Most of the transfer tittle tattle from Arsenal fans at the moment revolves around the acquisition of a new striker, or a new screening midfielder or the rumoured return of an old flame. But how Arsene Wenger addresses the right back slot is likely to have a significant impact on the team next season. In Bacary Sagna, Arsene Wenger is losing one of his most trusted lieutenants. Tellingly, Sagna was almost never rotated in his last few seasons at the club. He very much fell into the “if he’s fit, he plays” category.
Even when there were doubts over his fitness for the dead rubber match with West Brom in May, with a Cup Final on the horizon, Wenger still opted for Sagna at right back. This isn’t just because Bacary is a very good, experienced right back. It isn’t just because he was one of the team’s elder statesmen and one of its leaders. He actually had a very important tactical role that his replacement (whoever it may be) will do very well to replicate.
As this piece by @jcav90 notes, Sagna is occasionally criticised for his lack of contribution in an attacking capacity, but that slightly misses the point of his role in the team. Very few top sides in Europe have two roving, attacking full backs. Usually there is an attacking bias that favours the full back on one side. For Wenger, that has always appeared on the left hand side.
Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy, Andre Santos and Kieran Gibbs all spent varying periods of their development playing further forward. Cole was a centre forward in Arsenal’s academy, Clichy made his league debut as a left winger against Birmingham in 2003. Kieran Gibbs came through the ranks as a winger, whilst Santos was very much in the Brazilian ‘lateral’ mould of full back. (He’s actually currently playing on the left side of a midfield three at Flamengo).
In fact, Wenger even converted Lauren from a midfielder into a full back, though this owed more to his positional discipline and tough tackling qualities. Gibbs, Clichy, Cole and Santos were more adventurous players. Sagna is a pure defender. So much so that he can play centre half comfortably. Typically, he plays behind Theo Walcott, assuming he is fit. Walcott is not really a winger at all, as soon as Arsenal have the ball, he peels off the flank to join Olivier Giroud as a more central forward.
The upshot is that that gives Sagna an awful lot of responsibility, both defensively where he has less assistance and in an attacking sense, where he is often without an obvious passing combination ahead of him. Even with Walcott indisposed for much of the season, Sagna has played behind the likes of Wilshere, Rosicky and Cazorla, none of whom are asked to hug the flank. It’s true that Sagna’s crossing can be inconsistent, but Arsenal aren’t really a crossing team. (Ask yourself how many times a game Kieran Gibbs flings one into the mixer).
Sagna’s first priority is to keep the right hand side secure. That he does this without much assistance is not often appreciated. I would wager that this will prove to be an issue in settling in Arsenal’s new right back, at least at the outset of next season. Nacho Monreal for instance, has struggled at times with his immersion into the Arsenal team. Like Sagna, Monreal is primarily a defensive full-back; his instinct is more inclined to playing close to his centre halves rather than his left winger. It doesn’t come naturally to Nacho to provide the main attacking thrust of the two full backs.
Sagna has effectively taken the baton from Lauren, who played much the same role for Arsenal, with Cole the more enterprising on the opposite side of the pitch. This is why Wenger purchased Sagna in the summer of 2007, even when he had two established right backs in Eboue and Justin Hoyte. In 2006-07, Wenger had Eboue and Clichy as his full backs and both were attackers. Hoyte was meant to be the more ‘secure’ full back option (he made his Arsenal debut at centre half) but Wenger lost faith in him to become a first team player and he rated Clichy more highly than Eboue.
Arsenal are going to have a hard time finding somebody who performs those functions as effectively as Sagna does. Ultimately, I don’t think Arsenal will entrust the role to Jenkinson because he’s much more of a ‘roving’ full back. That said, I entirely understand why Arsenal did not match Sagna’s salary expectations. At 31 he’s not going to get any better and realistically, we’d only have to replace him in a year or two anyway. We’re probably better off using the cash to expedite that process rather than showing financial largesse for a short term fix.
Likewise, I have no issues with Sagna either. If the likes of PSG, Arsenal and Manchester City are prepared to pay 31 year old Sagna six figures a week, then I think it’s reasonably obvious that he could have courted even greater wealth at the age of 28. He didn’t, he stuck with us when other big players left and he hasn’t behaved badly at all in his departure. He hasn’t suddenly made the decision to leave either. You have to think he made his mind up some time ago, but did anyone detect any lack of intensity in his performances at the end of last season?
For players, it’s difficult to know what ‘loyalty’ constitutes nowadays. Especially if you’re leaving a club where the fans ostensibly want you to stay. There have been accusations of disloyalty against Sagna despite the fact that he has seen out his contract. Many argue that the likely destination of Manchester City makes him worthy of scorn. That suggests that the message is basically, “Leave when we want you to, go to who we think you should go to, when we think you ought to go there. Look after our interests.”
I just think morally, that’s an incongruous position to hold if you’re accusing others of greed, vanity or selfishness. Some of course believe Arsenal should have resolved the contract situation sooner, but you can’t force a player to sign a deal against their will and the offer was made to Sagna some 18 months ago, after he had recovered from two broken legs. The club obviously assessed the situation and felt they were unlikely to get much in the market for Sagna by selling him before the expiry of his deal, they knew he would be the consummate professional whilst he was still here and his service until this point was worth more to us than a transfer fee. Eh Bobby, what is ze French for ‘football reasons?’
Sagna’s departure would have caused much more damage in previous summers when the picture was much less stable around the squad. ‘Politically’ it’s as mutually agreeable a departure as I can imagine. (Unless he ends up at Chelsea. At which point I’ll bombard his social media accounts with Instabuse.)
There doesn’t always have to be blame or a claim. ‘Footballistically’, replacing Sagna will be one of Wenger’s biggest challenges this summer. Not just procuring the replacement in the market, but nesting him into the team tactically. He has big braids to fill. LD.
Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA