My memories of Per Mertesacker’s time at Arsenal are certainly a mixed bag. At times I have used the old cliché ‘a submarine could turn faster’ and crucified our lanky German for being slow, which in all fairness is not really his fault. There are also memories of masterclasses in defensive positioning and leadership combined with the odd memorable FA Cup goal – the one against Wigan still gives me goose bumps.
However time is a cruel mistress and sometimes you have to step down and accept that a younger man needs to take your place. Sorry Per but that time has come and Gabriel Paulista should be the young heir whom replaces our ‘Big F**king German’.
Arsenal’s style of play has never been one which accommodates Mertesacker particularly well and has only added fuel to the fire for his criticism at times. The emphasis on attack and often neglect of defensive duties – particularly in midfield – has often left our poor Per horribly exposed to those nippy little strikers who at times simply scurry away from his long German legs. Monaco was the infamous night where I thought to myself it could be the end of Per, while he performed admirably towards the end of the season his time was nearly up in my eyes. Much as I dislike the guy did Gary Lineker have a point when he tweeted this after the FA Cup Semi Final v Reading?
If we are to improve as a defensive unit this scenario simply cannot continue to happen. In the modern game pace is one of the most effective weapons, one that is so common that the only way to neutralise it is with pace itself. Laurent Koscielny is the perfect advocate of this theory with his pace often bailing Arsenal out when we caught on the counter – a situation that has become way too familiar.
For me the lack of pace which hinders Mertesacker is a risk we should no longer be taking if we are to take steps forward as a club. Despite the partnership between Kos and Per blossoming I still feel there is something missing in our defence, risks we need to rectify. Gabriel is the perfect suitor to reverse this risk and in doing so improve the stability and consistency in the back-four, two things which are crucial to a title challenge.
Every time I have seen Gabriel put on the famous red and white shirt he has looked at home, ‘a proper centre half’ as Paul Merson would so aptly put it. But it is not just the Magic Man who admired the new challenger but also ex Gunners who know a huge amount about solid defences. Keeper Legend David Season describes Gabriel as a cross between Des Walker and Martin Keown and that can only be the highest of praise. Keown himself one of Arsenal greatest ever defenders in March this year also backed the Brazilian to take over from the German this season.
His recovering tackle on Romelu Lukaku (see below) at The Emirates was a display of phenomenal defensive talent, a tackle Bobby Moore would have been proud of. Before his move to Arsenal in January Gabriel achieved the second most interceptions in La Liga which should suit Wenger’s defensive style of play which is highly dependent on winning the ball back as quick as possible. Quick ball recovery will bring more fluidity to the team similar to the impact Coquelin has made, his recovery rate in midfield allows Arsenal to attack faster and improve the philosophy of ‘Wenger Ball’.
But the thing which appeals most to me is Gabriel’s mobility which is also accompanied with strength and an aerial presence. His pace compared to Per is far superior and while his aerial duel percentages may not compare as highly he is still more than capable of delivering adequately in this area. Which is why I feel we may need to neglect the slight superiority aerially in order to make our back-four more mobile and better prepared for a wider variety of forwards.
For me the time feels right for this final step in Arsenal’s defensive development to be completed. We now have dependable full backs in Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal while having far and away the second best central defender in the Premier League in ‘Bosscielny’ (sorry but Terry is the best unfortunately).
Sadly many people may suggest that Gabriel and Koscielny are simply too similar to form a viable partnership. They do possess similar characteristics in their defensive styles but I would like to see how the duo would operate together – I have faith that it could work.
Our other option to be considered then is of course Calum Chambers, because let’s face it his days at right back are surely numbered especially given the meteoric rise of Bellerin and the fact that – without being rude – he doesn’t possess the physical qualities of the modern full back. Last season was a huge learning curve for young Calum, a heavy dose of unexpected first team football took its toll as his confidence and form faded fast leading to a possible stagnation in his development. During the early stages of the season his performances were highly praised by Arsenal fans, some were even comparing him to Tony Adams – praise at its highest. Nevertheless his performances began to suffer perhaps due to fatigue and pressure, a schooling at the hands of Jefferson Montero at Swansea was the start of his demise for the season.
Then came the performance at Stoke, which resulted in a red card for the poor young lad, and that was all the evidence needed for me to realise that Calum has a long way to go. He was erratic, caught out of position far too often and reckless with his challenges. I think an issue which must be resolved is his permanent position, it still remains unclear whether he is a centre back, full back or even a future DM. With this point in mind I think it is unfair to expect Chambers to have the necessary discipline and positioning to be able to slot effortlessly into the Arsenal system, especially when the defensive system is renowned for having faults already.
Chambers has the physical attributes and footballing brain to become an Arsenal centre half, that much is clear to me. However Wenger this season needs to take care of one of his prized youth assets, give him a chance when the time is right but use his talents sparingly and do not allow his inexperienced mind to be further corrupted by the brutal reality of intense first team football.
So what do I think should happen? If I had my way the Koscielny/Gabriel partnership would be tested as I believe the partnership would provide huge benefits to the entire Arsenal team. Some may disagree and I accept that but for me I struggle to see how Arsenal’s defensive frailties can be solved with Koscielny/Mertesacker – a partnership which I don’t think can win the title. Chambers involvement should be kept limited allowing him to develop positively and remain free from the excess criticism which he received last season. I know Per has been a great servant to the club and I applaud his commitment to Arsenal but for me the club will perhaps improve if his involvement were to be reduced.
Until next time.