Arsène Wenger has often been criticised for his defensive signings – while few doubt his record with signing attackers, some of the defenders that he brought in didn’t exactly succeed. Igors Stepanovs, Efstathios Tavlaridis and Pascal Cygan all jump to mind, and I must say I’m quite proud I didn’t have to check either of the names of the first two on Wikipedia. Although it probably shows how badly they did at Arsenal that I can recall their names so easily.
Anyway, to get to the point, his record isn’t superb. Thomas Vermaelen seemed to sign-post an improvement, and then a couple of seasons later, Wenger splashed out on a little-known French centre-back from Lorient to replace William Gallas. The fee was between £8.5 million and £10 million, depending on who you believed, but either way fans seemed baffled by such a high (by Arsenal’s standards) fee for a player who so few had heard of.
A year later and many were still not convinced, despite some impressive performances against the likes of Barcelona winning over a lot of Arsenal fans. His mix-up with Wojciech Szczesny in the Carling Cup final had a lot to do with many not taking to him, and it seemed to be a while before some fans forgave him for that.
Some stellar performances in his second season, however, looked like it had silenced his doubters, and although Alex Song and Tomas Rosicky somehow came higher in the player of the year poll on Arsenal’s website, most sane Arsenal fans would have agreed that Koscielny was, alongside Arteta, Arsenal’s second most important player. I’m not sure it’s relevant to mention who was the most important player, so let’s swiftly move on.
Koscielny had a tough start to this 2012/13 campaign, struggling against Chelsea and Reading on his way back to full fitness, but confident showings against Tottenham and Montpellier show that he’s back to his imperious best. He seems to be forming a solid partnership with Per Mertesacker, and the two suit each other well.
Herein lies the problem. Koscielny and Mertesacker are without doubt Arsenal’s two in-form centre backs, and with Kieran Gibbs returning, the logic would be in slotting Gibbs in at left back and leaving the centre back partnership as it is. However, Thomas Vermaelen would be the one to lose out, and given that he’s Arsenal’s captain, that’s a tricky task for Wenger.
Gibbs will certain return when back to full fitness (*smashes on wood until hand is full of splinters*) but the question is: who will Wenger choose at the back – Vermaelen or Koscielny? It isn’t wholly unlikely that Wenger will drop Mertesacker, but the German gives the Gunners a calmness at the back that’s been so lacking in recent years, and the manager will likely look to hold onto that.
Vermaelen has yet to hit the same heights of his first season – indeed, perhaps the goals simply papered over some of his flaws, and now that they’ve dried up, they’re more obvious. Arsenal fans are certainly becoming less tolerant of his errors, as his impetuousness and proneness to lose concentration continue to get him into trouble. His captaincy credentials have come into question as well, so it’s quite obvious who most Arsenal fans would prefer to line up alongside Mertesacker when Gibbs returns.
The return to form of Koscielny after his brief blip was a relief for Arsenal fans after the example of Johan Djourou. The Swiss centre back had an excellent season alongside Koscielny in the 2010/11 campaign, and many were dismayed when he dislocated a shoulder against Manchester United. When he returned, he didn’t look the same player, and there was a worry that Koscielny could go the same way.
Luckily the former Tours defender has shaken off his struggles and is once again the player Arsenal fans fell in love with last season. On top of his tidy defensive work against Montpellier he even managed to threaten twice, first hitting the bar with a header, before rampaging up the field to ignite Arsenal’s attack when they seemed lethargic.
Going by form, Koscielny would make the team ahead of Vermaelen without question. It would be unfair on the Frenchman if the captain lined up ahead of him simply due to rank, as he entirely deserves his place alongside Mertesacker. It’s an interesting issue as Wenger has rarely had to deal with a problem like this one. Arsenal fans will be hoping that Vermaelen is the one to miss out, but Wenger may feel it’s too big a risk to upset yet another important player by dropping his captain – unless, that is, he can conjure up one of Almunia’s famous ‘wrist’ injuries.