2013-14 Season Preview, Part 3: Defenders / Central Midfielders

Before I get into the next section proper, I have one belated departure to happily report!

Marouane Chamakh

2012 Appearances: 1 (1)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.50
2012 Man of the Match Awards: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Good one.

Chamakh is a case of "11th verse, same as the first" as far as the departures theme goes. He was one of those rare cases when Arsene dithered over spending money on someone and proved to be emphatically right. When he eventually did arrive from Bordeaux on a Wenger (if Jean-Marc Bosman is the namesake of a player moving on a free, Arsene HAS to get the managerial version of bringing someone in that way). he ended up not being worth the price in the end.

However, he wasn't entirely without promise when he first arrived. All told, he hit for 11 goals in all competitions in his first season, and it wasn't inconceivable that he could kick on from there and improve. Many people blame Judas' amazing run the following season for bolting Chamakh to the bench and in turn destroying his confidence, but I don't entirely buy it. He only scored 56 goals in 230 league appearances for Bordeaux - slightly less than 1 in 4 in a garbage league. If anything, the 11 goals for us was likely a fluke, and a minor one at that.

Anyway, he was another who left us a broken shell of a man, and I'm dying to know if there was something going on at the club that facilitated this, or if Arsene just bought a gaggle of fragile players who all imploded the second more than 8 people were paying attention to them? Little of column A, little of column B, perhaps?

Anyway, on to those still with us - our defenders and central midfielders. We'll start with our drastically-improved defense.

# 6 - Laurent Koscielny

Age: 27
2012 Appearances: 28 (5)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.76
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 2
2012 TMG 9 Ratings: 1

I have bagged on Arsene quite a bit over the last two sections, especially regarding his spotty recent track record in the transfer market. All of that may be true, but let's not forget that Koscielny came to us with no fanfare from the Ligue 2 side Lorient. It is exactly the kind of signing that we praised the manager to the skies for making in the good old days.

I hesitate to use the words "mental strength" given that they've become an in-joke among Gooners at this point, but this man has it in surplus. A decent first season was followed by a putrid sophomore effort, but he rebounded from it. Contrary to popular belief , he was the one at fault for the soul-destroying winning goal for Birmingham City in THAT League Cup Final. Moments like that have killed careers of lesser men, and he came out the stronger for it. The first third of last season was so bad that he justifiably was on the bench behind Thomas Vermaelen, whose form for most of the campaign could be described as "execrable".  

Despite all that, he may have been the best Arsenal player not named Santiago in the second half of last season.

The spark came when he was partnered with our Big Fucking German. Koscielny and Vermaelen have similar styles in theory, meaning the two together are prone to leaving gaps in the back. Kos ventures further forward, often breaking up attacks at the top of the penalty area or beyond. Per is more of a stay-at-home type, and together they are difficult to crack. Kos also has popped up with the odd timely goal, the most unforgettable being his top-corner thunderbolt to rescue a point against Manchester City.

Now, though, he operates under the pressure of operating as the linchpin of our defense. Unquestionably, he is the best we have. He is in his athletic prime, he's been through the Premier League wars now and he finally is in a largely-settled back line. That said, he also has never consistently put together an entire great season. I believe he can and will do it this time, but we are in serious trouble if he fails at that mission. He just may be our single most-important player this time out.

# 4 - Per Mertesacker

Age: 28

2012 Appearances: 39 (1)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.70
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 4
2012 TMG 9 Ratings: 1

I cannot think of a more ludicrously-unfair target of English Press Groupthink, except perhaps every goalkeeper who has ever lived (well, except for Massimo Taibbi...he was as awful as advertised). Few pieces on Arsenal mention him without "lack of pace" appearing somewhere in there. He also is apparently responsible for every Arsenal goal against, our lack of activity in the transfer market, AIDS and global warming. 

The truth is that he is a steady defender, a good reader of the game and a calming influence in the back. I decline to be surprised that his appearance roughly coincided with us giving up far fewer epically-stupid goals. He is often the last line of defense with Koscielny playing further forward, and countless times he did that job with aplomb. The negative does tend to stick in our minds longer and more vividly than the positive, but a careful review would show a nearly-infinite amount of timely interceptions, intelligent tackles and even a few headers won (despite conventional "wisdom"). 

That said, the accusations about his pace are not entirely groundless. He has at times been torched by the Premier League's speed merchants, and he did have his share of rough outings. Taken as a whole though, Mertesacker had a decent season last time out and could improve further with a bit more consistency.

Also, like his partner in central defense, Per managed his share of timely goals as well. A repeat of that would not go amiss, but if he gives us 30-35 7-out-of-10 performances, that is all we can ask for at the stopper position.

# 5 - Thomas Vermaelen

Age: 27

2012 Appearances: 30 (4)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.29
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 1

This may be harsh, but what the hell, I'll roll with it: There may be no single bigger culprit in our season's derailment than the hollow shell of what once was The Verminator. Whatever malaise has been going around the club that has eviscerated the talents of once-proud footballers, the Belgian's caught it worse than anyone.

The funny thing is that early in the season, he was immense. I remember his brilliant performances early on in the season, where only a horrible mistake from Szczesny prevented us from starting with 3 clean sheets. What I don't remember is where it started to go wrong for Vermaelen - but once it did, the bottom fell out in a hurry. 

I will say that a lot of this is down to the manager, though. It was painfully obvious to all that at some point, he needed to get benched. The same thing that worked wonders for Szczesny was not used for the captain until the tail end of the season, when it was far too late. I don't know if it was obstinacy or a fear that a spell on the bench would undermine his role as captain more than a string of sub-par performances, but Tommy was pretty much left out to dry every week. Clearly his confidence was gone, and every week he was out there flailing in the wind. 

It defies belief that this is the real Vermaelen, though. Something tells me that he is going to have a significant part to play this season upon his return from injury, and we're going to need him to be at his old steely-eyed best. We need the TV5 that looked and played like an extra from Eastern Promises, not the man who was air-kicking easy clearances to let Judas score goals. 

The jury is out on whether we will get the Verminator of old. The answer could go a long way towards deciding our season one way or the other, though.

# 3 - Bacary Sagna

Age: 30

2012 Appearances: 28 (0)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.18
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 0

As bad as Vermaelen was for much of last season, Sagna was an order of magnitude worse. In fact, he was our lowest-rated player outside of Andre Santos. There were the few odd games where he played like the dependable stalwart of old, but for the most part he was a shockingly-bad liability. Frankly, I think the horrific injuries he has suffered have inexorably ruined him as a footballer.

Were it up to me, Sagna would be plying his trade somewhere in Ligue 1 this season. Instead, he will be our 3rd-choice center half, and (I hope) our 2nd-choice right back. It should be started in fairness that his best performances last season came when pressed into emergency center-half duty, where his diminished pace became less of an issue. He is still a highly-experienced player who has good instincts and the desire to compete, so perhaps the position switch will be best for him.

It's weird to say for someone who is only 30, but he is beyond finished as a fullback, though. He does not have the wheels to keep up with speedy wingers, or to contribute much offensively. He can't cross worth a damn, and I sadly doubt that he has too many more moments left in him like that magical header to start our comeback against the Scum two seasons ago.

I've said this a lot already in this preview, but it would have been better for all parties if he had left.

Still, he's an Arsenal player, and hopefully will get most of his games spelling Kos or Per at center-half. I imagine he has a lot to offer in the way of guidance for the younger players and he seems like a great teammate. That said, if he plays a significant number of games at right back this season, that position will be the same gaping chest wound that it was last season. 

# 25 - Carl Jenkinson

Age: 21

2012 Appearances: 19 (0)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.68
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 0

I envision a lovely scenario in which the Corporal seizes the right-back position as his own and gives us an injury-free 25-30 matches of competent fullback play. The realism of that scenario is up for debate - both in the level of consistency we could expect and whether Arsene would be brave enough to bench Sagna to achieve it. 

Either way, I've done a hell of a 180 on this kid, huh? Last season's preview saw me talk a bag of mouth about Jenks and how our depth at the position was disgraceful with him being second-choice. All I can say in my defense is that I did successfully predict that we'd come back and win the second Norwich City match (I promise, I'll stop tooting my own horn about that one sometime in 2053). 

It is hard to pinpoint what it is I see in LEEEEEEERROOOYYYY now that I didn't before. Obviously, his pedigree as a real-life Gooner helps. More importantly though, I think it's in the spirit he's displayed, even in matches where he's struggled. He has the same quality that I liked about Gervinho - his instinct is always to attack, to fight, to press ahead. The difference is that Jenkinson is far better at it, and his crossing gives us a dimension we don't have otherwise down that flank. I could see Olivier Giroud getting 3-4 more goals in a season with Jenks crossing in as opposed to Sagna.

Defensively, he is still a bit suspect. He is prone to the odd questionable booking (or two, or six) and is clearly still learning the ropes. Conversely, his ceiling has become far more obvious than it was last preseason, and his presence in the starting XI elicits more hope than fear. Dammit, I like this kid, and I want him to succeed badly. 

I hope he does - for our sake, as well as his.  

# 28 - Kieran Gibbs

Age: 23

2012 Appearances: 27 (4)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.77
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 1

There was a time where I thought Gibbs was never going to be truly worthy of the left-back slot at Arsenal. That was before the tail end of the season before last, where the Gunners held a precarious 3-2 lead away to West Bromwich Albion in a must-win match. A third Baggies goal would see us slip into 5th place, into the hinterlands outside of the Champions League places. Late in the match, a defensive breakdown saw one of their mob bearing down on our goal, the end of our status as a top-level club hovering in our peripheral vision.

And then.

A burst of red flew into our screens from stage left, the sort of ridiculous deus ex machina that would make you roll your eyes in the movie theater. Gibbs, with one colossal sliding block, arguably rescued our status as a big club at the top level of world football.

That shit matters. Gibbs became a player that day.

Don't get me wrong - Gibbs is not exactly Leighton Baines and never will be. I'd say that he gives us 90% of Gael Clichy's ability with half the ridiculous errors. If that is the ceiling that we'll get from the left-back position, I'm comfortable with that. Besides, he is one of the few players at the club who faces serious competition for his place, so he will not suffer for motivation. Also, at 23, now is the time where we should be able to expect that youthful errors fade into the rearview mirror. 

Call it a hunch, but I think Gibbs will be pretty good this season. Not spectacular, not world-beating, but solid and reliable. 

# 17 - Nacho Monreal

Age: 27

2012 Appearances: 10 (1)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.70
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 0

Quietly, this guy saved our season last time out.

It's a bit down the memory hole now, but around the end of the January transfer window in the beginning of this calendar year, we were in a serious quandary. Gibbs was hurt, and the fixtures were piling up. We were facing a cataclysmic scenario where Andre Bloody Santos was going to play in a rapid-fire succession of crucial matches. 

I feared the worst...I really, truly did. I saw visions of a future where we were the Liverpool of the south, and I wailed and gnashed my teeth. It got Biblical for a second there.

Then, Arsene bought Monreal, shipped out the fat nimrod shirt-swapper to Some Brazilian Team I Can't Be Arsed to Look Up, and all was right with the world again.

Monreal didn't set the world on fire when he arrived, but he didn't have to. His was a calming presence, a ship-steadier until we got ourselves back on track and into the top four where we belonged. I suspect that Arsene sees him as second-choice, and I don't entirely disagree. He's a good player, but then again so now is Gibbs. 

That said, Gibbs is no stranger to the trainers' room, and those will be the times where Monreal will prove invaluable. Honestly, I wish we had a guy just like him at every position - solid, dependable, professional and can do a job if the first-choice man is out for any length of time. 

His song is damn fun to sing, too. I'm glad we have him. 

# 56 - Nico Yennaris

Age: 20

2012 Appearances: 1 (0)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 8.00
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 1

 Yennaris only played once last season, a Man of the Match effort against Coventry City in the League Cup. Given our travails at the fullback positions at times last season, I never could work out why we never saw him again. He was a dynamic presence in that one game, although it naturally is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from 90 minutes of football.

Still, I hope we see more of him this time around. He just might be a lottery ticket that cashes out in a big way.

And now, the central midfielders.

# 8 - Mikel Arteta

Age: 31

2012 Appearances: 40 (0)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.82
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 4

Arteta, the man who is for all intents and purposes our actual captain, was The Human Metronome last season. Ever-present in the team, he was rarely flashy but almost always effective. You could bank on his 7 out of 10 most weeks (even most of his MOTM awards were games where he was a 7), despite being asked to play in an unfamiliar role as the holding midfielder.

Of course, we probably cannot expect him to be the same forceful attacking presence at 31 years of age as he was in his Everton heyday. That's fine - we have plenty of attacking talent to handle those requirements. Successful teams do need a sturdy midfield platform to build on though, and Arteta quickly grew into that role last season. Not to mince words - we were absolute shite on the few occasions where he did not play.

Should the rumors about Luiz Gustavo be true, Arteta may see his playing time diminish. He may be asked to take on a more attacking role as well. Either way, I suspect he'll be fine. Arteta still has plenty to offer and with as many games as we'll have to play, he'll continue to be a key cog in our machine this season.

Besides, he's the only guy we have who I trust to take a penalty. Nerves of bloody steel.

# 10 - Jack Wilshere

Age: 21

2012 Appearances: 23 (7)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.96
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 3

There is something shocking about the fact that Jack made 30 appearances for us last season - it felt like his injury dated back to the Pleistocene Era. It took him a while to knock the rust off upon his return, but he finished the season as one of our more effective players. Long may that continue, because the truth is that we've never adequately replaced Cesc Fabregas, and our Jack is the best shot we have at doing so.

A few things do worry me about that, though. First, the kid gets kicked up in the air by every team we play. I imagine that somehow, the book on Wilshere was to tackle him aggressively to take him out of the game, because the tactic is damn near universal among our opponents. Second, there is the weight of expectation. Not only is a great young player, but he's a great English young player. Many players go on international break and fade into the background some...but Wilshere does not have that luxury. If anything, the hopes and dreams of the English support are more visceral and far more unrealistic than any that we may have for him. At the end of the day, we still have a pretty good (if thin) squad around him, whereas the English national side are a bit of a rabble. 

The optimistic view is that we won't rely on him as much as we have in the past. A lot of this does depend on us actually buying Gustavo or someone like him (as ever, I refuse to believe we're bringing anyone in until they're on Arsenal.com holding a scarf up - frankly I think Arsene thinks spending money is gauche and he refuses to do it despite the objections of Gazidis and others), of course. Should we do that though, Jack won't have to play every game. We can pick and choose his appearances with some intelligence, and rest him properly in between. I see him doing great things in this scenario.

Then again, I'm a pessimist. I imagine we won't buy anyone, Arsene will play him into the ground and his hamstrings will twang like Les Claypool's bass strings.

Man, I hope I'm wrong. Luckily for us, I usually am.

# 16 - Aaron Ramsey

Age: 22

2012 Appearances: 24 (18)

2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.58
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 0

Remember how I listed two inalienable truths about Szczesny in Part 1? Ramsey has two of them as well:  1. He was godawful at times last season, and it was beyond frustrating how he got so many appearances when he was struggling as badly as he was.  2. This is the season that he makes the leap, and it is legitimately exciting to think about what he can achieve this time around. He is going to surprise a lot of people. Forget what I said in the last paragraph about Jack above, I'm right about this one, I swear.

We saw flashes of what Ramsey could do before that odious bastard Ryan Shawcross got his studs into him. It's taken the best part of the last two years for him to get anywhere near it again, but I think he's finally there. Preseason is preseason and it can be futile to read too much into it, but then again sometimes transcendent play is what it is. Ramsey's range of passing has been other-worldly at times, and so has his finishing. What I think people don't get about these friendlies is that poor play is generally overrated, and usually down to a lack of fitness or team understanding. Great play though tends to be opponent-agnostic - a brilliant pass will beat most defenses, be they Indonesian or Mancunian in origin. 

I want to be firmly on the record here - if there are no repeats of the Stoke City variety, Aaron Ramsey is going to be in Santi Cazorla territory next season.

# 7 - Tomas Rosicky

Age: 32

2012 Appearances: 10 (3)
2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.69
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 2

I absolutely love Tomas Rosicky. I wish some of this squad had one-tenth of the heart and spirit and desire that this man possesses. Last season was a star-crossed one, as he struggled for fitness in the wake of a series of niggling injuries.  He will never be a 40-games-a-season man anymore, but he can still be an effective weapon if he is deployed properly. His minutes will have to be managed well and perhaps he is more of an impact sub than anything else, but he still has plenty to offer our football club.

It must be said though that Tommy has never replicated his Borussia Dortmund form with us. It's sad, but true...and I attribute it to whatever voodoo curse we've lived under for the last decade or so. However, what he does give us is plenty of running, plenty of attacking impetus and the occasional killer pass or cross. He isn't a guy who's going to score a ton of goals, but he can provide for the ones who are expected to score, and his defensive capabilities are sorely underrated.

I don't know if Rosicky can stay fit enough to contribute more than he did last season - I'd go so far as to say it's an outside shot. But if he can, he'll be a hell of an asset, and something of a secret weapon.

# 24 - Abou Diaby

Age: 27

2012 Appearances: 14 (1)

2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.40
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 0

Let's be realistic here - Diaby will have no significant part to play this season. The manager's blind and at times ridiculous faith in this man is touching to some degree, and on a personal level I understand it. Look at it just with the human element in mind and it is heartbreaking how this guy's career has progressed. Ramsey has managed to crawl back from the abyss, Diaby never has. It's unfortunate and unfair that a horror tackle from a worthless footballer like Dan Smith put him in this situation.

It did happen though, and it is reality. At this point, Diaby is no use as a footballer and should either retire or move to the lower divisions of France. It is astonishing that he is still on our books, but hopefully the emergence of Ramsey and the hopefully soon-to-be signing of Gustavo means that we are not realistically relying on Diaby to play a single minute of first-team football this season.

# 26 - Emmanuel Frimpong

Age: 21

2012 Appearances: 1 (1)

2012 TMG Average Rating: 6.50
2012 Man of the Match Awards: 0

Not quite good enough. If he plays one minute of first-team non-League Cup football for us this season, then I am the Tsar of all the Russias.

I imagine he'll get loaned out before the end of the transfer window.