Recently I have focused on our wealth of attacking options as our form has improved. I have discussed what will happen in midfield once Cesc Fabregas’ returns. I feel it is time the defence got a look in, seeing as it has been a major factor in our recent results. The question remains, is Almunia good enough, or is it Gallas that has changed our fortunes defensively?
There is no question, in my mind, that William Gallas is the best defender at Arsenal. People may not like him after his mistimed and ill felt rants, but there is no doubting his ability as a centre back. We saw at Chelsea that he was just as important to the defence as John Terry was. He was Terry’s sweeper, as Rio Ferdinand is to Vidic now. Terry was not faultless, but whatever he failed to deal with, more often than not, Gallas was there to clear up. We were lucky to get Gallas when Mourinho took his influence for granted.
I have hinted that Gallas works well with a bigger centre back next to him; a player that is prepared to go and attack the first ball. That is not Gallas’ game and this is where the problem arose with Kolo Toure. Both players had their best playing days next to a defensive beast, Sol Campbell and Terry. Gallas was asked to do more of the work he was used to his partner doing. Once a player is used to one job, and bloody good at it, asking him to transform his game is risky. That is what Wenger did, and it did not work. We did not see the best from Gallas.
It became clear to me last season that Toure and Gallas could never be fully effective as a partnership. It was during a period of time when Toure was out injured and Senderos came into the side. Bare with me, I am not going to lavish praise on Senderos. However, when he and Gallas played together, we conceded considerably less per game than when Kolo and Gallas played together. It was the same when Toure and Senderos played together. I am not saying that Senderos is our best defender; simply that Toure and Gallas are both better suited to playing with someone in his mould. Both players are brilliant at reacting to the second ball, whether it is a defensive error or opposition build up play.
Too often, when playing together, Gallas and Toure want to do the same job on the pitch, there is no doubt that this is where the problems started between them. I remember last season when we played Tottenham at the Emirates. With Gallas and Toure asked to deal with Berbatov and Keane, both players wanted to pick up Keane and the second ball. Neither of them decided to attack the first ball, allowing Berbatov to bring the ball down, unchallenged, 30 yards from goal. This happened all afternoon and was the main reason that the game was far from comfortable. This was something Wenger noticed, but only this season. He opted to pair Djourou with Gallas, looking to the young Swiss defender to provide Gallas with the type of defensive partner he prefers.
It brought the best out of Gallas. He settled back into the job he loves best and we saw why Wenger wanted to bring him to the Emirates. Once the captaincy was gone, it seemed to release Gallas of the sheer weight of responsibility he placed upon his own soldiers. He simply became a leader on the pitch, not off it. Our unbeaten run has been down largely to him. Even when we weren’t scoring goals, we were not conceding because Gallas was a rock at the back. So many times he put in great performances at the back to ensure we were simply looking for one goal, whereas before we would need one just to secure a draw.
If people doubt what I am saying, cast your minds back to three games this season. Firstly, Manchester United at home. Against the best attack in Europe, Gallas single handed kept them out until the 88th minute; he was fantastic. Secondly, Chelsea away. Although we went 1-0 down through an unfortunate own goal from Djourou, the defence was awesome throughout. I do not remember Chelsea having a clear cut chance all game and once we went 2-1 up, I remember thinking, “we won’t concede again today”. Gallas put in one of the best performances I had seen in a while. Lastly, Spurs away. If I am being honest, once Eboue went off, I had not seen a more one-sided 0-0 in a long time, and we were lucky to get a draw, unless you are William Gallas, who deserved 3 points for his contribution. Every ball that needed to be cleared, every man that needed to be tackled, Gallas was there.
Gallas is a big game player, and he has not always performed to his best. However, I have never seen him play badly when alongside Djourou or Senderos. One time when Gallas didn’t have the best of games, was during the 4-4 draw to Spurs. I do not remember him having a direct impact on our defensive collapse, and I blame this more on those around him. I do not see Silvestre as the right solution at all. I would pick Djourou, Toure or even Senderos before him.
So what is the solution? Wenger has got Toure and Gallas playing well together again. I think the two of them have decided to just get on with it to try and make something out of what is a promising season once again. I do think however, the situation needs addressing come the end of the season. We need a defender who is prepared to put his head in where it hurts and dominate the aerial ball, a Vidic type player.
Now I will address the issue of Manuel Almunia, the guy with the blonde moustache, the Spaniard who wants to play for England…I am going to put my neck on the line and say I think he is good enough to be our no.1. The problem with many Arsenal fans is they remember the Champions League Final as the defining moment on Almunia. I think this is harsh. Ok so Almunia should have saved at least one of Barcelona’s goals. However, no sub keeper would expect the man ahead of him to get sent off in a final, not even Lehmann. There is no way he would have been prepared for this match. Throw in torrential rain, alongside the fact he had only played a handful of matches all season, and you see why it’s harsh to judge him.
Since he took over the jersey, he has been nothing short of consistent. All goalies make mistakes, and Almunia makes considerably less than most keepers in the League. Arsenal fans are just too quick to judge him as they still have trust issues. Over the last two seasons, Almunia has been solid behind a shaky defence, making crucial saves at crucial times. Just a few weeks ago, he pulled off an outstanding save at home to Roma to prevent them scoring an away goal, and probably sending us out. He got no praise for this, just criticism for Juan’s goal in Rome, something he could have done very little to prevent.
The guy is an awesome shot stopper, alongside Reina and Cech in the Premiership. He is dominant from crosses, with the knowledge of when to catch or when to punch, quite a rare thing these days. No longer do I fear an opposition corner so much, now Jens has gone. His ball release is something I think goes unnoticed. He is always keen to start counter attacks with a quick throw or kick. Sometimes this does not work and instead of praising the idea to bring pace to our game, everyone just criticise s everything about him as a keeper.
It says it all that Capello is said to be considering him for England. If people doubt him, I think this sends out a clear message. Arsenal fans need to take a closer look to what he brings to the side as I think he can be crucial to Arsenal over the next few years.
Before I finish this, I want to spring one little aside, and possible tactical suggestion. I believe that in certain games, Eboue should start at right back in place of Sagna. Last season, when Sagna’s crossing and attacking play was at its best, I would not have said this. However, Sagna has been poor going forward this season. Frequently, in home games, Sagna does no defensive work as we are so dominant. Therefore I would think Wenger could give Eboue the nod there. His crossing from right back has always been good, it’s his best position and for me it gives him the best chance to use his instincts. When Eboue has time to think about things, he messes them up more often than not, granted not so much recently. When he has to react to a situation he is far better, something he always did well at right back. Full backs are crucial to how we play and unless we are playing against a team that pose a real threat going forward, I thing Eboue should be given games at right back. The same could be said for Gibbs on Clichy’s side.