How many center-backs does it take to fill out the Arsenal roster?
This isn't a rhetorical exercise or a light bulb installation joke—it's a serious question.
The recent departure of out-of-favor central defender and polyglot Philippe Senderos will likely be followed by the full-fledged exodus of William Gallas, Sol Campbell, and Mikael Silvestre.
Some may say good riddance: others may question letting both veterans Campbell and Gallas go without the prospect of veteran replacements. Either way, if they all leave, Arsenal will soon be without three first-team players at one position.
Where would that leave the Gunners in the short term?
High and Dry (Oh, What a Way to Go!)
Were center-backs Silvestre, Gallas, and Campbell to leave tomorrow, Arsenal would be left with Thomas Vermaelen and Johan Djourou. Period.
Until the Laurent Koscielny deal goes through—which is looking more like a question of "when?" than "if?"—we would have no other center-backs on the first team.
Obviously, there's no conceivable way Arsenal will play the 2010-11 season with just two central defenders. However, even with the addition of Koscielny, Arsenal would have two starters and an injury-prone backup in Djourou, who has made fewer than 20 league appearances over the last three seasons.
Looking within the Arsenal fold, many believe that well-pedigreed reserve Gavin Hoyte, 20, may be ready for a first-team run-around.
Havard Nordtveit is another highly-rated youngster, though he hasn't played so much as a minute with the first team.
Hoyte's best experience has come with Championship side Watford. Nordtveit is coming to the end of a mediocre stint with Bundesliga minnows Nuremburg, where he primarily played as a defensive midfielder. Neither seems ready to step up should Vermaelen or Koscielny go down; both would likely be better off with another year of experience before becoming first-team backups.
Kyle Bartley, though younger than Hoyte and Nordtveit, is certainly more physically imposing at 6'3". He is another possible option, but again, one who would not inspire confidence if called on to make more than a few spot appearances.
With an unreliable first backup and two or three undercooked reserve options, Arsenal must sign another defender from outside or retain the services of either the over-the-hill Campbell or the frequent punchline, Silvestre (signing Laurent Koscielny signifies that there is no chance of Gallas coming back).
All Down the Line (We'll Be Watching Out for Trouble)
For me, letting Gallas go in the first place is still the off-season decision with which I find it hardest to agree.
He's not a great teammate. He is also past his prime, which would make his high-end contract demands imprudent. Nonetheless, Gallas has clearly got a lot left in the tank, and if Arsenal want to continue to play the high back line that allows them to dominate possession so effectively, his combination of experience and sweeper-like pace will be sorely missed.
I can't help thinking that allowing Gallas to leave will be like Gilberto Silva redux:
You can't fault Wenger and co. for letting him go. It's not "wrong" in the strictest sense, independent of other considerations.
Taking a broader view, however, this means Arsenal will be counting on a comparatively green back four next season.
With Koscielny barely two months older than Thomas Vermaelen, the growing pains that have plagued Arsenal's central midfield for the last season and a half may be eclipsed very quickly by questions marks about our young, unproven central defense.
Cool, Calm, Collected? Can Vermaelen Iron Out Persistent Flaws in 2010-11?
With a couple of penstrokes, Gael Clichy, not yet 25, and Bacary Sagna, who has had a tough couple of years, will become the leather-faced old ranch hands of the Arsenal defense. Is that really what we want?
Age isn't the important factor here as much as experience. I wouldn't care if Clichy, Vermaelen, Koscielny, and Sagna were all 16 years old if they were in dependable form and played tactically sound football.
The fact is, though, were Arsenal to start the season with Vermaelen and Koscielny anchoring the defense, "dependability" and "soundness" would hardly be guaranteed.
Wenger struck gold by signing Vermaelen last year, but the Belgian's offensive contributions, work rate, and aggressive, confident demeanor often made up for his poor discipline at the back.
Zonal Marking had a great piece on the subject a few months back. Not to overstate the problem, but Tommy TV was pulled out of position too often and too easily. If his man ran forward to meet the ball, he often followed the man instead of holding his line. This led to breakaway chances and goals for those opponents savvy enough to exploit the vacated space.
Don't get me wrong. Vermaelen was a beast in 2009-10. He played almost an entire Premiership season, earned a well-deserved spot in the PFA first team, and scored as many goals as any other EPL defender since Ian Harte netted 11 for Leeds in 2000-01.
Clearly, Vermaelen showed himself to be a Premiership-caliber player and a credit to the club. However, the importance of playing alongside William Gallas and Sol Campbell for most of the season cannot be overstressed when explaining the ease with which he made the transition.
It's Not Easy (Anchoring the Arsenal Defense On Your Own)
This season, Vermaelen will likely be partnered with Koscielny instead of a seasoned Premiership veteran. Even if lightning strikes the central defense twice in 12 months, Vermaelen will go from being the impetuous young gun able to lean on a veteran partner to being expected to carry the veteran's load himself. That carries a completely different set of expectations, which I am not sure he will be quite ready to handle.
There's a reason that all the best police buddy movies always team a streetwise veteran with a precocious yet naive greenhorn. In their own cliched way, cop comedies reflect the same necessary balance between youthful potential and veteran experience that enables the best footballing partnerships to flourish.
Imagine the Lethal Weapon franchise with two half-psychotic Mel Gibsons and no Danny Glover to say "I'm too old for this s***!" Imagine Beverly Hills Cop with all the awkwardness of two Judge Reinholds, but no wise-cracking Eddie Murphy. If Vermaelen and Koscielny cannot strike that mentor-rookie dynamic, both players could look the worse for it.
Like so many members of this maturing Gunners squad, Vermaelen has to step up his positional play in 2010-11. He must become the disciplined rock at the heart of the Arsenal defense instead of the bolt of lightning that he often resembled last season.
That's not to say that he can't go forward. He and Koscielny are known for their aerial prowess and are both comfortable on the ball. So long as both players moderate their aggressive tendencies with cooler heads on defense, a few judicious forays up the pitch will be more than welcome.
Flip Flop (Fit to Drop?)
If Arsenal are to take the big step this year and go from young contenders to mature title-winners, Vermaelen's tactical improvement will be one of the most important factors to track throughout the season.
The young Belgian certainly has it in him: Yes, he made the same mistake over and over in 2009-10, but if he can correct this one tendency, he can take a major stride in a very short time.
The pieces of the puzzle are coming together: The classic kit has been revived (Lord knows, I've ordered mine!). The stadium construction losses have been recouped (time to splash the cash). The proper balance between experience and inspiration is to be found across the front of the Arsenal formation. The questions marks remain at the back.
Can cool, calm, collected Thomas Vermaelen approximate for Koscielny what Gallas was for him last year?
Can Wenger convince Sol Campbell to stay or find another veteran backup to do the job he did in 2009-10?
Will Mark Schwarzer or another experienced shot stopper supplant Manuel Almunia between the posts?
If these questions can be answered in the affirmative then Arsenal may have something more to celebrate next May than the 40th anniversary of their first double.
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