The usual speculation of the transfer window is right old Carry On this morning with numerous reports suggest that Julian Draxler is an unpolished gem whom Arsène wants to turn into a centre forward. At a rumoured cost of £37m, that is one hell of a rough diamond. Or present to himself on agreeing his new contract, which former house paper Daily Star believes is the case. The announcement is on hold whilst new deals for Bacary Sagna and Per Mertesacker are finalised. The latter is signed but Arsenal want to send the feelgood factor through the roof by announcing all three at the same time. If it is two, then we can assume it is a BOGOF day with the third telling the club they can…well, you know where that one was going. With the reaction the last time around to strong media stories of his contract being signed, I think I’ll wait until it is announced before commenting.
Like Sagna, Mertesacker is well worth his new deal. Having adapted to the English game, the German is showing his value to the squad through his leadership and performances. It was an interesting – and surprising – statistic that he and Koscielny have not lost a game where they have played the full ninety minutes together in the past two years. The pair are no doubt relieved that the Frenchman was replaced during the defeat at Eastlands last month; their record would have been in as much disarray as the Arsenal defence that day.
The context of that flippancy underlines what a pivotal role the pair have played since Arsène’s patience snapped following the debacles as winter turned to spring in 2013. Tiring of sub-standard performances from key players, Szczesny and Vermaelen were omitted from the team which went on to win in Munich and the Belgian has never been able to usurp either Koscielny or Mertesacker since. We got our Arsenal back with the arrival of a parsimonious defence. The fine run of results which propelled the club into a fourth-placed finish last year relied on slender leads being protected. They built the basis for this season’s confidence at the back, the less convincing nature of last term’s performances bred belief in what might be achieved. Now that belief is confidence in themselves and each other, reflected in the solidity of the central pairing and when one is missing, their replacements. Vermaelen looked a better player, more like the one Arsenal signed, when he deputised for Koscielny.
Mertesacker warmed to that theme after Monday night’s win at Villa Park, the confidence manifesting in his eyes as the squad “responded” to the pressure of Chelsea and City winning at the weekend. Arsène acknowledged the key role his back four played in that win, in what was a microcosm of the season as Arsenal sailed through most of the game before giving themselves a nervous moment or two,
I would say our centre backs, our defence, kept us through that difficult period and they did extremely well. I am very pleased with that, when we are under pressure we can respond.
Outside of the club, recognition is coming. The praise is effusive, notably from Martin Keown. The former defender is one of the more measured pundits in his analysis and if he believes that the Mertesacker / Koscielny axis is on a par with the best in Arsenal’s history, who am I to argue? I like the caveat that the pair need to win trophies if they are to assume that mantle without questions being asked. Harsh in that it is not purely down to their performances but fair in that a solid defence has always underpinned the club’s success. Flamboyant attack will only get you so far.
For Mertesacker, recognition of his performances has been slow in coming. Dismissed in his first season for lacking pace – a slower turning circle than a barge was one particular barb which struck – there was little accommodation for adjusting to a new life, culture and style of play which even though the Bundesliga is widely regarded as being closest to the Premier League in style, would still have come as a shock to the German international. It is those two words which are key. Players are not called into the German squad on a whim; unlike England, they are expected to be excellent. They don’t stay there unless they are consistently excellent and Mertesacker has stayed there. Koscielny regularly features in the Man of the Match recommendations but his improvement is in no small part due to Mertesacker’s influence; his experience, calmness. Koscielny continues to improve but has yet to fully shake the disposition to costly errors early in the season. He is a slow starter but as the flow of games builds so does his form. For a man plying his trade not so long ago in the lower divisions of French football, the progress has been immense. If he can shake those early season cobwebs, Koscielny has the potential to be considered one of the best centre backs in the game at the moment.
Steve Bould deserves immense credit for this improved focus but so does Arsène. You can see the organisation which Bould has brought to the defence, the coherent positioning but it takes a good manager to acknowledge that he has coaching staff who are better qualified to correct this than himself and then let them get on and do so. Too often that aspect of the manager’s influence in this area is overlooked or dismissed. For a man whose reputation is built on the attacking prowess of his teams, this transformation is crucial. Hopefully the stability will continue to underpin what has been a marked improvement in the team’s form this season and long may that continue.