Preview Week Day 1: Goalkeepers and Defense

William Gallas

Goalkeepers:

Manuel AlmuniaIn the eyes of the supporters, Arsenal’s goalkeeping situation, while a source of frustration among some fans a year ago, seems to have leveled off. There are still many out there who believe that the Arsenal absolutely cannot win trophies with Manuel Almunia as their number one keeper. Yet they have laid off of calls for a new keeper as the club obviously has more pressing needs. I’ll admit I’ve always liked Almunia and I feel as though over the last two seasonshe has proven himself good enough to be starting keeper at a big club. Does he make the occasional gaffe? Of course, he does. But almost all great keepers do… remember Lehmann? Seaman himself was not averse to making a silly error in a big match.

Does Almunia still have weaknesses? Yes, he does. His decision-making at teams leaves a little to be desired and his most questionable mistakes stem from this. But when considering a keeper, one must consider the defense which plays in front of him, and Almunia has never been blessed with a truly solid back four. Almunia has, however, showed up in big matches and made big saves including a number of penalty saves. At 32, Almunia is just now hitting a keeper’s best years and, with 2 full years as the number one at a big club already behind him, I expect to see continued improvement on his part.

Lukasz Fabianski continues to improve after 9 starts in the League and FA Cups along with 5 in the Premier League and 2 in the Champions League last year. He has also proved himself capable of making some astounding saves as in the Carling Cup match home to Wigan. At his age, his indiscretions seem more excusable and I feel Fabianski to be a more than capable backup to Almunia. Vito Mannone looked less than confident during the preseason but he has time to build his confidence back up in the Reserves this season as I can’t see him getting Cup starts over Fabianski who will be in need of matches this year even moreso than last.

Full-backs:

Emmanuel EboueFollowing the 2007-08 season, I think most people would’ve agreed that Arsenal had the two best full backs in the country in Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. Yet, both suffered a setback of form last season. Sagna seemingly forgot how to cross the ball and Clichy just wasn’t himself either as both suffered injury problems. When Clichy went out towards the end of last season, Kieran Gibbs deputized brilliantly, excepting his untimely error against United in the Champions League semifinal. Emmanuel Eboue remains Sagna’s backup at right-back but for how long? The rumours of an impending move to Fiorentina have quieted considerably in the last two weeks and considering that he has played in every friendly in that time it seems a bit unlikely that he will now move. At least I hope so. Never mind Eboue’s valuable utility, he is our primary cover for Sagna. We just do not have a third right-back in the first team. An Eboue sale followed by a Sagna injury would be devastating. Armand Traore has played at left-back this preseason after having been moved to left-midfield in the reserves and played there all last year on his loan to Portsmouth. He seemed to struggle a bit this preseason to return to the full-back mentality while Gibbs was rested following his summer international duty.

Center-backs:

Thomas VermaelenI’m not going to rant on and on. We all know this is a crucial spot in whatever Arsenal’s fortunes this season may be. The possible ramifications of the departure of Toure, who had been slowly losing the confidence of the manager over the last 18 months, have been hotly debated since his move to Manchester City. But it now appears that Vermaelen was bought to replace Toure, whom Wenger expected to leave. With Senderos likely to move to Everton, another center-back will be needed and Arsene has said he “may buy.” After the absolute train-wreck that is Mikael Silvestre at center-back last season, it boggles my mind when Arsene says we have “five” center-backs and then names Silvestre (first, no less!) and Song. To me, that means we have three center-backs. Neither Silvestre nor Song should be one of the first four center-backs. Silvestre is constantly exposed for the slow, old man that he is and Song is needed in midfield if only to keep Diaby from playing.

I expect William Gallas to come back strong this season and pick up where he left off after he was injured at Villareal last season. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Gallas, who had hit his best run of form since joining the club. You really have to have some respect for Gallas personally. I think everyone thought he would just absolutely meltdown and possibly implode or spontaneously combust if he was stripped of the captaincy. But Gallas responded. I developed a newfound respect for him after he came through that trial to produce his best-ever performances for the club, defensively-speaking on a week-to-week basis.

Thomas Vermaelen is pretty much an unknown entity. We saw him in the preseason and he didn’t look especially commanding in the air thoughJohann Djourou van Persie and Wenger have praised his aerial ability. Vermaelen was captain at Ajax and to have another captain-like presence at the back could prove very useful. He has already shown that he has settled in the team and become one of the lads by getting injured almost right away. Johann Djourou is in the papers recently talking about filling “Kolo’s boots.” But Djourou is starting the season as the #3 center-back behind Gallas and Vermaelen. This year seems crucial to Djoruou’s future at the Arsenal and I expect he will have ample time this year to make an impression and a claim to Vermaelen’s place.

COMING UP: Preview Week on Arsenal Station continues building up to Saturday’s season opener at GoodisonPark tomorrow with the midfield, Wednesday with the strikers, Thursday with a Carling Cup preview, and Friday with our overall look at Arsenal and the Big 4.