In seasons past Arsenal have been stereotyped, not without reason, as defensively fragile and naive. Arsene Wenger has sought to address that this season with the signings of two new centre backs, Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci after a clear out of the defensive deadwood within the squad.
Against Bolton the back four was totally untested, consisting of Gibbs, Koscielny, Squillaci and Eboue. Last season the equivalent rotation would have left Arsenal with players like Silvestre at the back, players who never inspired confidence at the best of times.
Koscielny made only his third appearance for the club, whilst Squillaci made his debut, and apart from one obvious error from Koscielny they coped well with the threat of the physical Kevin Davies, Lee and Elmander.
Laurent Koscielny also contributed the opening goal, showing the attacking threat from all areas of the Arsenal side.
As might be expected from a ball playing Arsenal side in the ascendency against Bolton, there was an almost perfect passing record from the two players. Both looked composed playing the ball out of defence, Koscielny playing 33 passes, and misplacing only one and Squillaci completing 100% of his 40 passes.
Impressive statistics indeed, although Bolton didn’t pressure the centre-backs as much as more difficult opposition might.
More crucial than ever was Koscielny’s continued excellent record of interceptions – making nine against Bolton. In fact Koscielny has made seventeen interceptions in the three games he has participated in, averaging just over five per game. Interceptions are ever more important in the modern game, and Koscielny’s prowess should provide optimism for the Arsenal coaching team.
Koscielny’s impressive record on interceptions is easy to see, and crucially they have come whilst playing on both sides of defence. Partnering Squillaci against Bolton he played on the left, making nine interceptions (above), whilst with Vermaelen he playing on the right he made four apiece (below).
In terms of tackling the performance was more varied, Koscielny with 4 (50% success) and Squillaci with 5 (55% success). This is something that can be worked on, but 0ver 50% success rate is still respectable.
What will interest fans most is the way the two performed in the air, considering the aerial threat of Kevin Davies, a thorn in the side of successive generations of Arsenal defences, and a player whose popularity is not high outside of the Reebok Stadium. For Koscielny all of the tackles except one were aerial challenges – meaning he won three headers and lost four, whilst Squillaci won two aerial duels in his own half and lost three. Just below half for both players.
Previous seasons have seen a vulnerability when it comes to long downfield balls, and aerial challenges, previous instances at the Emirates include a bouncing clearance against Liverpool which Robbie Keane dispatched after Gallas failed to deal with it, and a Blackburn special from N’Zonzi straight from a Paul Robinson goalkick.
Saturday did see a familiar scenario in the mix-up between Koscielny and Squillaci for the Bolton goal, Squillaci missing the clearance and Koscielny heading it into the path of the skillful Lee, leaving Almunia in no-mans land. This was a clearance from a goalkick and the centre-backs misread the situation.
However, in his post-match comments, Arsene Wenger was at pains to point out that Koscielny and Squillaci had a good game, and stood up to the physicality of the Bolton approach.
“What I like is, for example, when Koscielny was knocked down he came back and still won every header after that. For somebody coming from the French league that is a good sign.”
The performance was impressive, and apart from the one Koscielny error, he continued to maintain the high standards set in his first three games at the club. Arsenal played an untested back four, with centre-backs who are still adjusting to Premier League football, and came out as worthy winners with a solid defensive performance. Problems can be ironed out as the season progresses, meanwhile the statistics on passing and interceptions give further optimism that Arsenal are in a better situation defensively than last season.
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