I suppose it’s axiomatic to say that Arsenal’s is a much more green and pleasant land in the aftermath of a good victory. The scorched earth of transfer deadline day has (temporarily at least) given way to the first flower of spring. I still have my misgivings about the squad, but there seems little point in recycling them now. Particularly when those concerns have already been articulated so eloquently elsewhere. There will be plenty of time to reanimate those concerns / confess to my stultifying ignorance as the season progresses.
Arsenal have a new look attack this season and all of the players they purchased this summer operate in the final third, but it’s the defending that has caught the eye thus far. I say “defending” as opposed to “defence” because I was of the impression last season that the “defence” were o.k, but the “defending” not so much. Since the dissolution of the famous back five at Arsenal, the most austere periods of Arsene’s reign defensively, have arrived when the backline has required reorganisation to the point of being makeshift.
In early 2005, with Gilberto and Sol Campbell injured, a 20 year old Philippe Senderos was catapulted headlong into the Arsenal back four. The Gunners conceded only one goal in eleven games following his first Premier League start. The goal was conceded in the one game in that eleven game sequence that Senderos did not play in. That same game that saw the solitary concession also marked Gilberto Silva’s first match after a seven month absence. Then of course we have the run of ten clean consecutive sheets Arsenal ascertained in the run to the 2006 Champions League Final.
This was achieved on the back of a very raw and inexperienced back four containing a wide eyed Emmanuel Eboue at right back and a deputy central midfielder at left back, whilst royalty such as Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole nursed their wounds. As soon as they returned, the team were breached by Barcelona (albeit with mitigating circumstances). Now we have a situation where Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Alex Song and Wojciech Szczesny – four of last season’s top performers whose primary jobs belong in the defensive third – have seen degrees of action ranging from diddly to squat.
Yet with our third choice goalkeeper, a right back that turned out for Welling United less than two years ago and a deep lying midfielder that has never played the screening role before, our goal remains virginal. Is this just coincidence? Possibly. Sunderland and Stoke weren’t the most adventurous of opponents and Liverpool have hardly been renowned for unerring accuracy in front of goal in the last year or so. Yet we conceded three goals in the corresponding fixtures last year. Is Steve Bould’s influence being realised so quickly? Again, it’s conceivable.
But I think you could also argue that Arsenal simply become more conscious of that side of the game when key defensive personnel is missing. There’s a sense I think that the entire team in front of the back four becomes more responsible because, even subconsciously, they realise that the likes of Mannone and Jenkinson require protection.(How many of Vermaelen’s Labrador like wanders up-field have we seen so far this season?)
Defending isn’t something that is ingrained onto the psyche of this side, not yet anyway. That’s why you’ll often see us toss a goal to the opposition when we go two or three goals clear. Defending is usually seen as a necessary evil so that the players can do the fun stuff. Much like suffering your broccoli because you know that if you grimace through it; ice cream awaits you. For the first three games this season, a clean sheet has looked like an objective.
I think Andre Santos is a superb player and his defensive weaknesses are exaggerated (I genuinely believe that were he not Brazilian, the “Santos can’t defend” discourse would not find half as much oxygen). But the manager has clearly made a decision to put his stock in Kieran Gibbs at left back because he is more conservative. His youth also allows him to build understanding with the likes of Szczesny, Jenkinson and the other centre halves for the future. Gibbs is up for contract renewal himself, so playing him regularly could have the added factor of keeping him sweet.
The defence is the one area of the team that isn’t annually plundered by Barcelona and Manchester (Barchester? Mancelona?), so we do have the prospect of forging partnerships back there. Koscielny, Vermaelen and Mertesacker remain on secure contracts too. But it’s far too early to start venerating our rearguard as the second coming of the Maginot Line. The continuity will be disrupted by necessary line up changes and more potent attacks await. I still fear that any injury to Mikel Arteta will again have the team leaking like a rusty colander.
However quotes have circulated from Bacary Sagna on Thursday which cast doubt over his future. It’s a familiar opening step in the negotiation dance. Give vaguely concerned interview to foreign press outlet. This results in supporters sounding the panic klaxon, which, the player and his agents hope will light a fire under the club’s arse and simultaneously get the fans on your side. (This was the part of the dance that saw van Persie stumble somewhat). Consequently, all of your bases are covered. It’s chapter 1 in the agent’s handbook.
Either the club panics and offers you a lovely big pay rise (the supporters are by now, so gripped with panic that they won’t worry too much about your naked avarice), or else they don’t. If they blink, you say the interview was a mistranslation and grin for the cameras. If they don’t, you can apply a nice pathos garnish and say that the club “didn’t value” you enough as you trouser lots of cash elsewhere. Questions will be asked about allowing players to get within two years of the zenith of their deals. But to set the cut off point any earlier essentially means you give your key personnel a pay rise every single year – if we accept that a typical contract will last for four years. A Cultured Left Foot wrote a thought provoking piece on contracts this week
I look at it from my own selfish point of view as well. To meet the cost of giving a multitude of players a salary rises every single year, would I be willing for my ticket price to rise every summer to meet the cost? Absolutely not. I realise we have wage inefficiencies that we have tried, unsuccessfully for the most part, to shift. So does every club. So does every single organisation in the world, but throwing good money after bad isn’t going to help reduce that disparity.
I’m not going to re-erect Peter Hill Wood’s Glasgow Rangers strawman for you, but dishing out pay rises to everyone that vaguely threatens the club isn’t the answer. There has to be a line in the sand where the club assert their limits. Offering new deals two years before expiry is a happy medium between not inflating everybody’s salary every 12 months and giving us enough time to sell the “contract rebels” who show recalcitrance. Except for the case of Theo Walcott, that is a situation that truly baffles me.
Anyway, if the international break is leaving you feeling a little football starved, the Arsenal Ladies play Lincoln City at Borehamwood on Sunday afternoon. They’re two wins away from their 3,978th League title and would appreciate the support I’m sure. What else are you going to do on a Sunday? Sit staring into half distance, imagining Peter Hill Wood calling Bill Grundy a “fuckin’ rotter” in pitch perfect cockney accent with a cheap fag perched in his mouth? I thought as much. Get yourself down there. Till next week. LD.
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