The Interlull is well and truly upon us. The first games take place tomorrow but the lullishness hangs over us like we were a chip pan fire and it were a kind of urine soaked tea-towel. No, I don’t know what I mean either.
This time last year, this very day in fact, we were fretting over Thomas Vermaelen who had just undergone surgery on his Achilles. He spent two months out but, after picking up a knock against the Mugsmashers on Sunday, probably when Steven Gerrard lowered his brow even further and tackled him off the pitch that time, he says he’s fine and should be fit and well to play for Belgiania this week.
Given how effective his partnership with Per Mertesacker has been in the opening three games it’d would be a blow to lose either of them, even if we do have Laurent Koscielny waiting in the wings. The captain has also hailed the influence of Steve Bould, saying:
He is our assistant now and has a lot of experience at a high level with Arsenal. We work a lot on our defensive play and you can see that with our three clean sheets.
And it is obvious that things have changed from a defensive point of view. This time last season we’d conceded 10 goals, and although much of the damage was done by that freak result at Old Trafford it doesn’t really matter when your goal difference is in the Trainspotting toilet. All people see is how many you’ve conceded and judge your defensive structure on that. It creates an air of mistrust, understandably.
This time around things are different. Clearly there’s no point getting too far ahead of ourselves, it is just three games after all, but the fact we haven’t conceded increases the confidence, not just of the players but of the fans in the players, and that can make a difference to things too. For example, let’s look at Vito Mannone and Carl Jenkinson, two players filling in in positions where we have an established and obvious first choice.
When fit both Wojciech Szczesny and Bacary Sagna come straight back into the side for me, but it’s a real positive that both their stand-ins are playing well and contributing well to our defensive record. I know many had hearts in mouths over the thoughts of Mannone vs Stoke, but the young Italian seems to have benefited from his loan spell at Hull and although he looked a bit iffy under the high ball once or twice, it will do him good to have kept two clean sheets and made some good saves.
Similarly Jenkinson, a player who is still incredibly raw at this level, has been solid as the back four have kept three clean sheets in a row. You didn’t have to look too hard to find Arsenal fans talking about how Liverpool’s ‘wonderkid’, Raheem Sterling, was going to tear our fella a new one. Instead Jenkinson played probably his best game for the club, kept Sterling quiet and wasn’t found wanting in any capacity (bar a couple of poor passes in the first 15 minutes).
The new found collective responsibility towards defending has played a big part in things too. Mikel Arteta’s performances as the deepest lying midfielder are in stark contrast to the way teams used to be able to saunter right through the middle towards our back four, and the work put in by the wide men, Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain, in protecting their full backs is both obvious and highly effective. However, that old cliche about how a chain is only as strong as its weakest link is often true in football but neither Mannone or Jenkinson has been found wanting and we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that will have on them.
I think both of them know where they stand in the pecking order. It’s great that Mannone wants to challenge Szczesny for the number 1 spot but he knows the the number 1 in well and truly in Pole position (sorry). The same with Jenkinson, he knows Sagna, when fit, is probably the most consistent right back in the league, but both of them have thus far performed very well, which will not only boost their own confidence, but it means we look at our squad slightly differently.
If they’d struggled we’d be fretting over another Szczesny absence or a Sagna injury, trying to rearrange things, advocating playing players out of position because of lack of faith in their replacements. For both these guys to get a series of solid performances under their belts is a great benefit to them from a playing point of view, but also for us. Perhaps not in any tangible way, more in an overall sense as we look for this squad to take us where we want to go this season. If they feel confident, and don’t sense the anxiety from the crowd, it can only be a good thing for our performances as a team and for their development as players.
Injuries and absences in football are a fact of life, we have to be able to cope with them. Unless you’re one of the teams who can afford to maintain a massive group full of top class players, you have to be able to use your squad throughout the season. There’s a lot of football to play and your best XI can’t do it in every game. Players like Jenkinson and Mannone are important in the grand scheme of things and the better they do the better off we’ll be, even if we accept they still have much to learn.
Not a lot going on apart from that, so let’s leave it there for this Interlull morning. Until tomorrow.