Shipping four goals is never, ever, excusable but Arsene Wenger was right to not play Laurent Koscielny against Liverpool.
It should be enough for a team to score three in order to win a game, with five goals reserved for ‘icing on the cake’ territory.
That said, I’m getting thoroughly bored of the chat about the Liverpool game. We weren’t perfect – obviously – but equally it wasn’t quite the epic disaster that’s being portrayed. Two criticisms have been leveled at the manager in the aftermath, namely the number of defenders in his squad and the decision to leave one of them out based on his summer exertions.
Let’s take a look first at the number of defenders in the squad: Arsenal have five centre backs, three of whom have been purchased in the last two years. Three of them are what could be described as senior pros: Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gabriel. The remaining two are ones for the future to be developed and eased in: Chambers and Holding.
Now, the quality of our options is fair game for debate, but on numbers alone, none of our rivals have any better strength.* That doesn’t change, just because we’ve had two reasonably lengthy injuries or because we’ve had one bad result.
For me, it comes down to priorities. We have a fixed transfer budget, however big that is, and let’s say the plan for this summer was to use a small amount of that on a younger centre back with potential, and the bulk of it on a first eleven holding midfielder and a first eleven striker – I wouldn’t want to see us sacrifice that last signing to fill a gap for the six to eight weeks Gabriel is out.
If you think we should sell Mertesacker and/or Gabriel in favour of a stronger option then I’m all ears to that. Mertesacker, certainly, looks to be well over the hill and slipping a little further down the slope with each passing month. Meanwhile Gabriel has yet to prove he can cut it at the top level, despite 18 months in England and a visage which suggests the ultimate hard man persona we’ve been sorely lacking.
However, that still doesn’t mean we should jeopardise other areas of our team in favour of a short term solutions, simply because we are afraid to trust our younger players. And frankly, even if it did, we’d be hard pushed to identify, sign and assimilate a centre back in the space of the week since Gabriel‘s injury.
By all means criticise the quality of the players we have, but let’s not pretend that we should have signed a sixth centre back for a rainy day.
And yet, the other criticism is that this particular rainy day was to a certain extent self-inflicted. Once Gabriel crocked his ankle in the pre-season friendly against City, we were always going to play one of Chambers and Holding, but the decision to play both was made in the context of resting Koscielny. Was it the right one?
On the face of it, conceding four goals in the game suggests no.
There have been plenty of column inches devoted to examining the other sides who fielded Euro 16 finalists and semi-finalists last weekend, with obvious focus on our proposed shortcomings.
And yet both Ramsey and Lloris failed to finish their game on the Premier League’s opening weekend.
That the likes of Payet managed half an hour without injury is hardly evidence that 90 minutes would have been easy, and as a centre back there’s much less value in being available for a cameo role. Of the Euro 16 starters, only Bacary Sagna started his club’s opening match.
We also saw in the shape of Alexis in the opening game of last season (and indeed the few games after that) that playing a player – fit or otherwise – hardly guarantees that they will perform well with no preseason.
Funnily enough, there wasn’t quite as much airtime given to the resting of fellow centre back Jose Fonte.
And in any case, it’s not simply a case of looking at whether he could get through the first game unscathed – taking things on the face of them is a dangerous pastime.
Ex-pros are queuing up to say: “I would have played!”
But just as Alexis Sanchez would play every minute of every game if he were the boss, sometimes the manager has to make decisions with the bigger picture in mind.
It’s not about whether Koscielny would have picked up any injury this weekend, or even next weekend.
It’s about the situation in a couple of months, when we’re still missing Mertesacker, possibly Gabriel, and the Champions League has started to exert some extra pressure on our squad.
It’s about the situation when we face a run of nine games including two Champions League ties and league games against Spurs, Man Utd, West Ham, Stoke, Everton and Man City (Bournemouth, I’m sure, will also present a tough challenge, if a less high profile one).
And it’s about the situation when instead of missing one game (or even two or three) we end up losing our best centre back by a country mile for a significant period of time.
This isn’t the Bundesliga or La Liga where there are obvious opportunities to rest overworked players against the lesser lights without risking points.
Nor is it the Premier League of 20 years ago when the tempo was lower and the fitness less fine-tuned.
We simply cannot expect our players to play 50 games, have a week or so off, and then come back to play another 50 games of the high intensity we see today.
It was frustrating not to have Koscielny available against Liverpool but it was also understandable – nay – necessary.
Neither Chambers nor Holding had a particularly bad game against Liverpool, with our failings in midfield just as culpable for neglecting to offer a suitable level of protection for any centre back pairing, let alone one that had never started a top flight game together before.
With a little more care from the whole team, especially in light of our best attacking performance in a while, we could have got by with the defence we fielded.
Laurent is a far more important player to us for the match against Leicester. We’re already well aware of Vardy’s pace, and they’ve since added the rapid Musa to their forward options. Chambers and Holding are inexperienced, but their lack of pace is the factor which would make it a truly scary prospect lining up with them as our centre back pairing against the Foxes. We need our fastest central defender back in situ.
Hindsight is always 20:20, and with us shipping four goals last weekend it’s easy to say the various decisions leaving to the omission of our Frenchman were erroneous, but dig a little deeper and it’s not quite so clear cut.
The same cannot be said for Wenger’s failure to add to our striking options however.
*Chelsea have two senior centre backs in Cahill and Terry, a right back who doubles up as centre back cover, and two U21s, albeit Zouma is pretty decent for a youngster. Liverpool have three senior centre backs (if we include the liability that is Sakho), new and unproven signing Matip and a 19-year-old. City have Kompany and Otamendi, the inexperienced pair of Stones and Mangala, and an U21 player. United have five centre backs of some experience, but none of them standout performers. And as for Spurs, they have a quality first choice pairing in Vertonghen and Alderweireld, but back up is limited to three U23s, with both Wimmer and Davies yet to convince.