Do Arsenal Really Need Jan Vertonghen? An In-Depth Analysis
Good morning Gooners.
Another slow midweek, with Arsenal not being involved in Champions League action last night.
Although watching the Barca-Milan second leg last night, I did fleetingly wonder how we may have coped with the Catalans this time, had Robin van Persie’s chip sailed over Abbiati in that memorable game at the Emirates. Probably played Aaron Ramsey to man-mark Lionel Messi, I guess.
As it is, I thought Milan played better than they had at the San Siro in the first leg, and looked like they might just pull off an upset. As Michael Cox of Zonal Marking astutely points out, for all of Barcelona’s possession and attacking intent, it came down to a dodgy penalty and a fortunate deflection to decide the game.
Talking of attacking intent, the papers are suggesting Arsene Wenger will not be satisfied with the imminent capture of Lukas Podolski to bolster the forward line next season. The Arsenal manager is said to be keen on bringing Montpellier’s on-form striker Olivier Giroud to the Emirates too.
Apparently, the tall, fair, handsome French striker is available for the paltry sum of £50m. Nicklas Bendtner, Carlos Vela and Park Chu Young will all be sold to fund the move. Just exactly how the shorfall of £25m or so will be covered is not explained; possibly by denying Pat Rice his end-of-service benefits. Of course, Marouane Chamakh will stay on and fight for his place in the first team; which shouldn’t be too difficult for the Moroccan, as he’ll only be behind RvP, Giroud and Podolski. I know, it doesn’t make sense.
One rumour which does seem to make some sense though, is Arsenal’s interest in Jan Vertonghen. The Belgian is certain to leave Ajax this summer, with only a year left on his contract and having refused to sign an extension. Besides Arsenal, the defender has also been linked with Spurs and Juventus in the past.
Ajax youth coach Ronald de Boer rates the 24-year old as being better than Thomas Vermaelen, suggesting that the centre-back would be comfortable even at Barcelona or Real Madrid. This could be a tactic to secure a better price from the eventual buyer, but there’s no denying that Vertonghen is a talented footballer.
The Belgian possesses similar attributes to those of his compatriot. He is good in the air, takes command at the back, likes to play out of defence, has a thunderous left foot strike and possesses the ability to score goals with his head. The question then is, do we need a slightly taller replica of Thomas Vermaelen?
Let’s consider Arsenal’s current stock of central defenders and what they bring to the team.
Thomas Vermaelen is Arsenal’s first choice defender for all the reasons mentioned above. Besides these attributes, the Verminator also brings leadership to the team, something we’ve lacked in defense in recent seasons. In addition, he is versatile and has played as left back for a large part of this season.
Laurent Koscielny has settled brilliantly this season and is deservedly being mentioned as one of the top defenders in the league. He is quick and mobile, reads the game well, knows when to put in a tackle and is most impressive at intercepting passes. He also possesses the desire to run up the other end, as seen in recent games, but is more disciplined than TV and does not get caught out of place very often.
Per Mertesacker makes up for his lack of pace with experience and a good understanding of the game. The German also adds the extra height to the defense. Although, it has to be said that defending set pieces has been Arsenal’s undoing many times this season and the German has been as culpable as his teammates. But from open play he’s been much more successful at using his height to win aerial duels. Also, this is his first season in English football and I am sure we will see an improvement next season.
Johan Djourou has performed well too, considering he has been played at both centre-back and right-back positions. The Swiss may look innocuous at times and he may dwell on the ball too long in his own half, but he’s certainly not as bad a player as is projected. In fact, in the league, the Swiss defender has the highest successful tackle rate of the entire Arsenal back line, ahead of even the hugely impressive Bacary Sagna.
Sebastian Squillaci is probably the only central defender who can be classed as poor. His main problems seem to be the pace of the Premier League and the strength of the strikers he’s defending against. It’s fair to say that Arsenal will look to offload the Frenchman as early in the summer as possible.
There are also two youngsters from the Reserves who have shown good promise.
Ignasi Miquel has already featured four times in the league this season, playing centrally and at left back as well. The youngster is quick and seems to read the game well. However, he’s very much a work in progress, a bit light weight for a central defender at the moment and will need another season or two to mature into a first team contender.
Kyle Bartley signed a long-term contract with the club in the summer, and then returned for a second loan spell to Rangers, impressing earlier on in the season. He’s just returning from injury and it will be interesting to see whether Arsene Wenger believes the youngster ready for the first team, or would prefer another loan spell for him.
To summarize our central defensive options, we have:
- Two extremely good defenders in Kocsielny and Vermaelen, one of them providing cover at left-back
- One very capable defender in Mertesacker, expected to get better in his second season
- One very good squad player in Johan Djourou, able to fill in effectively and can cover at right back
- One poor defender in Squillaci, likely to be sold in the summer
- Two young prospects in Miquel and Bartley, who may not yet be ready for regular first team action
So it is obvious that we need a replacement for Squillaci. But why Vertonghen? Is it prudent to splash out the £10m or higher asking price? Or do we have enough depth already to promote the youngsters from within?
There are two factors to consider here. The first is obviously injuries to players, of which we seem to suffer an inordinate amount. The other is the number of games we expect to play next season.
As we have seen this season, injuries in one area of the pitch can have a significant impact on another. For example, the loss of the full backs meant we played Vermaelen at left back and Djourou at right back. Purely from a defensive point of view, this denied us the use of one of our best central defenders (Vermaelen) in his preferred position. To be fair, Arsenal did get grind out the results between October and December playing with Vermaelen at left back. But although we lost only 2 games out of 13 in this period, we kept a clean sheet in only four of those games.
Now, the other factor is the games we intend to play. Assuming we have the ambition to win all four competitions, let’s look at the extra games we will have to play next season.
Our League Cup campaign ended at the quarter final stage this season, meaning we played 3 games less. We were knocked out of the FA Cup in the fifth round, so that’s another 3 games more next year. In Champions League, we could not get past the Round of 16 this season, so that’s 5 games extra in Europe’s premier competition.
So, we should be playing 11 extra games next season. Or 9, if we can finish third, as we won’t have to play the 2 qualifying matches of the Champions League as we did this season against Udinese.
I understand there are plenty of other factors that will be involved in how successful or otherwise we are next season, but the manager has to plan for the best case scenario as much at the worst case one. And he has to judge whether we can stay in contention in all competitions with the resources we have available, or whether reinforcements are required.
Now when you consider the extra workload of the extra games and our past injury record in conjunction, it means one or two injuries in defense, even in the full back positions, will leave us vulnerable in the central area once again.
I do not believe Kyle Bartley or Ignasi Miquel are ready to play a big role in the first team just yet. I suspect Arsene Wenger will use Kyle Bartley in the squad next year though, and send out Miquel on a loan-spell to give the youngster some much-needed game time.
Why specifically Vertonghen? Well, besides the fact that he’s a fantastic defender, I believe he’s the one target that offers the most options in terms of squad versatility. With his arrival, Arsene Wenger will have four genuine competitors for two central-half spots, as well as ample back up for full back positions.
If there are injuries to Gibbs and Santos at left back, either Vermaelen or Vertonghen can fill in and still leave three defenders of top quality available for selection in the middle. At right back, Djourou and Coquelin have done a job when both the right backs were out.
In addition, Vertonghen has another attribute that makes him desirable – his ability to play as a defensive midfielder.
There’s been a lot of talk about Yann M’Vila recently. My friend, Dave Seager has argued that we already have a wealth of options in the central midfield area, and do not need a high-priced defensive midfielder who would compete for limited slots in that position.
Tactically, with the addition of Vertonghen, it give Arsenal a main pool of four defenders with different capabilities, out of which two are very similar and would not likely be deployed together (Vermaelen and Vertonghen). Otherwise, they offer more flexibility for the manager, against different kind of oppositions.
In games against teams which tend to use set pieces and corners and long throw ins as the main form of attack (read Stoke), a defensive pairing of Mertesacker and Vertonghen would be effective. When playing teams that have tricky forwards with good dribbling skills and quick feet, the more mobile pairing of Koscielny and Vermaelen can be used.
So in summary, I believe we should target a defender that gives us depth, tactical options, and cover in the defensive midfield role. Jan Vertonghen checks all those boxes.
Of course, the price will be factor and that will depend upon how many clubs enter the fray for the Belgian. But if he is available for anything around £10m, I think it’ll be money well spent.
I look forward to your two bits in the comments.