The State of Arsenal: The Back Five

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The State of Arsenal: The Back Five
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

It's the statistic that makes every Arsenal fan cringe: We haven't won a major trophy since the 2005 FA Cup. It's now 2010. That's a long time. 

That's not to say we haven't been close, or haven't done decently well overall. We've been a constant fixture in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and even managed to make it to the finals in 2006 before being ousted by Barcelona. Domestically, we've consistently been in the top four, and made the finals of the League Cup in 2007. 

But, needless to say, there's something fundamental missing. In a short series of articles, we'll attempt to smoke out where the problem is by analyzing first the back five, the midfield, the front end, and finally strategy and "Le Professeur" himself.

 

1. Center Backs

I've always held the contention that Arsenal's back line is one of the best in the business. And it all starts with the rock-solid foundation provided by the center back partnerships Arsenal has had.

The Sol Campbell/Tony Adams/Martin Keown partnerships of the early 2000s led to Arsenal's accomplishment of the double, while the Sol Campbell/Kolo Toure pairing in 2003-2004 set the tone for the "Invincibles." This trend has continued with the arrival of William Gallas, as he set up a productive relationship with first Kolo Toure, and then Thomas Vermaelen. 

The Vermaelen/Gallas partnership has blossomed this year. The Belgian and the Frenchman share a firm, sincere, no-nonsense mindset that has made life very hard for center forwards throughout the league. Neither are afraid to go in for tackles, and seldom miss one or get called for a foul.

Both are surprisingly adept in the air, despite their stature, and are almost never caught out of position. They have adequate pace to keep up with the fastest of opponents, and are physically very tough, able to match blow for blow with anyone. 

Additionally, Sol Campbell is back, and his form is looking decent, despite his hiatus from top-flight football. Aside from the mistaken backpass to Fabianski, Campbell played extremely well, and was always in the right spot at the right time, and can be counted on as a very capable replacement for either Vermaelen or Gallas if need be.

The rest of the bench—the mediocre Mikael Silvestre, and the ever-injured Johan Djourou (though he still has ample time to grow, at the young age of 23)—can hardly be considered of the same level as Gallas, Vermaelen, or Campbell, but may make suitable replacements if the time comes. In my opinion, along with Chelsea, Arsenal boast one of the best starting center back partnerships in the Premier League.

 

2. Left Back

Arsenal's left back position has incredible depth with Gael Clichy, Kieran Gibbs, and Armand Traore all able to hold their own in the position. The first-choice player is no doubt Gael Clichy, the fleet-footed 24 year old Frenchman with a penchant for charging up the field. In recent games, one could argue that he has slightly lacked confidence and the sort of clamp-down defender tendencies that characterize the center backs.

In the last several games, I can remember more than one instance in which he has been beaten down the line or has failed to adequately clear the ball, but these are most definitely temporary problems. Over the years, his game has been characterized by relentless aggression, cerebral movements, and tireless physique, and as such he remains a great asset to the team.

The two proteges of Gael Clichy are cast in a very similar mold. Both Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore are smart, capable defenders with blistering speed who love to move up the left sideline when they can. Gibbs has progressed a long way from his Champions League stumble against Manchester United, and was consistently being mentioned as a possible selection for Fabio Capello's England squad before his season-ending metatarsal injury.

Traore, too, has shown us glimpses of a capable and determined left back, having featured for several games during an injury to Clichy earlier in the season. Although it was plain to see he was a bit of a novice, he grew tremendously in the few games he featured in.

Although he isn't the most physical of left-backs (I vividly remember him almost getting thrown to one side by Drogba during the Chelsea game), he is tireless and extremely determined.

If he falls, he will get up immediately and race back to the center of the action. Such a mindset is ideal for a 20 year old emerging left back, though he has a lot more to learn from the other Arsenal defenders. I would love to see him learn to switch to right back one of these days, as he will no doubt have a tough time breaking into first team action with both Gibbs and Clichy to contend with on the left side. 

 

3. Right Back

Arsenal's right back position is the domain of Bacary Sagna and occasionally Emmanuel Eboue. Sagna is built in a mold that is a fusion of his right side counterpart Gael Clichy and William Gallas—tough, physical, fast, and aggressive up the right side of the pitch, often shifting up to the corner of the opponent's box to send in one of his trademark curling crosses.

He is not afraid of tough opposition and does not hesitate to use whatever means necessary to stop a charging attacker. Once in a while, he will get beaten, like all defenders do, but his determination and zeal are positive qualities that add a ferocious bite to the Arsenal back line. 

Eboue is a multifaceted player, occasionally playing right back, his preferred position, but more often playing in front of Sagna in left midfield, which is Wenger's preferred position for him—and for good reason. Eboue has developed into a player who can advance quickly and powerfully up the field with fast feet and pretty footwork, yet at the same time has the ability to play physical defence and strip the ball from attacking opposition.

While not made in the same mold as more classical defenders like Gallas or Vermaelen, he nonetheless provides a definite presence in the back line, and is a very capable option for Wenger when he desires a more attack-oriented team.

 

4. Goalkeeper

This is Arsenal's Achilles' heel, the position where most people tend to point fingers, and not without reason. Ever since Jens Lehmann dropped in form, Arsenal has not had a keeper of world-class calibur in its net. A quick glance at the elite teams elsewhere in Europe shows that a side cannot expect to win championships with anything less than a top-quality stopper.

Manchester United has Edwin Van der Sar, one of the best goalkeepers of his generation, and Chelsea has the formidable Petr Cech. In La Liga, Iker Casillas owns the Real Madrid net, while Barcelona fields Victor Valdes. Inter Milan's goal is protected by Julio Cesar in Serie A, and Lyon's net features the young but talented Hugo Lloris.

The common theme between all these keepers is that they perform at a level that is far above the majority of their counterparts. They are, quite simply, the best in the world, and all of them feature for their national teams. There is never a question of who to fill the net with when they are healthy. 

But what is it about them that makes them successful? Many keepers have talent. Even Almunia has considerable talent. But what separates a world-class keeper from the rest is the way they command the back line. Van der Sar, Valdes and the others are like fiercely territorial alpha dogs, never giving up an inch of space and retaining full control of any action inside their penalty box.

To score a goal on them requires a huge oversight by the defence or by a supremely perfect effort by an attacker, no less. A "freak goal" or "lucky goal" rarely happens against them. 

The same cannot be said of Almunia. He is a very good goalkeeper overall, granted, but this is a position in which very good simply doesn't cut it if you expect to be a team of European-championship status. Almunia has reflexes, vision, and has decent form. But what he lacks is costly. He is still shaky in the air—I've never seen a confident, powerful punch of a clearance from him.

Can you imagine him stopping a point-blank shot like Edwin Van der Sar? Can you imagine him freeze a scorcher of a shot at full stretch in mid air like Victor Valdes, or palm away a ball with tenacity like Julio Cesar? I can't. And at 34 years old, I don't think he's going to pick those traits up anytime soon. 

What about the backups? Lukasz Fabianski is, despite what the press had dubbed a "horror show" at Porto, a pretty decent keeper. But he makes schoolboy mistakes, and lacks confidence. I can't see him yelling at his defenders, commanding his zone, or imposing his presence upon the opposition just yet.

But I think he can get there. I think a loan spell with constant play would serve him well, since confidence and experience is all he needs. Putting him in high pressure situations all of a sudden when Almunia is injured does not serve him well. 

Of all of Arsenal's goalkeepers though, Vito Mannone is, in my mind, the one that shows most promise. Tall, commanding, confident, and talented, Mannone has all the characteristics needed to be a strong, imposing first choice keeper for the Gunners. His display early on in the season was impressively consistent for a third-string keeper making his first string of starts. He shows a lot of potential.

 

Summary

So our analysis of the Arsenal back five has led to a couple of conclusions. First, Arsenal's center backs are solid, with the fruitful Gallas/Vermaelen partnership, the re-addition of Sol Campbell, and the backup power of Silvestre and Djourou. The left back position is fortified as well, with three players who can all play at the top level and can provide threatening pace and support for Arsenal's attacking options if need be.

And finally, the right back area is held down well by Bacary Sagna and Emmanuel Eboue, both firm defenders with a vein of midfield flare about them.

It's the area of goalkeeper that really needs help. The days of David Seaman and Jens Lehmann seem far, far gone. 

We have good goalkeepers, that's true. They churn out performances which are more often than not very solid, and don't give Wenger or anybody else enough grounds to point fingers at. But as I stated at the beginning of the article, Arsenal is a team that is almost there. Almost a world-beater.

But something is lacking. One of those areas is the man in front of the old onion bag. We truly need a world-class keeper to fill the void. And we need him now. 

 

 

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