SMR end-of-season review 2014-2015: The Defenders

Continuing the review of the Arsenal squad’s performances in the 2014-2015, it’s the defenders. Each player will receive a rating and a one-word summary of the season.
2. Mathieu Debuchy
The Frenchman has been incredibly unlucky in his first season at the club as a couple of nasty injuries limited his involvement. The signs were promising that Debuchy was going to be a solid replacement for Bacary Sagna, but ankle and shoulder injuries now mean he faces a real fight to be the first-choice right-back following the emergence of others in his position this season. He’s strong defensively and filled in well when needed at centre-back, so he’s still got a lot to offer the club.
One-word summary: Unlucky
Rating: 6/10
3. Kieran Gibbs
Gibbs hasn’t had a bad season, but the impressive performances of Nacho Monreal have seen the Englishman drop out of the starting XI more often than expected. He remains a very solid full-back and the competition with the Spaniard should be good for his development. The controlled volley at Anderlecht was a particular highlight.
One-word summary: Challenged
Rating: 6/10
4. Per Mertesacker:
Regular readers / listeners will know that I love Per Mertesacker. He had a difficult start to the season following the World Cup and without Laurent Koscielny alongside him, the BFG looked a bit vulnerable. Mertesacker was written off by many as being past it, but he came back strong in the second half of the season as he reached the impressive levels he played at for most of the previous season. The return of Koscielny helped, but Mertesacker’s leadership stood out as Arsenal went on an excellent run of form in the league and retained the FA Cup. Although it was off his shoulder, the cup final goal was just a beautiful moment.
One-word summary: Hero
Rating: 7/10
5. Gabriel
Many expected him to displace Per Mertesacker as soon as he arrived in January, but the German’s good form has meant Gabriel has mainly been on the bench since his arrival. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a big part to play for Arsenal in the future as the signs were very encouraging in the games he played in. It sounds an obvious thing to say, but Gabriel looks like he loves defending by being quick across the ground and tenacious in the tackle. It is great to have that quality in the squad having been light in central defence, and Arsene Wenger can now tailor the centre of the defensive to deal with different styles of attackers.
One-word summary: Encouraging
Rating: 6/10
6. Laurent Koscielny:
It’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s form picked up when Laurent Koscielny’s achilles calmed down. That sort of injury does pose some concerns for the future, but given Koscielny was available for the majority of the second half of the season, it seems to be under control. The partnership with Per Mertesacker was re-established and was excellent. He also seems to have dropped his tendency to dive in and concede needless penalties every now and again.
One-word summary: Boss
Rating: 8/10
18. Nacho Monreal
Arguably Arsenal’s most-improved player this season. Like a lot of the team, Monreal went through a tough spell in the first-half of the season as he was asked to fill-in in an unfamiliar central defensive role. His efforts in there were admirable, and stood him in good stead as he was picked for most of the big matches at left-back ahead of Kieran Gibbs. While not known as much for being an attacking full-back, the composure with which he slotted the ball in at Old Trafford in the FA Cup showed the confidence he’s gained during the season.
One-word summary: Improved
Rating: 7/10
21. Calum Chambers
Mainly due to injuries to others, and a lack of cover at centre-back, we saw a lot of Calum Chambers in the first half of the season. There were times in latter appearances where his inexperience showed, but it’s easy to forget how impressive his earlier performances were, particularly when playing at centre-back. He’ll continue to develop and will be stronger for some of the games he’s struggled in.
One-word summary: Future
Rating: 6/10
39. Hector Bellerin
Bellerin went through a few chastening experiences in the first half of the season, with his Champions League debut at Borussia Dortmund and the defeat at Stoke particularly challenging ones. But he has taken his chance given to him following Debuchy’s second bad injury. His pace has been well documented, but his defensive position improved quickly as the season went on meaning he didn’t have to rely on it as much. Bellerin’s composure on the ball isn’t a surprise given his football upbringing included Barcelona and Arsenal, but he’s also got an eye for a goal with two excellent finishes against Aston Villa and Liverpool at the Emirates. It’s exciting to see how much further he can develop after a breakthrough season.
One-word summary: Rapid
Rating: 7/10

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Big players. Big game. Big performance.

Often, in hindsight, winning a major football match after two hours of crippling tension can provide the most incredible moments, despite the vast majority of game being torturous to watch. In last year’s FA Cup final, Arsenal fans went through every emotion with a horrific start to the match against Hull, followed by the comeback and the extra time winner. But having been through it once, Gooners were keen to not have to go through the same stress against Aston Villa in the Wembley showpiece in 2015.
Finals have a frustrating tendency to be too cagey with teams mainly focussing on not making mistakes. High-scoring FA Cup finals have been at a premium in recent years, with Arsenal’s inability to start the game well last year contributing to one of the more exciting finals at the new Wembley. This is what made Arsenal’s 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa on Saturday all the more exhilarating. The Gunners didn’t look nervous, didn’t look overawed by the occasion, and looked to be positive, rather than worrying about the negatives in the game.
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This attitude was typified by the big players in the Arsenal team. Everyone was exceptional on the day, but Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez brought their best to biggest stage. In their own different ways, those three players are the ones that can have the greatest influence on the Arsenal team. Cazorla links the defence and attack and is brilliant at relieving pressure through his close control, Ozil is so smooth and silky round the field and creates the space for everyone around him, while Alexis’ energy, pace and skill give the Gunners momentum going forward.
On the big occasions, you always look first and foremost at your team’s main stars, and look to them to set the tone for the rest to follow. Arsenal’s key players, especially Ozil, have faced criticism before for going missing in such moments, but everyone was very aware of the magic being weaved by Arsenal’s stars on Saturday as they swarmed over a bewildered Aston Villa.
With Coquelin patrolling in front of the back four, Cazorla and Ozil gave Arsenal complete control of the match, setting the tempo for fast paced attacking from the Gunners. The ending to the Premier League season stuttered slightly when Arsenal slowed down their attacking movements, allowing the opposition to get numbers back defensively, but Arsene Wenger’s side upped the tempo for the FA Cup final, playing the game at a ferocious pace.
11391580_10153300465014303_5434214984623467848_nDespite the dominance, had Arsenal gone into half time without taking the lead, things could have got nervy in the second half, but Theo Walcott allayed the fears but thundering in a left footed volley five minutes before half time.
Having taken the unusual decision to attack towards the Arsenal fans in the first half (presumably because of the low sun being in the goalkeeper’s eyes), it was brilliant to have a goal scored in front of the wall of yellow, which erupted as the ball flew into the net. The atmosphere was superb for the whole game at Wembley, helped by good support for Aston Villa, but a lot of credit has to go to RedAction and the Arsenal for the scarves and big surfer flag.
Having made the breakthrough, it would have been easy for Arsenal to take a cautious approach after half-time, and go into their shell in an attempt to not make any mistakes. But this is where the infectious enthusiasm, and ridiculously awesome footballing ability, of Alexis Sanchez came in. With the Chilean desperate to leave his mark on an FA Cup final, there was no way Arsenal could be cautious.
The mark Alexis left on the Wembley was one that will have to be remembered as one of the greatest FA Cup final goals ever. Forget Ricky Villa, forget Steven Gerrard, forget Roberto Di Matteo, think Alexis Sanchez. He jinked into the space created by Nacho Monreal’s overlapping run, and unleashed a swerving, dipping, rocket from 30 yards that would have been virtually impossible for any goalkeeper to save. Just to boost the aesthetics of the goal even further, the ball even flew in off the underside of the cross bar.
It was an outrageously brilliant goal, and capped a sensational first season at the club for Alexis Sanchez. What a player. What a goal. Continue reading “Big players. Big game. Big performance.”