Friday, September 7, 2012
Keeper controversy at Arsenal unlikely
Morning all. There's an old adage that says "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", and I think that applies to a lot of different things. Arsene Wenger is going to have some choices to make, and they mostly involve whether or not to make changes to a side that has not conceded a goal in 270-plus minutes of football. It's been our defense that has kept our fairly respectable start to the season from being a fairly terrible one, and it's been done using a back four and keeper lineup made up of some second and even third choice options. This shows depth and strength in the squad, but may also lead to controversy when it comes to deciding who plays, and who sits on the bench.
You could argue that Per Mertesacker is a first choice center-back and I don't think you'd necessarily be wrong. But given the way Koscielny played last season, I have to believe, had he been healthy, he would have started at least one, or probably two of our first three matches. Koscielny's play was enough to earn him a nice contract over the summer, and you can bet we won't be paying him to sit around. By all rights, he was probably our best defensive player last season, and we were very fortunate to have him after Mertesacker himself went down with a season ending ankle injury against Sunderland. Truthfully though, Koscielny and Mertesacker compliment each other very well. They'd be a tremendous pairing of center-backs to have on the pitch at the same time, although we won't see much of that if Vermaelen stays fit. Koscielny is more athletic, and has more pace, where Mertesacker is an immense and physically imposing presence, who controls the game well and can be dangerous in the air on set pieces. To be fair, Koscielny is also good in the air, and had three goals and two assists last season. It should be interesting to see how this plays out. My suspicion is that Koscielny will take over the first choice role, but we'll see plenty of Mertesacker as well.
Karl Jenkinson has featured at right back in all three of our matches to start the season, and has done quite well. Unfortunately for Karl, there's no real decision to be had here. Bacary Sagna is probably the best right-back in the Prem, which makes him one of the best in the world, and Jenkinson will have to take a seat once he returns from his injury. Again, this speaks to our depth, and I think it's great for Jenkinson to be getting this experience. He's a player I think we can trust and I would assume that we'll see appearances from him throughout the season. But a healthy Sagna will be inserted into the lineup immediately. Unlike Jenkinson, Sagna has a little more license to get forward, so in addition to bolstering the back line, his return should also mean more spark from the offense. Sagna should be available within the next two to three weeks.
Then there's Vito Mannone who has seemingly come out of nowhere to keep two consecutive clean sheets. Mannone is technically the third choice keeper, or at least he was the third choice keeper, but was quoted earlier this week, expressing his desire to push Wojciech Szczęsny for the first choice spot. Szczęsny has had a rough go of it over the past couple of months. He was seen off with a red card in the very first match of Euro 2012, and did not regain his spot after being usurped by replacement keeper Przemyslaw Tyton. After playing well in Arsenal's opening match, he has now missed two matches with injury, making way for Mannone who, while not looking overly spectacular, has done a very respectable job between the sticks. None of this looks very good for assumed second choice keeper Łukasz Fabiański who is also injured. Ironically, Fabiański would have been Szczęsny's replacement at Euro, but was unfit then as well. He's another player who has voiced discontent over his second choice role, but due to injury has been unable to take advantage of his opportunities. For Wenger, I think it would probably be unwise to start toying with the pecking order. Aside from a couple minor injuries, and couple instances of over-zealousness, Szczęsny has been a very serviceable keeper who's also shown considerable leadership qualities on the pitch. The save he made in the first half of the Sunderland match might have prevented us from starting the season with a loss, and was probably better than anything we've seen from Mannone. Mannone has clearly shown improvement after spending time on loan with Hull, but I don't think it'll be enough to cost Szczęsny his spot.
When push comes to shove, I think Wenger will decide to use his more proven players, even if it means altering a defensive lineup that has been extremely impressive. Having too many choices is a pretty nice problem to have, especially considering the issues we've been having on defense over the past few years. It's comforting to know that we're in a position where an injury or two isn't going to completely ruin us. What remains to be seen is if this competition for minutes leads to healthy growth within the squad, or if it leads to controversy and infighting. We all know footballers want to play football. The best case scenario is for Arsenal to start taking leads early on in matches, allowing Wenger to substitute younger and less experienced players at his leisure, as opposed to making substitutions in a desperate attempt to score a last minute goal.
That's it for me this week. Enjoy your weekend and try not to get too down about the break. Starting Monday we can get back to business as usual, looking ahead to the Southampton fixture. It's a match where I feel we can have the points, which would leave me feeling pretty good about how we've come out of the gates. See you then.