After yesterday's posts on the highs and lows of last season, today I'm going to continue with the season review, with a multi-part review of the players who took part in it. Rather than review everyone at once, I'm just going to do the defence today, before hopefully moving onto the midfield and attack later in the week.
Wojciech Szczesny: B-
Harsh, maybe. But I think Woj's performances this seasons have been viewed through rose-tinted glasses at times. The fact he's much better than Almunia and Fabianski does not excuse both the large and small errors he's made on more than once occasion this season, whether it be Tottenham away, Norwich at home, or even some of his positioning for the two goals at the weekend. According to Orbinho (via Opta) on Twitter, Woj had a save percentage of only 63 percent this season - the joint second worst in the Premier League. David de Gea, who some still erroneously believe had a poor season, had a save percentage of 78 percent, by contrast, the best in the league. However much you want to read into that stat, I think there are a least half a dozen keepers in the Premier League who are clearly better than Woj, and with whom we would have won more games this season.
That said - I am hopeful he will improve. He dominates his area better than any other Arsenal keeper I've seen for a while, and he's clearly a massive character, which I think is good for the club - contrast him to Almunia, and his almost permanent expression of anguish, and it's easy to say that Woj is good for the side. I think he can kick on next season, but he has a lot of work to do - put simply he must make more saves, and help us to win more games.
Manuel Almunia: F
Yes, he still plays for the club. And, if you bought any form of Arsenal-related tickets/merchandise this year, he got a slice of your money. A nice guy, but the fact we can't give him away says volumes about how poorly some of our player's contracts have been managed, and how much misguided faith was put in a whole range of players between 2006-2010. It might be spiteful to give him an F, but I'm annoyed he's still on the payroll, and so should you be. Thankfully he'll be gone in the summer.
Lukas Fabianski: D
He played in a few cup games, and showed why he lost his place to Woj last season. I remember a poor performance in a cup match somewhere. Alas, flappyhandski, we barely knew ye.
Bacary Sagna: B+
A pretty solid season for Bac, unfortunately marred by two savage leg breaks. His importance to the team was emphasised by his absence, and we struggled considerably without him during the winter. We can only hope that he comes back from his new injury as well as he came back from his last one, but two breaks to the same leg is worrying. With only Jenkinson for cover, we may even have to contemplate other options. Despite an array of impressive performances, crowned by his determined header against Tottenham that began the best fightback of the season, Bac wasn't perfect. There have been lapses and concentrations and errors this season, and it was particularly disheartening to see Victor Moses turn him every which way in the defeat to Wigan. Overall, he's still a brilliant player though, and one of the few I think is a real winner, so I really hope he's back in the side as soon as possible.
Carl Jenkinson: C
Yes, he's a childhood gooner, and, yes, he can put in a pretty decent cross. I would even argue that he's no worse than the pestilence that was Eboue. But Carl hasn't really set the world on fire during his first season at the club. A lengthy injury at just the moment when he could have got a run in the side meant we haven't seen that much of him this year, but it's far from clear whether he's fully ready for premier and champions league football yet. His sending off at Old Trafford was one of the more brutal moments of the season, like watching a car reverse over a baby deer to make sure it's definitely dead. Still, he's shown potential, and, at least he's not a colossal prick, like his predecessor. Here's hoping he can kick on a bit next season.
Sebastian Squillaci: F
I know what you're thinking - how can I give an F to a player with a 100 percent pass completion rate in the Premier League! Sebastian Squillaci: pass master. I'm a total bastard, I know, I know. In seriousness, he stands only just above Almunia in my estimation. Here's hoping we can entice some poor French side to buy him this summer.
Johan Djourou: C-
It's been a difficult season for Johan. After seemingly turning into a top defender last season, this one has been marred by him being shunted around the defence and being frequently asked to play out of position at right-back, somewhere he's looked hopelessly out of place. He's been far from completely terrible, but this season has been an unfortunate regression, in sum. As fourth choice centre-backs go, I'm not sure we're going to find much better, but it's sad that that's where he now stands in the pecking order.
Andre Santos: B
Andre has been a breath of fresh air in the squad. Unfairly criticised for not knowing how to defend, he was viewed by many as a typical Wenger signing - all fluff and no substance. Quite the contrary, in my opinion. Not only do I think he's a far better defender than many have given him credit for, having him around now means we have a genuine attacking threat coming from left-back when he's playing, something we could simply not say during Clichy's time at the club. He scored two vital goals in the league during big wins against Chelsea and West Brom. I'd love to give him a higher mark, but his lack of game time means he remains a somewhat unknown quantity (why, oh why was he playing in Athens). I predict he may well be one of the surprise packages of next season, and he seems like a very useful chap to have around. Here's hoping he lays off the pies this summer.
Kieran Gibbs: B
There is very little between Santos and Gibbs in my opinion, which is something I didn't think I'd be saying in around October. He's impressed me many times this season, and his last ditch tackle against West Brom showed a level of steel to his game that I wasn't sure that he had. It may be a struggle for him to hold down a first team spot with Santos as competition, but I don't see that as a bad thing. The more competition for places, the better. This is the first season that Gibbs has really shown that he could become a real top-class player, but he will need to stay fit next season if he is to make the transition.
Thomas Vermaelen: C+
Possibly harsh, but I'm not sure that Tommy's had a very good year. Six goals for a central defender is a brilliant return, including a vital one against Newcastle in the very last minute of the match. But, I think his positional play, which has always been suspect, has finally been exposed as very poor this season. Ultimately, Vermaelen is a defender, and so you have to judge him, primarily, on his contributions to our defence, and they were frequently not good enough. In the second half of the year in particular, I lost count of the number of times where we were exposed defensively because he was either charging around in midfield/up-front, or because he stood in the wrong place and got stranded in no-mans land. Perhaps the reason I'm being so harsh is because I think he's potentially a brilliant player, if he had a bit more tactical discipline and nous. Here's hoping he can improve a bit next season, because I think his attitude is wonderful, and he does have the tools to become a great defender again.
Per Mertesacker: B-
Per made a few clangers this season, and, yes, he is a bit slow. But to rate him purely as a defender, the position he plays after all, I think he had a better season than Vermaelen. On more than one occasion, Mertesacker gave a calmness to our defence which I hadn't seen in years, and it's nice to see a defender in the side who reads the game and quietly does his job, after years of having defenders who charge around making last-ditch tackles. I think his injury was one of the big moments of the season - I don't think we would have conceded 4 in Milan with him in the side, for instance. Here's hoping he has a good Euros and comes back reinvigorated next season. As it stands, I would pair him with Koscielny as our first choice centre-backs.
Laurent Koscielny: A-
After a quietly promising first season, Koscielny spectacularly bloomed this year, and has established himself as one of the best central defenders in Europe. Among his impressive stats are these: he made 9 last-man tackles last season, the highest in Europe, and, among Premier League centre backs, he led the league in terms of tackles and interceptions. He's clearly a quiet guy, but the passion he showed when he scored the winner at West Brom exemplified his determination and will to win. We can only hope he sustains this level of performance next season. In any other year, he would be my player of the season, but will all know who's gonna get that award. Still, to bounce back from being part of the 8-2 side, to being one of the best defenders in the league is quite an achievement. If we build our defence around him next season, we can only concede fewer goals.
Overall Grade: C+
Arsenal conceded 49 goals in the league last year, and also received one of their heaviest European defeats in recent memory. In short, it wasn't a great year for the defence. Looking at players individually, we should have conceded less goals than we did, because there are some talented defenders in the squad. But it's perhaps telling that we set some form of record for the most come-from-behind victories in the league last year - we could just not stop gifting our opponents soft goals, even if we subsequently turned round the game.
I don't think it's fair to only blame our defenders for our poor defensive record. Too many midfielders don't provide the defence with any coverage (*cough* SONG *cough*) and, for example, Vermalen's forays upfront have often been made to look worse than they are because other players haven't helped out.
But the fact remains this - we will not win the league, nor any trophy of note, if we continue to concede this many goals. It goes beyond individual performances - we need to have a better defensive mentality as an entire team, and to not treat lesser opponents as, well, lesser opponents. To concede three goals at home to Norwich perhaps summed up our defensive woes this year as much as the 8 goals in Manchester. Until the team, as a whole, values the art of defending as highly as Koscielny does, our barren spell will continue.