Laurent Koscielny for all of his goals and excellent performances last year, he has truly lacked polish and defensive acuity, or defensive awareness for those of you who are FIFA nuts from back in the day.
Now I know I’m going on a rant, but yesterday I managed to squeak in a half of Champions League football over my lunch (Calgary is 7 hours behind London). What I saw was nothing less than horrifying, thankfully I have a strong heart, but Koscielny is putting it through its paces.
In the 35’ Koscielny is all over the back of the player that Vermaelen has covered. Vermaelen was between the Olympiacos player and the ball and was rising to meet it, ahead of and above the opponent. The guy was covered, now as a goalie my auxillary defender is there to cover any botches or balls that I might spill as I have to be prepared for a possible own goal attempt; Mannone had to focus on Vermaelen in case the ball went goalbound. I would be hollering at the defender separated by the ball from the attacker to pick up the extra in the box so I could focus on the ball in case our in position defender nudged it goalbound. That means that Koscielny had to read the oncoming players and cover them so a drop in the box did not go up on the opponents scoreboard… Well that did NOT happen on both accounts. Koscielny failed to cover, and Olympiacos failed to convert. Kozzer should be skinned for this, but he does it so often that people maybe are used to it? I don’t know, but I have been ranting for too long about this to not put it into print.
10 minutes later his lack of focus results in a goal. Koscielny’s role on a ball swung in from his right is to separate the attacker from the ball by getting in between the two and winning the header. Kozzer has great stats at winning those aerial duels. However he drifts off his mark possibly going for the ball (that is the keepers job) and leaves Mitroglou open. First priority is preventing the opponent from getting to the ball, the second is winning a ball that is in the open. The goalie should always be going for the open ball. Vermaelen cannot do anything about it unless he fouls Mitroglou earning a card and a penalty. The goal is converted on a fantastic header, and granted a fantastic cross too. However, all that skill aside, it was totally preventable with fundamental coverage.
Now I should compare the performances of Per Mertesacker to Koscielny because that is the obvious choice to replace him in the starting lineup, so to placate your desires let’s examine why Mertesacker is crucial. Mertesacker’s play has not resulted in one goal against (he was on the field but not directly involved in the three goals against). Mertesacker’s lone glaring mistake was a mistimed sliding challenge away to Montpellier, which resulted in a poorly taken shot straight at Mannone.
Arsenal made an early statement by keeping clean sheets, bending, but not breaking. It has been crucial for to keep the goals against statistic low as the forwards find their feet. Nobody expects Arsenal to concede fewer than 20 goals this season in the Premier League, but are we wrong for asking them to concede fewer than 30? Mertesacker’s approach of running out to players on the edge of the 18yard box has been fantastic; it is a very Italian way to defend. He sacrifices his body and closes down space. It makes it very difficult for an attacking player to react and get the ball over Mertesacker, let alone around him. Mertesacker has started six matches for Arsenal and over those matches I have counted an average of 2.33 blocked shots per match. That is a pretty fantastic individual statistic.
Mertesacker’s distribution has been exemplary. Generally he moves the ball to places where it will not be intercepted, now for Denilson that would mean sideways, but Mertesacker is safely moving the ball forward. Regularly the forward passes are straight to Arteta who is filling a deep lying role in the midfield. Even when Mertesacker moves the ball forward not to Arteta it is a measured pass without flair and always on the ground to Ramsey, Coquelin or Diaby. A couple of times Cazorla has been a recipient of Mertesacker passes. His completion rate is high, I was told over 97%, but have not been able to find the stat to verify it for you. It is a great measure of his efficiency.
More important than blocked shots and passing for a defender are goals allowed and wins. Three goals allowed in six matches, three wins and three draws. Not one of the goals scored against the Arsenal was by an individual that Mertesacker was marking. The only negative argument you could make is that Mertesacker should have been man marking Lescott, but that decision was not his to make as it was a tactical decision by Arsene Wenger. So what is not to love about Per Mertesacker? I think we all want him back after the high profile mistakes that Koscielny continues to make.
Back to the man of the hour, Laurent Koscielny. Koscielny is always going to be the better goal scorer against Mertesacker, but the goal differential between the two of them makes me care less about defenders giving us the bonus of a goal and more about the expected return of a clean sheet. I think Arsenal fans are getting a little too used to the offensive contributions of a defender versus the sublime feeling we get when we watch an Arsenal defender win the ball in a crunching tackle that would leave Luis Suarez writhing on the pitch. When Vermaelen was briefly leading the Arsenal scoring charts a couple of seasons ago we began to expect goals from him. I must admit I am part of that group too. Right now I praise the defensive instincts of Vermaelen and Mertesacker; I hope that other players will find that defensive first mentality in their thought process.
I am going to restate the point I made regarding Koscielny from the Chelsea match, the mistakes he made were fundamental. In my personal notes for a podcast I had him listed as Chelsea’s Man of the Match. The elimination of those fundamental mistakes would have provided the chance to maintain a clean sheet and a London derby victory, the sweetest of all victories in my opinion is a London derby win, especially an away North London derby scalp. If Vermaelen starts with Mertesacker and we avoid fundamental mistakes as we have done to date, the winning the London derbies and other matches will be that much easier.