26 April 2013

So that's why Man U beat us: Koscielny didn't play...

I've finally unearthed the secret to our 2-1 loss to Man U way back in early November. No, it wasn't because we threw on Santos and Mannone; it wasn't entirely Vermaelen's fault; it was because we couldn't throw on a certain French defender who may have just emerged over the
last few months as our best defender, one Laurent Koscielny, arguably a MOTM against Fulham, but also a rock-solid center-back who has been one of the constants over the last two topsy-turvy seasons. If we can just set aside one bit of unpleasantness, let's address his hug of Edin Dzeko that resulted in a red-card and opened the door to a 2-0 loss. He messed up, simple as that. There's no way around it. Now that that's out of the way, we can get down to business.

In that 2-1 loss to Man U, a lot of the blame fell on Vermaelen, and it's hard to deflect any of that. He was off his game all day, not just on the squibbed clearance that van Persie put home. Vermaelen struggled throughout the match to have any positive impact. He was very nearly guilty of conceding a second goal at the start of the second half, getting dispossessed by van Persie who put a perfect cross in, and only a flub by Valencia saved our hash there. In what is becoming a sadly familiar refrain, it was again Vermaelen who lost track of van Persie on a cross from Young into the box. Mannone's decent save on van Persie's tame shot again kept us safe for the moment. Sadly, it was also Vermaelen who got beat on the second goal, as Evra got in front of him to latch onto and head home a cross from Rooney. Tough day at the office, to say the least.

However, I'm not hear to pile on Vermaelen anymore than he's already had to deal with. After all, he did have the Jolly Brazilian on his left, which arguably left him more exposed. I'm here to extol the virtues of Koscielny, whose absence early in the season may go just as far in explaining our stumbles as does Vermaelen's poor form.

Put simply, he's been a beast of man in the back for us, especially in the last seven games, during which we've only conceded four goals while gathering four clean sheets. Tallying up his clearances and effective clearances over that span (thanks to whoscored.com) shows that he is responsible for snuffing out more attacks than any other player 51 clearances and 25 effective clearances. No one else on the team even comes close. Take the second-highest tally of each game yields Fabianski, Giroud, Sagna, Arteta, Mertesacker, Monreal, and Vermaelen. Put them together and they share 26 clearances and 17 effective ones. Koscielny dominates, gobbling up balls voraciously and putting them at the feet of Arteta or Ramsey or finding deeper passes to start our next attack.

If you didn't do so already, go back up and watch the montage from Xaviergooner, in which Koscielny, time after time after time, snuffs out a Fulham attack or initiates an attack of our own with a incisive pass. His ascendancy from last year, when he seemed a bit at sea, is stark. He plays with much more confidence and skill (so much so that Bayern seemed to poke around to assess his availability), and I'll go so far as to say he's now among the best center-backs in the Prem. He's not world-class yet, but then again, this is only his third season in the Prem, and it won't be too much longer before he is mentioned in the same breath as Terry, Vidic, or Kompany. If he can marshal our defense against Man U as he has done over the last month, we'll be in fine shape, and he'll be shouldering his way into that elite crew of defenders with the same authority that he's been showing on the pitch.