Arsenal: How Mertesacker and Koscielny Are Solution to Gunners' Defensive Issues

Matthew Celentano@@Gunner_NYCFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02: Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker of Arsenal celebrate defeating Stoke City after the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Stoke City at Emirates Stadium on February 2, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Michael Regan/Getty Images

In their charge for a top-four spot, Arsenal have gone undefeated since losing 2-1 to Spurs back in March, winning every game aside from two rather stale home draws against Everton and Manchester United

More impressively, however, has been the Gunners' defensive record in that stretch of time. While Arsenal's emphasis has always been on free-flowing, attacking football ever since Arsene Wenger arrived, there's no denying that the team's recent good run of form has been built on the solidity of the defense rather than the flair of the attack.

Of the last nine games, Arsenal have conceded just four goals and kept five clean sheets, four of those clean sheets coming in away games.

Well, it's not just a coincidence. Following his calamitous performance that woeful afternoon at White Hart Lane, club captain Thomas Vermaelen was dropped from the first team and has started just one game since, filling in for the suspended Per Mertesacker in a 3-1 win over Norwich.

The story of Vermaelen's 2012-13 campaign is, in truth, a sad one. Rather than stepping up as the skipper following the departure of Robin van Persie, the captain's armband seems to have hindered the centerback's performances this season.

"The Verminator" has been a shadow of the player he was during his incredible debut season. Whereas he used to be a wall in defense as well as one of the finest goalscoring defenders in the league, this season he's made countless defensive errors and has scored just once in all competitions. To be honest, Wenger should have dropped the Belgian much earlier than he did.

Still, Vermaelen's freezing out of the first team has been the catalyst for Arsenal's recent defensive sturdiness, with Laurent Koscielny stepping in and forming a formidable partnership with Mertesacker.

The big German has had a superb season, earning himself a place as a constant in Arsenal's back line. While his lack of pace was a big concern during his shaky first season in England, his improvement in the 2012-13 campaign has been tremendous.

By no means has Mertesacker gotten any faster, but what he lacks in pace he makes up for with his astute reading of the game and invaluable experience. The 28-year-old has on average dribbled just 0.3 times per game and has amazingly drawn only 0.4 fouls per game, despite being slower than just about every forward in the league. 

Koscielny, one of the quickest defenders around, complements Mertesacker perfectly. The Frenchman put in a Man of the Match display in the recent 1-1 draw with Manchester United, making four tackles, seven interceptions and six clearances, as well as keeping Premier League top-scorer van Persie quiet (aside from converting the penalty) for the full 90 minutes.

It might be premature and a bit optimistic, but the partnership of Koscielny and Mertesacker could be just the answer to the defensive issues that have plagued Arsenal in recent seasons.

While the Gunners certainly need to bring in another center back this summer due to the likely departures of Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci, it's hard to see anyone disrupting the current defensive pairing.

I cannot say that watching Arsenal grind out 1-0 wins is particularly enjoyable—in fact, it's quite agonizing and when stoppage time rolls around it's painful to watch—but at this stage of the season, the three points is all that matters.

With two must-win games left in the 2012-13 season, Koscielny and Mertesacker will be eyeing another two clean sheets to secure a top-four spot for Arsenal.

One can only imagine what this season might have been like had the two been partnered together earlier, but for now, we can only pray for six more points and Champions League football for a 16th consecutive season.