After looking at the forwards and midfielders last week, today I examine Arsenal’s defenders and goalkeepers. Once again, grades are based not only on quality of play but on expectations. My next Arsenal post will cover what I think must be done in the summer transfer window. But for one last time, I look back today.
Much of the year was season in what was repeatedly labelled a defensive crisis. Between injuries, poor form and a lack of options, the fall was particularly ugly defensively. But considering all that, Arsenal’s defense ended up being one of the most consistent in the league that latter half of the year. A number of players stepped up as Arsenal made its move up the table.
Hector Bellerin – A+ – When considering he was the fourth-choice right back during preseason, Bellerin’s rise is nothing short of remarkable, especially when considering he only turned 20 in March. Thrown into the fire at Dortmund in September amid the injury crisis, Bellerin’s potential was obvious if he was a little raw and undersized. But it wasn’t until Debuchy’s second major injury in January that he got a true run-out. When given the opportunity, the Barcelona product blossomed. Blessed with tremendous skill going forward, he learned the intricacies of defending quite quickly, impressing even against bigger teams that tried to isolate him. Making 17 Premier League starts, Bellerin has staked a claim on the right back position going forward. Arsene Wenger will have a hard time taking it away from him, even for the experienced Debuchy. It won’t be soon that we forget his left-footed curler that opened the scoring against Liverpool.
Calum Chambers – B – Two months Bellerin’s senior, Chambers’s season was a mirror of the Spaniard’s. Where Bellerin made his mark in the spring, Chambers’s 17 Premier League starts came in the fall. After a brilliant start to his Arsenal career when he won the club’s Player of the Month award for August, Chambers was almost forgotten about entirely in the spring. Either at center back or at right back, he was confident in his reading of the game, and his poise was well beyond his years. But the new signing from Southampton faded dramatically in the second half of the year, rarely seeing the field beyond a minute or two at the end of a match. In total he made 36 appearances, which is probably more than was expected. Chambers’s versatility is considered a strength, but I think it might be hurting him in a way, as he is not often considered a part of the long term plans at any position right now. Despite making the same amount of starts as Bellerin and having early success, it’s hard to think of Chambers as quite as exciting a prospect.
Mathieu Debuchy – C- – Were it not for the success of his replacements, Debuchy’s debut season would be considered a massive failure. Making a grand total of 15 appearances due to two long-term injuries, the Frenchman wasn’t able to leave his mark on the team. The injuries were unfortunate, but disappointing nonetheless. And he’ll have a hard time taking his position back next season. However, Debuchy did impress me twice. His goal against Liverpool in December was key, as a loss there could have been catastrophic for morale. But more impressive was his performance at center back against Newcastle, when Arsenal badly needed a body in the middle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get more minutes at center back next year. He’ll be eager to put this year behind him.
Gabriel – B- – I don’t have much to say about Gabriel. His signing in January was a necessity given Arsenal’s poor health and lack of depth at center back in the early parts of the season, but thankfully, Mertesacker and Koscielny stayed healthy, and Gabiel wasn’t needed for the most part, making only 8 appearances and 5 starts. He seems to have the attributes needed for an EPL center back, so at this point, I would say the signing was a mild success. But I haven’t seen him play enough minutes to get a true reading on him. However, while he might be eager for a run in the side, we’re better off when the third-choice center back starts the game on the bench, so I’m not too eager for that chance.
Kieran Gibbs – B- – After such a promising fall that helped him get his first call-up to the England side since 2010, he’ll be massively disappointed to have lost his starting spot at left back this spring. However, it must be said, that Gibbs didn’t lose his spot due to poor performances, rather Monreal seized his chance. Gibbs’s strengths clearly are going forward, where he does an excellent job of getting to the byline. But his crossing lost a little edge without consistent starts. At age 25, he still has time to improve, but getting his spot back is crucial. That will be the battle of the summer come preseason.
Laurent Koscielny – A- – Koscielny has established himself as one of the Premier League’s best and most consistent defenders. Despite struggling with Achilles issues for much of the year, Koscielny battled with many of the top strikers around all year, beating them with his pace and strength. Quick to intercept and equally adept at making vital last-ditch clearances, Koscielny keeps getting better, even as he’s nearing his 30th birthday in September. He made 38 starts in all competitions on the year, scoring three goals. He looks to be a fixture in the heart of Arsenal’s defense for years to come.
Per Mertesacker – B – Mertesacker admitted recently that he knew he was in for a slow start to his season after capturing the World Cup for Germany last summer. And at times, he was quite bad. Never one for pace, he even seemed to lose the command for the game in the back. But Mertesacker slowly recaptured his form and was ever-present as Arsenal made its climb up the table. By the end of the season, he was back at his best. I think his role as fill-in captain proved vital as well, for without Mikel Arteta and amid all the turmoil, Mertesacker kept an ever-changing squad under control. I don’t know how many more good years the big German has in him, but it was encouraging to see the way he bounced back from a series of poor performances.
Nacho Monreal – A – A lightning rod for criticism in the season’s opening weeks as he filled in as an emergency center back, Monreal ended up being perhaps the most important member of Arsenal’s defense. Starting 26 games in the Premier League, Monreal’s assured displays helped stabilize a defense in disarray. Seizing the left back job from Gibbs, the Spaniard was a perfect match for the high-powered midfield. A slightly more conservative defender, Monreal allowed the midfielders to take chances with their positioning, but when brought into the attack, he showed off his skill as he found spaces down the left. His goal against Manchester United in the FA Cup Quarterfinal was my favorite goal of the season, and the emotion on the ensuing celebration was beautiful. Not many 5′ 10″ left backs would have volunteered to fill in at center back, but Monreal’s selflessness helped keep this team afloat. And better, it gave Monreal the run in the side he needed to recapture the form he was known for at Malaga.
Emiliano Martinez – B+ – The man formally known as Damian did much better in goal than I would have expected after watching him in his horror show against Reading a couple years ago. As the third-choice keeper, it could have proved a catastrophe that he had to make two big Champions League starts and 3 more in the Premier League. But he was solid, if unspectacular. Keeping clean sheets against Dortmund, Southampton and West Brom, he did well considering the circumstances, but was never commanding. I was not disappointed when he was restored to the bench. Despite his surprising success, I don’t want to see Martinez in goal for another important game. Quite simply, I don’t think he’s good enough for this level.
David Ospina – B+ – Ospina ended up making 22 starts this year in his debut season, many more than just about everyone would have expected, especially after a fall when he couldn’t stay healthy. In place of the benched Szczesny, Ospina was pretty good. He kept quite a few clean sheets, but most were down to good defense. I can’t think of a game off the top of my head when I was wowed by Ospina. Generally, despite the positive scorelines, I was underwhelmed, and never learned to trust him. I just don’t think he has the physical attributes to succeed in the Premier League. So despite his numbers, I hope he’s not back in goal next year. But I can’t fault him for his record.
Wojciech Szczesny – D – After an up-and-down fall, Szczesny was benched for the remainder of the year after smoking in the locker room after defeat to Southampton. In his fifth year as the primary keeper at Arsenal, his failure to learn from his continued mistakes off the pitch is disappointing to say the least. He clearly has talent – even in his demise, he led the team to winning the FA Cup in goal – but he doesn’t have the mentality of a first-class keeper. And maybe it’s our fault for ever thinking he could learn. At this point, I don’t quite know what to do with him. I’ve always admired his confidence, but at this point, I think it’s time to cut our losses and ship him out. At some point, there must be consequences.
Disagree with any of my assessments? Please comment below.