08 May 2014

From Sagna to Serge, a case for the French defense

With fourth place in hand and an FA Cup final still more than a week away, it's easy if not inevitable that minds start to wander towards the summer. The increasing buzz around Sagna paring was with the club he has known since 2007 forces us to focus a bit more attention on the right-back situation, an area that voters in this poll rated as a very high priority (click to vote if you're interested). Sagna's impending departure, sad though it may be, might just become a fact, whether it be through the rapacity of Man City or due to nagging concerns about Sagna's age and efforts. With that in mind, Serge Aurier has become the joueur du jour, and why not? Not only is he French-speaking, he's versatile enough to play at right-back or defensive midfield—two high-priority needs for the summer.

Ah, selfies. Irrefutable evidence...
Let's get the drool-inducting elements out of the way. Yes, he can play right-back and defensive mid, having made 17 appearances as RB and 15 as DM. Along the way, he's become the fourth-highest rated player in Ligue 1, according to whoscored.com. Not too shabby in a league that boasts the likes of Ibrahimovic, Silva, Falcao, and Squillaci (just seeing if you're paying attention). Aside from rankings such as those, the 21-year old appears to possess the mindset and skills we're looking for. He's versatile enough to play all across the back-line and is comfortable enough going forward to play that midfield. In Toulouse's 3-5-2, he's seemed equally prolific as a right-back or wide midfielder, delivering goals and assists from each position. He shows some nice technical ability on the ball and has the grit to win it in the air. He could make for a solid replacement for Sagna, even if he's not a one-for-one exchange. He may not be quite the defender that Sagna has been, but there's time to learn. What he may lack at the defensive end, he seems to make up for going forward, both in the sense of getting up the pitch and building on his potential.

If there's a knock against him, it's that he's a mere 176cm (5'9"). Then again, so too is Sagna, and each seems built more for rugby than for football. If there's a knock against him (take two), it's that he's Ivorian. As such, he might get called up for the African Cup of Nations and miss most of January. If Sagna is in fact out the door, we might the prospect of relying on Jenkinson and perhaps Bellerin to get us through the month, a period that could include two FA Cup rounds, not to mention four or five Prem matches to boot. While we're mentioning concerns, he's younger than Jenkinson. Would he really be ready to make the leap from Ligue 1 to the Prem? It's hard to know until he does it, but it's a bit optimistic to predict that he'd slot in immediately at right-back, which would leave us facing the prospect of a still callow, one-footed, and adrift-in-the-air Jenkinson. With Sagna gone, who'd be there to model, mentor, or motivate? We'd have two young, unproven-at-this-level right-backs, and that's a bit of a dicey proposition. I'm intrigued by what Aurier has to offer, but I'm wary of relying so much on him to replace the likes of Sagna, who has been among the Prem's best right-backs more often than not.

Still, of the right-backs out there, he's not only the most likely for us to sign (probably for a fee in the £12-15m range), he's probably the most likely to fit in with how we play. Whether you like it or not, we depend on our defenders to provide width, and Aurier has shown that he's more than willing to do this, delivering goals and assists, tackling with tenacity, and impressing with his speed and power. He may not be the season-saving transfer we crave, but he could very-well solidify the right side of the defense for the better part of the next decade. And, if he makes the occasional appearance in the midfield, who am I to complain?