BFG, Kos, Chambers and Paulista – Arsenal centre back conundrum by JS
I believe Wenger took a big risk today in mixing up his back five again in trying to give Ospina, Bellerin and Mertesacker a rest. After yesterday’s results and the fact we have a full week before the next game, I wanted to see us pick up where we left off last weekend with maybe a few gentle reintroductions if we managed to get in to a comfortable position in the match. Whilst I love the fact that we are through, we missed the chance to have made a bigger statement with a comfortable 3-0 win. If Wenger was certain that Mertesacker needed a rest then we would have looked much stronger defensively with Bellerin at right back and Chambers in at right centre back and Koscielny in his normal position at left centre back. Anyway, I digress slightly.
I would like to highlight a more basic point regarding centre backs that I believe has been vividly demonstrated in this match and several others at the weekend. Per Mertesacker has been getting a particularly hard time on this site in the past month or so even to the point that it has been causally asserted that the relative success of the Mertesacker/Koscielny partnership over the past season and a half is due almost entirely to the efforts of Koscielny. I believe this is absolute nonsense and driven more by personal emotional narratives rather than analysis.
Consider this for a moment. Until today, Mertesacker has been the single constant in our back five to date this season, due primarily to the fact that he is obviously more robust and less prone to injury then the rest of our defence. During that time he has played with four different CB partners (three makeshift/rookie ones), three different GKs, three different RBs (two of them rookies), two different LBs and three different CDMs in front of him! Quite staggering really and perhaps it should not be surprising that he has struggled at times. Him being the only omnipresent defender also perhaps explains why he would attract the majority of the flak when defensively things have not gone to plan. I asked the question in another thread as to how Koscielny (playing solo in a patched up defence) would fare in similar circumstances and today I believe we caught a glimpse of the answer. He is a great defender but he ain’t no superman. He was mediocre by his standards, not blameless in either goal, and the whole back 5 reverted at times to the shaky, ‘look away now’ antics we are so familiar with. In short he struggled without familiar surroundings and his individual ability could not carry the whole defensive unit alone.
I would also point to Cahill (a massive favourite on here as to what might have been if Wenger had bought him) whose Bradford performance without Terry and Courtois and a rookie RB was shockingly bad. He bore no resemblance whatsoever to the player Chelsea are accustomed to seeing. Coincidence or just a bad day at the office? And poor old Vincent Kompany is handed the relative novice Boyata and turns instantaneously in to a pretty agricultural CB. I know his very high standards have dropped recently but whilst we are fretting on here about Koscielny having to “put up” with Mertesacker, Kompany has a rota of Demichelis, Mangala and Boyata to contend with! Anyway enough about Chelsea and Manchester City’s true lack of depth.
My point being, let us cut the BFG a tiny bit of slack here. Let us also judge our CBs as a unit and whilst doing so have one eye on who is behind them in goal, who is protecting their flanks and who is sitting in front of them. It is a composite picture that needs assessing – the sum of the parts if you like. Koscielny is the better footballer/defender but they both do slightly different jobs. In my opinion, to be at his most effective, Koscielny needs Mertesacker, but admittedly perhaps not quite as much as Mertesacker needs Koscielny.
Which brings us neatly on to Gabriel Paulista. I know his arrival instinctively signals for many of the BFG detractors that PM will be handing over his armband and be shown the door and an immediate GP/LK partnership put in place. In my opinion there is close to zero chance of Wenger wantonly breaking up the PM/LK partnership in the near future – ie: this season. (I can hear the groans from the BFG bashers). I do not know enough about the intricacies of CB pairings or the symbiosis required for a successful pairing but on the face of it GP and LK are very similar in many ways. Most renowned CB partnerships display contrast with the different individual attributes acting as foils to each other. I am sure they could play together but it would need to be worked on and phased in – I do not think it would work as an instant fix. However, GB will hopefully be the Arsenal insurance for the rest of the season to ensure we have seen the last of our makeshift CB pairings should either PM or LK get injured/suspended. He is young and relatively inexperienced, so give him to the end of the season to find his way around, get adjusted, get some game time etc and any major decision Wenger has to make on his best CB pairing for 2015-16 can be better done during the summer. Unless of course events overtake all his best laid plans.
Calum will be 4th choice CB for the forseeable future – I think he needs at least another year developing in the squad.
When Wenger benches Mertesacker and puts Koscielny and Paulista in against Villa I will be the first to come on here to apologise for my error of judgement.