you to get some of that lovely cash if you Read more about accumulator tips here, it might even be worth put some sheckles down on the Arsenal before we 'do a madness' and bring in some players before the window closes.]
Following the news that Per Mertesacker, the German centre back and likely club captain this year, has suffered a serious knee injury, Wenger has been left with a gaping hole at the heart of his defence. The German who has one year left on his contract faces the very unfortunate and unfair scenario of seeing out his last year as a bit part player. But rather than focusing on the negativity of the situation, the unfortunate injury has presented Wenger with the opportunity to right one of his most recent wrongs: finding a partner of the requisite quality to match the outstanding Koscielny.
Koscielny was an instantaneous success for Arsenal, uprooted from Tours – ‘The Garden of France’ in 2009, the French stopper has remained a consistent in an ever-changing and evolving defence at Arsenal. The Frenchman has had the misfortune of sharing a back four with Gallas, Silvestre, an aging Kolo Toure and a crocked Thomas Vermaelen. He has survived and occasionally thrived alongside a stand in Nacho Monreal, a nervous Calum Chambers and a slow but steady Per Mertsacker. And he’s made the best of brief stints alongside Flamini, Sagna, Djourou and Alex Song. However, with the French man creeping past the 30 mark, it seems unfair that Koscielny has never been part of a great duo – one that his talent and leadership qualities deserve.
Premier League enthusiasts have been treated to some exceptional centre back partnerships throughout its history. The Invincibles had the impervious Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure to rely upon. The excellent United team that won the Premier League at the back end of the 2000s had the calm Rio Ferdinand and the Bond-esque henchman of Vidic to nullify opposing attackers. A favourite of mine was the uncompromising Henchoz and Hyypia partnership that excelled in an average Liverpool squad. Prior to those great partnerships, Ferguson relied on the warlike Bruce and Pallister, Wenger on the leadership and mental fortitude of Adams and Keown and Ranieri even had the good fortune to boast Lebouef and Desailly amongst his ranks. Even recent partnerships of Alderweirld and Vertonghen, Morgan and Huth and Fonte and van Dijk have left a longing amongst Arsenal fans for a reliable and harmonizing companion to partner the ever-excellent Koscielny.
Wenger has come to a bit of a crossroads this summer. Even before his injury, it seemed apparent that Per Mertesacker would not be able to cope with the physicality or the pace of the more dangerous attackers in the league. The threat of Aguero, Kane, Costa and Ibrahimovic and their varying skillsets would have troubled a fit Mertesacker. If Arsenal are to challenge for the title, Wenger must put aside his compassion for the big German and introduce a partner who can cope with the physicality of the league and complement Koscielny. Calum Chambers and Gabriel offer something of an internal solution; but many would propose that neither have impressed enough to suggest they could deal with the top end talent of the Premier League.
Whether Wenger delves into the transfer market this summer for a centre back remains to be seen. Much of what we know of Wenger would suggest that he would be happy with four centre backs: two close to their prime, one an elder statesman and the other a young defender who could be moulded for the future – with the acquisition of Holding and the supposed trialling of Coquelin in the role (reports suggest this is for training purposes only but we’ve seen Alex Song play there in the past), he might feel he has enough to cope. However, the Euros have offered Wenger an interesting insight into what type of defender he should be looking for.
Koscielny was paired alongside both Rami and Umtiti throughout the tournament, with Umtiti looking the more suitable of the pair. The French debutant won an average of 3.2 aerial duels throughout the tournament compared to a solid but uninspiring 2 from the taller and more experienced Rami. Koscielny won a fairly impressive 2.9 aerial duels but where the Arsenal defender differs from his partners is that he made and attempted far more interceptions. That Koscielny attempted and made more interceptions will come as no surprise to Arsenal fans as it has become a signature move of his game; he frequently intercepts passes and attempts to play on the front foot in the Premier League – giving forwards no time to turn or making them fight even just to receive the ball. With his style of play, it seems apparent that Wenger must find a centre back who will sweep behind the more front-footed Koscielny and have the ability to tackle onrushing defenders or attack the ball in the air.
Umtiti fits the mould well, making 1.4 tackles and 6 clearances per game last season. Unfortunately he is obviously off the market, however, there does seem to be a number of defenders who would encourage interest from Arsenal and could potentially make the step up. Virgil van Dijk, the former Celtic defender and current Southampton centre back continues to impress and has risen to every challenge he has faced so far. The Dutch centre-back stands at 6ft3 and has many of the attributes desirable to our defence and team as a whole. With a total of 1.7 tackles and 7.6 clearances a game last year, van Dijk was a rock for the Saints. His pass success percentage of 83% would be offset by Koscielny’s 87% and the introduction of Granit Xhaka who enjoys dropping deep and taking possession from the defence. An impressive 4.8 aerial duels won a game would suggest that very few centre forwards would be capable of bullying the Dutch mountain who has experience in the Champions’ League as well. Given Arsenal’s propensity for collapsing under pressure, the 7 Man of the Match awards won by van Dijk last year would suggest a mental fortitude that is somewhat lacking in Arsenal’s current back four (It’s telling that Mertesacker didn’t receive a single Man of the Match award despite being the Arsenal captain).
There was no single centre back who received a higher rating from whoscored.com than van Dijk but one who came close was Wales and Swansea stalwart – Ashley Williams. Similar to van Dijk, Williams excelled in clearances and tackles (8.9 and 1.7 respectively) and racked up an impressive 5 Man of the Match displays in recognition of his leadership qualities and performances. Given Williams’ age and his contract, he may fancy moving to a team that has the potential of challenging for the title; given the manner in which he conducted himself at the Euros, it wouldn’t seem too farfetched to surmise that Williams’ leadership skills and big game mentality might be enough to get Arsenal over the line.
Looking further afield, Europe is awash with promising and established centre backs. One only needs to look at the four centre backs who appeared for Germany in the European championship this summer. Whilst Boateng and Hummels are both out of Wenger’s price range, the performances of Mustafi and Howedes provides some food for thought. Mustafi in particular, seems well suited to act as the bruising heavy to Arsenal’s syndicate of ball playing defenders. Mustafi produced 4 Man of the Match performances in 30 La Liga appearances last year with an average of 5 clearances, 2.7 tackles and 3 aerial duels won; at 24 years old, the German seems an ideal left field option to the potential centre back problem. If Wenger truly wanted to get the best out of his backline, then perhaps an audacious bid for Diego Godin of Athletico Madrid could prove fruitful. The Uruguayan has been somewhat of a revelation at Athletico since moving from Villareal back in 2010. His repertoire doesn’t expand much beyond attacking set pieces, marshalling the defence and clearing his lines but he is undoubtedly a reliable centre back with the experience and know-how to lead a team.
There is often a touch of speculation when writing an article with prospective new players. However, on this occasion, it is not the names that are important but the components of the player that they make up. Koscielny deserves a partner worthy of the name. There is, unlike the striker situation in football, a significant amount of players with the required pedigree who could and will move this summer. It is now on the heads of Wenger and those he trusts to find the requisite qualities and characteristics in a player that will help to meld Arsenal’s defensive qualities into one uncompromising and functioning unit.
Til next time,
Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.