It's Going to be a Big Season For....
The final focus in the It`s Going to be a Big Season For… series concentrates on an area of the pitch subject to intense scrutiny for Arsenal. When conducting his diagnosis for last season, Wenger glibly outlined, "We conceded 41 goals last season. That is too much if you want to win the championship." Though I`m not convinced the defence itself is the root cause as such; the whole team`s commitment to the darker arts is questionable at best. Even in the Celtic game on Sunday, despite holding a slender one goal advantage, Celtic players still regularly outnumbered red shirts in our own penalty area. The problem is more of a collective one; the midfield`s commitment to helping out the back four verges on disgrace at times- Steven Pienaar`s goal at the Grove in January comes to mind when he was the only outfield player in our half of the pitch. The team needs to take a pride in clean sheets even when games are won; in short, if they don`t start gulping down their vegetables, there will be no creamy peppercorn steak come May.
Arsenal`s defence undergoes a facelift this summer, with experienced campaigners Gallas, Silvestre and Campbell riding off into the sunset, along with the forgotten man Philippe Senderos. The goalkeeper situation also seems destined to alter in one way or another, but so far the only acquisition has been Laurent Koscielny, whilst Johan Djourou has returned to fitness and Harvard Nordtveit returns from loan. With the back line shorn of numbers and experience and new faces still set to arrive we are reliably informed, the burden of responsibility at the back will fall with Thomas Vermaelen. A year after arriving in England, he now finds himself as our most senior centre half. He certainly impressed last year with his all action displays, though that is not to say there isn`t room for improvement. For a start, he could probably do with learning that, since we play with three strikers already, we don`t really need nor want him bombing into the opposition area every minute of the game. (I am minded of the Liverpool home game in February, where he stupidly decided to career into Liverpool`s six yard area in injury time whilst Arsenal protected a slender lead).
That sort of discipline will be particularly important against the likes of Chelsea and United. Drogba and Rooney are incredibly efficient strikers and both gave Vermaelen a torrid time last season. I find it utterly amazing that Gooners were so willing to gleefully single out Senderos as the only defender ever to get a hard time from Drogba, when Tommy saw Drogba celebrate four goals against him last season, whilst he also scored an own goal trying to prevent Drogba. Vermaelen had the luxury last season of being given an easy time by supporters for such indiscretion because he was new and an expensive signing, that honeymoon period will start to end now and supporters will be unlikely to forgive him so easily this season. (See Arshavin, Andrey for details). Vermaelen also had a habit sometimes of getting too tight to attackers, which sometimes saw him concede unnecessary fouls.
However, largely Vermaelen`s first season was very impressive and he will need to build on that this term by making the relevant improvements. But now he will also be required to show something more. He will need to lead and cajole at the back and step into the role Gallas was filling last season; he goes from junior partner to senior executive. That he has experience as captain of Ajax suggests he has the cajouns to do it. There was much to suggest in his robust play last year that he shows signs of leadership and solidarity; as someone you can go to war with. Now he will be required to bring those qualities to the fore and I am sure that the manager will have already had this discussion with him. Indeed, the amount of times Vermaelen has appeared with the captain`s armband strapped to his arm in pre season is an indication that the manager is looking to stretch his responsibilities, it`s up to the Verminator to show he can handle them.LD.