Defenders: Out with the old and in with the new

So Phil Senderos has officially left Arsenal – two seasons after he effectively did anyway.

There’s been a lot of goodwill on Twitter and across the blogs and that’s fair enough. Senderos was an uncomplicated player who gave his all, never moaned and represented the club very well indeed.

He was an up-and-down player though, with some commanding performances early in his career contrasting with plenty of wobblier ones at other points. Perhaps not surprising for a young player – one who is still only 25 years old now.

But I’m glad he’s gone.

Why? It’s got nothing to do with him at all. He’s a player who can and probably will still come good given the chance and a fair wind with injuries. Who knows, that may have happened at Arsenal in the past, but it’s not going to happen now. So he needed to go to reignite his own career, but nor is it a bad thing for Arsenal either. As a club, we need to properly address our defence, and we won’t do that by looking backwards.

Which is why there’s no reason to despair at the prospect of Gallas, Silvestre and even Campbell’s departures either. All are past their best, and while Campbell is a special case – his desire was palpable and put others to shame at times last season – even in a best-case scenario he’d have been third choice in 2010-11.

Look at our defensive record over the last few seasons. We’ve conceded 8, 9, 13 and 9 goals more than the league winners since we moved to the Grove, a consistent deficit. We have not eradicated bad defending as a unit, nor have we eradicated individual lapses of concentration – so much so that we are now seen as defensive soft touches. We get targeted between the sticks and we get targeted at set pieces. Such targeting often works.

That’s got to change, and a clean sweep of the brush might not be such a bad thing.

There’s no point worrying that if all three depart, then we’ll only have Djourou and Vermaelen left. There’s no way Wenger would leave it that way.

Sure, there’s a risk that starting next season with a new keeper and two new centre backs might be unsettling for a while. But it’s a risk worth taking compared to another season of the same problems.

In the meantime, I hope Big Phil makes it big and proves Wenger wrong. Not many players have left and done that – but I can’t imagine many Arsenal fans would begrudge him a renaissance if he did.

Pre-Saturday Sunday preview

Morning all, and it’s now a mere 57 hours away from our next home game. Anyone not noticed? I think we can safely scrub talking about anything else between now and then.

Obviously, Sky think Christmas has come early with a fixture like Sunday’s, but even for scoffers of Sky, once you’ve scraped the hype off this one there still can be no denying that Arsenal v Chelsea is a pivotal game for both teams.

It’s fair to say that following about a decade of Arsenal dominance in this fixture, in recent years fortunes have swung the other way a bit. Last year we smashed-and-grabbed our way to a 2-1 win at their place, but got walloped 4-1 at home in the return, which came immediately after being walloped at home in the European Cup semi-final. Cruel times.

I suppose those two games summed up what we had known since about September of 2008 – that we were clearly off the pace. This time round, however, and things feel different in many ways. By and large we’ve performed well and have shown signs of real promise – signs that we’re making progress. And as a football fan, progress has got to be the next best thing to winning trophies.

For me, it’s one of those really fascinating games because on top of the standard annual rivalry, it will give us a good indication what the real state of play at the top of the table is. Lose and we have a mountain to climb – and could drop back to fourth depending on other results. Win and we would be a game in hand away from narrowing the gap to two points.

Chelsea are undeniably setting a fine pace this season. But those who consider that Chelsea’s power, size and experience will be too much for our depleted ranks would do well to remember that, on the evidence to date, we are a much better side this year than last.

We have a 100% home record in our favour, and while Chelsea’s home record is equally as impressive as ours, on the road they have lost twice and conceded seven goals. They’ll be as wary about our game-changing players as we will be of theirs. And in Fabregas, Arshavin, Rosicky, Walcott, Nasri and Eduardo, we have plenty of pint-sized creativity.

It’s such a shame that we can’t face them with our best line-up, but injuries have been one of the less enjoyable threads permeating this season and by now we’re entirely used to making do and mending. Having said that, we’re not as short of players as it sometimes seems (though we are short of players who aren’t short – but that’s another argument entirely).

Up front we’re obviously without Bendtner and van Persie, with Clichy and Gibbs missing at the back. Gallas, we were told yesterday, is another big doubt but I’d be hugely surprised if he didn’t make the starting line-up. Given his bitter departure from Chelsea, and given the less than palatable alternative or Silvestre or Senderos, both he and Wenger will want to patch him up and get him out there.

So assuming he makes the cut, we’re a left-back and a centre-forward away from being able to field our best XI in the favoured 4-3-3 formation. It’s not so bad when you put it that way.

I’m getting giddy already.

Lucky goals, but not lucky Arsenal

Celtic 0-2 Arsenal

Let’s get something straight here: Arsenal’s goals may have been a tad fortunate last night (a ‘backer’ from Gallas and an own goal from Gary Scoredwell), but Arsenal earned their luck and more than merited the first English success at Parkhead since 1983. Once that first goal went in, we were in complete control of the match. In the second half, we dominated.

I thought Celtic played well, throwing everything they had at us, and it was a good, physical, high tempo scrap.

It was a very, very encouraging evening overall. Scrappy at times, yes, but we dealt extremely well with everything.

I don’t want to tempt fate here, given we’re only two games in and with Arsenal’s injury record, Gallas could easily sprain an ankle tripping over a ketchup bottle and Vermaelen could come down with scurvy, but our defence looked pretty solid. Both central defenders deserve praise – the former marauded about all night and look an absolute snip at £10m, while the latter has started the season as bright as a button. In fact, he’s now our joint top scorer.

Song and Denilson, too, have begun the campaign very well. Song, in particular, was calm, composed, crisp in the tackle and mopped up like a demon. I would have struggled to write such complimentary words, had the tail-end of last season not threatened this – and as far as humble pie goes, I’m prepared to munch it all night – but he really has come on leaps and bounds. Arsenal.com might still be listing Song as a defender, but surely last night’s performance proved that he’s really anything but. He’s a midfield anchor, at the moment.

Wenger said of him:

“In the last two games Song has played extremely well. He can win the fight, not only with physical strength but he has that sense to nick the ball from his opponent without giving away the foul. That’s a very interesting quality.”

Up front, we worked hard and carved a few chances out, but Celtic closed well and there wasn’t much doing.

It’s far too early to make any judgments about where the Arsenal are, compared to last season, but there are some really encouraging signs that there’s a hunger there, and a steely determination, and that bodes well. Whether some of these players have stepped up a gear – well again, that’s hard to gauge at this stage, but the early signs are good. We’re scrapping hard as well as creating, we’re matching teams physically, we’re defending well, and all this with the usual arsenal of injuries (a worryingly apt collective noun).

The mood is buoyant.

On to Saturday…

Deal or no deal etc

We’re still ‘on the brink’ of signing Vermaelen, I see. It says so everywhere.

I suppose I can’t complain: compared to the Nasri transfer last summer, and numerous other last-minute in and out jobs like Gallas and Arshavin, this close season – all two and a half weeks of it – have been a breeze.

The Vermaelen story has the longest legs – it’s just a shame the player doesn’t.

In all seriousness, any central defender worth £10m must have something about him, even in this inflated market. Tony Adams might know a thing or two about defending but I doubt he’s been scouting him for months, as Wenger is bound to have been doing.

Wenger’s defensive judgment is not bad – he lengthened the careers of the famous back line, he bought Campbell, Toure, Lauren, Lehmann, Clichy and Sagna amongst others (let’s put Stepanovs down to a bad day at the office and this season’s sieve of a defence to there being something in the water).

Whether or not Toure, or indeed Gallas or Silvestre, will head the other way in any defensive revolving door remains to be seen. Personally, I’d be keen for both Gallas and Toure to stay. We all know the guff that went on in the run-up to Gallas losing his captaincy, but he was very good in the latter part of the season. And though Toure hasn’t been quite the buccaneering Ivorian of old, he’s an old head and a club stalwart.

It does feel as though one of them might go, though. We could do with four central defenders – we needed as many as we could muster this season – and we have four now. Who goes will depend on a myriad of factors. Whether we can get good money, whether it’s the right time, but above all, whether one of them wants to leave.

Talking of defenders, I see that Kieran Gibbs scored twice for the England U21s tonight.

With Gibbs and Clichy, we’re sorted in that department. I know it’s early days to say this, but for how long can we keep them both happy?