Here we go again. Another Arsenal player wants to be given what he’s worth, Wenger and the board are too tight-fisted to be reasonable so we’re going to lose yet another world class player, maybe the last one we have, at the peak of his powers. But is it that simple? No, of course it isn’t, it never is.
First, let me say that I love Bacary Sagna. Even allowing the fact that most Gooners who watch him regularly rate him very highly, I think that he’s still underrated, especially at the moment given his current dip in form. Most fans have been quick to conclude it must be linked to the contract uncertainty (his head’s been turned, his heart’s not in it, etc, etc) and it might well be, for all we know; but it could just as easily be the fact that he’s simply having a bad run at the moment, it happens to all players – we just don’t know. One thing I will say about him is that ever since he’s been at the club he’s been one of our most consistent performers, his only other previous poor spell coming after the death of his brother which, of course, was entirely understandable. I think we Gooners owe Sagna the benefit of the doubt on this and should be patient whilst he searches to rediscover his best form.
In common with other defenders or defensive midfielders who read the game intelligently, who are always in the right place at the right time, when Sagna is playing at his best he makes everything look simple. Many fans, especially those who watch mostly on TV, tend to value disproportionately what a player does on the ball rather than the runs and positions he takes up off it but, of course, the truth is the other way around. That’s not to say once he has to make a tackle or an interception he’s a soft touch, far from it, his ability to hold up his man, prevent a cross and most importantly of all, sweep up at the back post when the ball comes in from the opposite flank, either along the ground or in the air, is as reliable as ever. When was the last time you saw Sagna lose a header? No, I can’t remember either. For a man who isn’t Mertersacker-tall, he’s got the most amazing spring on him.
Defending is only part of a full-back’s duties, of course. It’s the most important part and it’s no use having a brilliant attacking full-back if he can’t do his day job in the defensive third (*cough* Santos *cough*). But equally, if he offers no threat going forward that can be devastating for the whole balance of the team (*cough* Vermaelen *cough*). There are two parts to a full-back’s attacking play: his work in the middle third and his work in the final third. It’s an important distinction that isn’t really much talked about because I think every full back has to be able to link play in the middle third; we saw against Fulham how Vermaelen at left back made only one forward pass in the whole game, hardly venturing beyond the half-way line, thus putting all sorts of pressure on the midfield who struggled for fluency and also to create anything. But I believe you don’t necessarily have to have both full-backs always bombing on to the byline to deliver a final ball into the box, it’s enough only for one of them to be tasked to do this whenever possible. If you look at a lot of successful teams, not least our own Invincibles, you’ll often find that they set up asymmetrically, i.e. they’ll attack down one flank more than the other. It’s especially true when a team plays with two deeper lying players in midfield because the more defensive of the pair will usually play on the side of the more advanced full-back, making his job easier by halving the ground he has to cover. The more attacking midfielder knows he can get forward to link with the attack, safe in the knowledge that the full-back on his side will be more conservative in the final third. That’s not to say that he won’t overlap and provide crosses or cutbacks, just that he will pick and choose the occasions when it’s a bit safer to do so and he knows he can get back without leaving his centre-backs exposed. The fitter, more athletic the full-back, the more he’ll be able to do this.
Arsène Wenger has always preferred playing with a raiding left back and a more conservative right back. Ashley Cole spent more time as a left winger while Lauren was more judicious, waiting for the right moment to go forward and when he did he was usually devastating. You can see the same set-up in the current team, with Gibbs or Santos expected to join the attack whenever possible and Sagna or Jenkinson to choose their moments to deliver a ball in the final third. One of the criticisms of Sagna is that he’s not actually that effective in the final third and I think it’s fair comment. He hardly gets into the box himself, rarely if ever scores, and his crosses are of mixed quality - some good, some bad. But I don’t really think this matters too much, he does enough going forward considering his remit in the team and if there’s one full-back whom you would criticise for not providing enough end-product it’s Gibbs, even though he’s the better player going forward. Sagna’s work in the middle third is, by and large, excellent. He’s comfortable in possession, neat in his distribution, positionally intelligent and has the engine always to be in the right place to support the midfield. It’s no coincidence that Walcott is a different, better, player whenever Sagna lines up behind him.
I like Jenkinson too. He’s surprised us all over the last year and looks as if he could develop into a fine player. But he’s not there yet. I’ve seen a lot of Gooners saying recently that he’s already become a better full-back than Sagna, including one or two who really know their shallots, but I have to disagree with them. I think perhaps we have a tendency to overlook weaknesses in young players and make too many allowances for them. For some reason it’s most pronounced with young full-backs, I’m not sure why. Remember how we raved about Clichy when he broke into the side? “Ashley who?” we said. That worked out well, didn’t it? Sagna, to me, is a much more accomplished player than Jenkinson in all three zones of the pitch. Jenks still has a tendency to switch off at the back post (when he was at fault for the goal in Greece it was the third time that he’d let his man run off him on the back stick). In possession, he doesn’t yet have a natural understanding of the best positions to take up to receive the ball, then to recycle it constructively, simply and quickly in the way that Sagna does so effortlessly that we hardly notice him doing it. All this will come in time, but he’s not there yet and it’s possible that he may not develop to the level we’re expecting at all.
Sagna is a world-class player but he’ll be 30 this coming Valentine’s day (happy birthday, Bacary!). The question we have to ask ourselves if we’re advocating giving him a big pay rise is, will he still be a world class player, worth £80,000 of yours and my money every week when he’s 34? Full back is one of the positions where physical endurance, the ability to get up and down the flank, is paramount. You might argue that it’s less so for Sagna, since he can curb his runs into the final third more and more, using his football brain to be even more selective. You might point to modern sports science and conditioning and note that Maldini was playing at the top level well beyond that age, and that Sagna, like the Italian legend, is a top class athlete. But I think Maldini was an exception and besides, it’s easier in the less physically intense Italian league, not to mention the fact that Milan’s medical department are world class and ours are….not.
A better comparison, for me, is a certain Mr William Gallas. He was another top class defender who could read the game, was also a brilliant athlete with pace to burn. At the time he was looking for a contract extension he was still at the peak of his physical powers. His partnership with Vermaelen was working well because it was Gallas’s pace that enabled him to sweep up behind the Belgian every time he lunged in for the ball or held a ragged position too far ahead of his defensive colleagues. (Incidentally, this is why we’ve had so many problems this season when he’s been playing with Mertersacker, who is a different type of centre-back than Gallas. Micheal Cox was the first to spot this on his excellent Zonal Marking site ,Gallas not only masked a lot of these deficiencies but allowed us to play our very high line that our pressing-midfield needed to play our 4-3-3 shape. The fact that they were quite bad at it wasn’t Gallas’s fault, but for all that, when it came to contract renewal time, Wenger took the gamble that while Gallas might be good for another season or two, shelling out £100,000 a week over the last couple of years of a new contract would not be a good investment. Anyone who’s watched Spurs this season and last (I try not to) will tell you that Wenger made the right decision.
In Sagna’s case you also have to factor in his injuries and remember that he’s broken the same leg twice in recent seasons. While that may not be as worrying as ligament damage, it’s still a concern and might well impact how many games he’ll be available for when he’s 33 or 34. If he’s only going to play 15-20 games a season in the last couple of years of his contract, you then have to pro-rata his weekly wage and suddenly £80K a week over four years becomes £100K a week for 3 years of actual playing time. Wenger has made many mistakes during the course of his tenure but, by and large, he’s tended to let people go at the right time, mostly by erring on the side of caution. Letting Robert Pires go too early is one example that with the benefit of hindsight we can say was probably an error but on the whole this is still one area where I’m happy to trust his judgement. There’s all sorts of conflicting reports about the contract negotiations at the moment, Sagna is happy, Sagna isn’t happy, Wenger is annoyed that he’s spoken out about transfer policy, Wenger doesn’t have a problem, negotiations are stalled, negotiations are proceeding well. Frankly, I suspect most of it is agent rubbish and that if Sagna truly wants to stay, then Wenger and the club should be able to hammer out a compromise deal that keeps him hear yet looks after the long term interest of the club.