With Armand Traoré a barely functioning left-back, Gaels Clichy’s summer departure and Kieran Gibbs a walking urgent-care unit, Wenger decided he needed left-back support for the 2011-2012 season.
Throughout the summer Gooners had been calling loudly for Leighton Baines and Jose Enrique to be brought in. Left-back needed reinforcement, and most Arsenal fans were urging for the team to recruit from within England.
Wenger, however, (as he does) opted for a different option. Unknown to most Gooners before coming to Arsenal in late August, Andre Santos took a little while to stamp his influence on the team.
This was an important move for Santos, as he played understudy to legendary wing-back Roberto Carlos. I imagine for someone like Santos, playing alongside Roberto Carlos must have been a dream—fostering an environment that allowed the Gunner to grow.
Well, the student became the master in Santos’ second season as he supplanted Carlos as the starting left-back. In the 2010-2011 campaign, Santos established himself as a legitimate offensive threat. Deployed as a traditional wing-back, the Brazilian moved up and down the left side with grace.
Then came his Emirates career.
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Santos took a little while to settle in at Arsenal. He admitted needing time to get in shape, but within a few weeks he was playing regularly; this shouldn’t have surprised anyone as Gibbs was guaranteed to break down.
Early on it was clear that like most Brazilian full-backs, Santos favored attacking to defense. He always looked to bomb forward, sometimes leaving the backline exposed. This problem was amplified because he was lacking game fitness, which made tracking back tougher.
Still, Santos slowly won over Gooners with his steady and adventurous performances. Against Olympiakos at home, Santos sped down the left wing and, when his cross was deflected, slid in a goal at the keeper’s near post. This illustrated his offensive prowess and was a taste of things to come.
Arsenal’s 5-3 win over Chelsea was the turning point for Santos in the minds of many fans. It also illustrated both sides of Santos’ game. In the first half he was skinned multiple times, with Sturridge and Mata moving past him easily down the right wing. The Twittersphere was even calling for him to be pulled at halftime.
Yet, in the second half Santos turned around his performance. He tied the game at 2-2 with a marauding run down the left and a nice finish past Cech’s outstretched leg. He also showed more defensive discipline, making a number of interceptions. His goal was a turning point in the game, as Arsenal had been sucker-punched at the end of the first half and went 2-1 down.
When the final whistle blew, Arsenal had its biggest victory of the year to that point, and a victory that instilled confidence and faith in an uncertain squad. Santos played a key role in this success.
Following the Chelsea game, Santos had a strong run out with the first team. He performed admirably against Dortmund at home, showing Brazilian one-touch class.
Moreover, he offered a very different attacking outlet for the Arsenal side, as many forward moves came from the left-side. During Santos’ run with Arsenal, the right back often hung back and allowed the Brazlilian to be the main full-back outlet. This led to a lopsided formation at times, but one that was starting to become effective.
Unfortunately, his injury against Olympiakos away was a huge blow for the team. I would argue Wenger’s choice to play Santos in a meaningless game—with Gibbs injured—was his worst decision of the year. Miquel was able to play, but Wenger opted to give Santos a run-out.
It was an unlucky injury; still the risk of him playing seemed unnecessary. Gibbs was always going to miss time, so with no other LB Wenger should have been protecting Santos where possible.
However, I digress.
Following his injury, Santos needed ankle surgery and was ruled out for three months. Now, he is nearing his comeback. In Wenger’s interview yesterday, he said Santos has a chance to play on Monday depending on Gibbs’ fitness. This is great news.
Overall, the purchase of Santos was an inspired choice. Allowed to leave on the cheap because of Fenerbahce’s internal problems, Santos has proven Wenger correct in his decision. He is not the perfect left-back. The Brazilian needs to improve his defensive positioning, and must be careful not to get caught out going forward.
However, Santos also offers impressive attacking credentials from the fullback position that Arsenal has missed for years. He will scores goals (already has) and will provide assists. Moreover, he is experienced on the international level and offers an effective stop-gap before Gibbs is ready to take over the position for good.
I look forward to watching Santos’ combination of flair, professionalism and leadership in the coming months.