Well this is a great day for my site as I have finally secured a guest slot from Jane Cavendish. She is one of the best tactical writers on The Arsenal and I for one wish she would write more often but when she does on her own blog it is always a bonus. You can find her stuff at ‘Horses in the Avenell Road‘ also the most originally named Arsenal blog. You can also follow her on twitter @jcav90 and I urge you to do so.
You will have surmised the subject from the title and Jane’s arguments and analysis are very powerful…..
Our manager is loyal to a fault, often standing by players when other managers would already have cut their losses. When, last season, Diaby made a grand total of no starts at all in the league, even the most cynical of Wenger-watchers might have been a tad surprised at the umpteenth reiteration of the “Diaby is like a new signing” mantra at the beginning of this campaign. Having made the fateful decision to anoint Thomas Vermaelen as our club captain, it was no surprise at all when Chelsea came visiting last September that Wenger would drop the excellent Mertersacker for the fit-again but error-prone Belgian because that’s the way Wenger works. He makes his decision, and then backs his judgement by showing loyalty to his protégés. The louder everyone else protests, the firmer he is in his conviction. Now, this is a good philosophy in principle. You have to empower your players; to give them confidence that if they make a mistake it won’t have catastrophic consequences on their career. By accepting their occasional errors you are minimising their psychological propensity to make them in the first place by letting them play without fear. It’s not possible to strike this balance absolutely perfectly but I’d say in general there are more ticks in the positive column than the negative in Wenger’s trusting, long-term approach. Ramsey is the latest example of a player who’s had to fight his way into form, silencing the boo-boys to show what we’ve all suspected for a while, that he’s a proper player. If we’ve also had to suffer a couple of seasons of Gervinho, well, you can’t win them all. He might have gone on to “do a Pires”, he had the record in France and the skill on the ball to have been worth persevering with, alas, and it’s now a forlorn hope.
However, this strategy only works up to a point. There comes a time when a player is in such a rut of form with confidence on the floor that not only will the team benefit from his temporary absence but it will also come as a relief to the player himself. The common perception is that this is exactly what’s happened to Vermaelen – a good player going through a tough time. Sadly, I think the truth is more complicated and ominous. Let me draw your attention to an article by the excellent Michael Cox written during the 2009/2010 season, his first in England; evidence that he was making exactly the same sort of terrible positional errors right from the outset that have cost us so dearly this season. For example, watch again Bale’s first goal at the Lane earlier this season and keep your eyes on Vermaelen’s positioning. Even though I have seen this sequence more times than is good for my mental well being, I can’t help but shout at my screen each time I watch it. “Hold your ground. Watch his run. What are you doing? WHERE ARE YOU GOING?? Oh Sh*t!” So why, if his game was always so full of mistakes, did we think Vermaelen was such a good defender when he first arrived at the club? I believe there are three separate reasons. The first is that he scored a lot of goals, 13 in his first season, and that always grabs headlines and distracts from how one performs one’s day-job. Second, he was and is a good header of the ball. Remember that we’d been having all sorts of problems with aerial balls into our box in the previous season. We were at the time a team of hobbits and our centre-back pairing of Gallas and Kolo, while both good players, couldn’t head their way out of a paper bag. We all gave thanks at the time that Vermaelen had arrived and, at a stroke, solved our biggest defensive weakness without noticing the new ones that he’d brought with him.
The third reason was because he was playing alongside William Gallas. One of the great axioms of football is that you should never judge a centre-back in isolation but you judge them as partnerships. Gallas was the ideal partner for Vermaelen because they had complementary instincts and, although we have mostly forgotten it now owing to the Frenchman’s ability to start an argument in an empty broom-cupboard, he was a bloody good player. Quick, intelligent and aggressive Gallas’s first instinct was always on to the back foot, rather than to attack the ball. Wenger always likes to play a centre-back partnership with a left-foot/right-foot combination but I always think that it’s more important to think in terms of a front-foot/back-foot partnership instead. Ideally, you want a commanding, physical defender who can front up the opposition striker, win the ball in the air or bully the player on the ground. Then, to complement this, you need a mobile defender who can sweep up behind his partner when he’s committed himself; someone who’s first instinct is back-and-round, rather than up-and-at-em. A Sol always needs his Kolo behind him.
Gallas was a fine back-foot defender, probably one of the best in the league over the last ten years, and being the perfect foil for Vermaelen, papered over many of the cracks in our back line. When the Belgian over-committed again and again, finding himself in midfield no-man’s land, more often than not Gallas had the positional sense and the raw pace to nip the problem in the bud. Per Mertersacker is obviously a completely different type of defender who is himself a not-particularly mobile front-foot centre-back. It should not therefore be a surprise to anyone that the partnership has not worked, nor was it ever likely to. Ah, I hear you say, but surely Koscielny is a younger version of Gallas, a very quick defender who can sniff danger and whose first instinct is back and round. Should they not also be a good complimentary partnership? In theory, yes, but practice has proved otherwise and I suspect the answer lies in the fact that Koscielny lacks Gallas’s organisational abilities and can’t yet read the game as quickly as the Frenchman was able to in his prime. Communication also has a lot to do with it and neither Vermaelen nor Koscielny are talkers on the field. When both of your centre-backs are as mute as each other, it’s always a recipe for disaster.
Vermaelen’s unpredictability has a very unsettling effect on everyone around him. If you’re a fullback playing next to him, covering round while the opposition attack up the opposite flank, you need to know what your centre-backs are going to do in any given situation. If you have no idea whether he’s going to hold his line or suddenly go off-piste it makes it very hard to second-guess where you need to be yourself. We have seen this with Monreal when he’s come into the side; it’s hard enough to have to adjust to the pace of the Premier League without having to factor in slotting into a Keystone Cops back-four. He’s obviously a very talented player but his defending at times has been all over the place. Remember the piece that Gary Neville highlighted on his Monday show a couple of months ago? The one where Monreal was trying to body check the striker instead of playing him offside? That was a clear case of Monreal’s frustration at his captain’s positional discipline leaving him high and dry, never knowing when he should step up or when the four of them should try to hold the offside line. While we’re on the subject of left-backs, I will say one thing of Vermaelen’s abilities as a centre-back – they’re better than his abilities as a left-back. Against Fulham at home he managed to pull off the seemingly impossible trick if simultaneously offering no threat going forward (to the extent that he did not make a single forward pass) whilst constantly being exposed with the ball played behind him into the channel. Wenger is not a stupid man and what he’s forgotten about football tactics would eclipse what you or I have ever known or will ever know. Having painted himself into a corner, he could see the wreckage of our season unfolding and he understood why. Being by nature a conservative man, he waited until that last possible moment before he moved to rectify it, making the change most humble fans had recognised the necessity for months, in some cases a year, beforehand. Better late than never, though, and what a change it was. On paper, the partnership of Mertersacker and Koscielny was potentially the best this club has had since the Invincibles but, as we have seen, potential partnerships don’t always deliver and you have to prick yourself on its sharp edge before you can truly know how effective it is. Of course they’d played together a couple of times earlier in the season but to be told that you’re the first choice partnership is an entirely different thing.
They delivered everything we’d hoped for and more, right from their first game together in Munich of all places, the hardest place in Europe to visit and to come away with a clean sheet. If that was a triumph of textbook defending, it was but a first step in an impressive display of consistency throughout the rest of the season. In the eleven remaining games of the season, Arsenal conceded only three goals from open play. Yes, three, in eleven games. That’s league-winning form and way better than anyone else could manage during the title run-in. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is now our first choice selection in defence, that it is one of the best (if not THE best) in the league and barring injury will remain so for the duration of next season. I would go so far as to say that our chances of competing for the league next season depend as much on the fitness of Mertersacker and Koscielny as on the signing of any £50m striker. So where does that leave our club captain? I’ve seen the majority of fans on twitter say that they’re happy to keep Vermaelen as third choice but I disagree for two reasons. First, you won’t be surprised to hear, I simply don’t rate his defensive abilities and that if he has to step in because of injury, we will simply start leaking goals again. Also, I don’t think that having a deposed captain moping around on the bench can be good for anyone’s morale. Wenger’s choice of captains over the last few seasons hasn’t exactly worked out well for the club; neither Fabregas nor van Persie were natural on-field leaders and the common perception is they were offered the position as an extra inducement to stay loyal to the club – which worked out well. Vermaelen is a slightly different case although he turned out to be the least natural captain of them all. But the curse of the captaincy has struck again and I contend that it would be best for all if we parted ways.
I like the new, ruthless Wenger, the man who’s rediscovered his stick after a decade of mollycoddling his young fledglings by feeding them a field full of carrots. But don’t lose your conviction halfway through Arsene. Have the courage of your convictions; thank Vermaelen for his loyal service and send him on his way.
Thanks Jane. A strong, well thought our and convincing argument. Time for TV5 to be asked to leave? Thoughts?
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