23 June 2013

Center-back Review: still room for Vermaelen?

Building from the back, I'm continuing a retrospective look at each position and will this time around scrutinize Arsenal's center-backs. With Sebastien Squillaci out of contract and Johan Djourou's loan to Hannover looking like it will continue into the next season, we are currently
looking at going into the 2013-14 season with three center-backs: Kosciely, Mertesacker, and Vermaelen. On one hand, this was enough to largely see us through without much trouble; on the other, it leaves us one injury away from having only two players available. In addition to the insurance a fourth center back might bring us, it would help to add a bit more competition for the starting roles to keep everyone on their toes. Whether this means Arsenal should sign another center-back, such as Swansea's Ashley Williams, is a question to keep in mind.

Using whoscored.com's stats, then, let's look back at how those three center backs performed. We're again using American high school letter-grades, which might bear a quick summary:
  • A= superb. Exceeds expectations and rarely if ever falters. Consistent excellence.
  • B= very good. Meets or exceeds expectations with occasional but moderate mistakes.
  • C= average/tolerable. Meets most expectations, falls short of a few, and commits mistakes of varying degrees of severity but rarely serious.
  • D= poor. Struggles to meet many expectations and falls short of most of them. Mistakes tend to outnumber successes and are often serious. Occasional patches of quality.
  • F= Fails to perform to any acceptable level. Frequent and serious mistakes. Moments or short stretches of decent performance are not enough to dispel serious doubts about the player's abilities.
Thomas Vermaelen: D+
  • whoscored rating: 6.84
  • Appearances: 25 (4)
  • Tackles per game: 1.5
  • Interceptions per game: 2.1
  • Clearances per game: 4.9
  • Clean sheets: 7
  • 15W, 3D, 11L
It's telling that the first image that comes to mind for many Arsenal fans have when they think back over Vermaelen's season is the flubbed clearance that allowed van Persie to score. Whether this is fair or not is a separate debate for the ethicists. The symbolism is indelible, and it does seem to represent his season on the whole. More damning to him, perhaps, is how well the defense played over the last ten or eleven games without him. Of course, much has been made of the Kos-Per partnership, but the improved defensive effort is just as attributable to the emergence of Ramsey and his partnership with Arteta, and an improved teamwide effort overall. It's possible that a strong partnership between Vermaelen and Mertesacker could have emerged in these circumstances. Withott slighting Koscielny, he flourished both through his own efforts as well as those of the team as a whole, so it's only fair to suggest that Vermaelen might have done the same.

Back to Vermaelen, then, let's dismiss the apparent Effect of the Armband. He co-captains the Belgian team quite well enough that the pressure of captaining Arsenal should not be too much to bear. It was a factor to some degree, but it alone is not enough to explain his drop in form. Instead, what we seem to have witnessed is a confluence of factors that, under the microscope of the captaincy and a slow start to the season, grew larger than they might have otherwise. Namely, some of his long-held flaws were more noticeable--concentration, discipline, positioning, etc.--that might have been tolerable under a non-captain but are much less-so for the captain himself. More grievous (to me) than the flub against Man U was poor communication, such as that between him and Monreal against Spurs at White Hart Lane in March: it's one thing to try but fail (as Vermaelen did against Man U); it's quite another to be so unaware of a teammate (especially one new to the team and struggling to learn the language) or an opponent's whereabouts.

Having said all of this, I still firmly believe that he will come back next year stronger and more-focused, ready to challenge for a starting role, even if the captain's armband goes to someone else along the way.

Per Mertesacker: C+
  • whoscored rating: 6.92
  • Appearances: 33 (1)
  • Tackles per game: 1
  • Interceptions per game: 1.5
  • Clearances per game: 5.1
  • Clean sheets: 16
  • 22W, 9D, 9L
I have to admit that I'm still not sold on Mertesacker. I do believe him to be a very good player, but it's perhaps telling that his rating is only 0.08 points higher than Vermaelen; he is lauded as being among the Prem's best center-backs while Vermaelen is lampooned. Take away one Vermaelen error, and we might be having a very different discussion. I'll say one thing for Mertesacker that I can't say for Vermaelen: he does know his limits and does his best to play within them. He does make up for his lack of pace (and let's be frank: "lack" is a gentle word to use) with astute positioning. However, there are times when even this is not enough, as when Sagna gifted a pass to van Persie at the Emirates. Mertesacker tracked back, but did so by backpedaling towards the center of the penalty area, which forced Sagna to recover but having to tackle van Persie from 6-8 yards from the goal box. Had Mertesacker applied more-direct pressure to van Persie, Sagna may not have had to act to rashly. 

This is just one example, of course, but it is representative of the larger issue: Mertesacker does not have the pace to deal with counter-attacks. This of course makes for a poor partnership with Vermaelen, who tends to press too far forward, but it also inhibits the ability of Koscielny or of the left and right backs to join the attack. I respect his solidity and intelligence for the game, but I worry that this limitation is one that will ultimately cost the team more than it has to this point. Further, it's an issue that will only grow over time. He's 28, and it's unlikely that he'll somehow get faster with age. I'm not willing to go so far as to suggest that Arsenal look to sell him this summer, but tough questions and their answers rarely get easier over time. Let's not forget that  he's committed a few errors himself, such as his take-down against West Brom that led to a goal.

He's a nice player and has done well for the club, so I apologize for the shabby treatment I've given him. However, it's my doubts regarding Mertesacker more than my doubts regarding Vermaelen that I find myself wondering about signing another center-back.

Laurent Koscielny: B-
  • whoscored rating: 6.99
  • Appearances: 25 (5)
  • Tackles per game: 1.6
  • Interceptions per game: 1.8
  • Clearances per game: 5.6
  • Clean sheets: 11
  • 19W, 5D, 4L
Here, arguably, is where statistics only tell part of the story. If you believe them, Koscielny is only marginally better than Mertesacker, who himself is infinitesimally better than Vermaelen. However, taking a look at the bigger picture suggests that Koscielny is far and away Arsenal's best center-back. He falls somewhere between Vermaelen's brashness and Mertesacker's conservatism: he joins the attack with aplomb but tracks back and anchors the defense, showing range and positioning to rival the best in the Prem. If his statistics suffer, it may be for falling between the two, losing points for aggressiveness compared to Vermaelen and losing points for stability compared to Mertesacker. 

Like the other two, he has been found guilty of a few errors, such as his embrace of Dzeko in January, but it's arresting to see that a defender managed to claim three MotM awards from whoscored, a designation usually reserved for attackers who win games with timely goals. That Koscielny joined those ranks while also saving the team's hash on more than one occasion should surely earn him more attention than he's gotten. Other teams, notably Bayern and Barca, have sniffed around, but it would be a sore mistake to let him leave under almost any terms. If we were to set aside some of his early and shakier performances, he might just lead the discussion for the Prem's best center-backs. Limiting ourselves to those who play for Arsenal, he leads the way with those MotM awards (3) and games with a rating of 8.0 or higher (3). 

Between the three of them, therefore, Koscielny seems to emerge as the best of the bunch, possessing the aggressiveness of Vermaelen without incurring the risk, understanding limitations like Mertesacker without letting them inhibit him. If there's a center-back around whom to build the defense, it is almost certainly Koscielny.

What does this mean for the summer transfer-window? A fourth center-back would be useful under the best of circumstances. Arsenal has been frequently linked with Swansea's Ashley Williams, but it remains to be seen whether he adds more than he subtracts after just one season in the Prem, and one that was a bit blessed by kismet at that. 

Whom should Arsenal try to sign?

As it stands, Arsenal go into 2013-14 with an enviable set of center-backs that did, after all, lead a defense that only conceded 37 league goals, second-best in the Prem. A shrewd addition to that group would bode well for the upcoming season: competition to keep all-involved on their toes, leading to the best pairings available. Most of the headlines have focused on more-forward thinking options such as Higuain, Jovetic, or Fellaini, but adding one more center-back might be just as crucial to Arsenal's aspirations in the upcoming year.

What do you think? Whom should Arsenal consider signing this summer to burnish the defense?