Defensive Clarity Will Bring About Third Place
This season will be a tough one to judge, the season context and longer-term view give rise to differing perspectives. Those judgements are for another day though; this campaign still has legs left in it. The title race opened ajar to entice Manchester City into daring to believe; the cruel fates of football though seem sure to laugh in their faces as they succumb to their neighbours in a daring display of counter-attacking. Or so the feeling goes.
For Arsenal, despite recent dropped points – and to be honest, it only feels like we dropped points against Chelsea because of the Wigan result and them being so unadventurous on Saturday – their fate is in their own hands. The outcome allowed Newcastle to dare to believe and neutrals some romance, a reminder of a bygone era when a team could emerge from nowhere to be successful. That is all smoke and mirrors mixed with the tricks of time; Liverpool’s successful teams were not cheaply assembled from the council estates of Toxteth but bought in from all corners of these sceptered isles.
The players are aware that they are in control of the situation. Games in hand can be a delusional currency, offering hope until the games in question are viewed. Newcastle’s is a trip to Stamford Bridge against a post-Barcelona Chelsea. Even in victory, it is hard to see that South Siberia’s finest will not want the cushion of fourth place to ensure Champions League football of some sort next season. Which is before Newcastle contemplate their encounter with Manchester City.
That said, Arsenal’s fixtures are tricky. Stoke City offers a culture clash that we should know how to handle but recent times show that when we get it wrong, it is horribly so. The inability to deal with the route one football is not going to be eased by Peter Crouch’s arrival at The Britannia Stadium. Yet the Arsenal defence is more streetwise at the moment, attuned to the routine football offered by teams in the lower half of the table evidenced by five of the last seven Premier League fixtures resulting in clean sheets.
Much of this is due to the relatively settled nature of the central partnership. I know Robin van Persie will romp home in all of the Player of the Season awards but to my mind, Laurent Koscielny is equally deserving. Even before a ball was kicked last season, he was ridiculed because of his career. He was not the internationally-renowned central defender demanded. I thought his opening season went well, adjusting quickly although capable of making high profile errors. This season he seems more settled, more assured in his touch, positioning and overall play.
This is not lost on his colleagues, Thomas Vermaelen as effusive in his praise of the Frenchman as Robin van Persie was of Theo Walcott:
He has done amazing this season and I don’t understand why a lot of criticism was there in the first season. The first week I saw him you could tell he was a great player and now it is all coming out in his second season. I am really happy for him.
He is [good] all round. He is quick, strong and good with the ball. I think we are quite similar players as well. There are just a lot of things about defending that he is really good at and that is why I like him.
We want to play from the back of course, that is how we always want to play. He is really good in that as well so that always gives you more confidence at the back.
Recognition from peers and colleagues can do his confidence no harm at all and looking at the longer term view, Arsène’s first choice central defensive pairing might not include the experienced German international which was previously assumed. Mertesacker’s arrival certainly put pressure on Koscielny and to a lesser extent, Vermaelen; both have risen to that challenge but Koscielny’s performances have been the more impressive.
If there was an award for Most Improved Arsenal Player of the Season, that for me would be as much of a one-horse race as the major partner. Three more performances of the standard seen thus far this season and the required points to finish third should be achieved.