Keown: Vermaelen as important as RVP
What was once the solid foundation on which their success was built, Arsenal's defence has lately more closely resembled the work of a cowboy builder than a master mason. The days of the legendary back four of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn - the bedrock of the Gunners' 1998 double triumph - are long gone, replaced by the palest of imitations. The backline responsible for shipping eight to Manchester United earlier this season - Carl Jenkinson, Johann Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Armand Traore - was an embarrassment to a club boasting such exemplary defensive traditions.
Injuries to key players obviously played a part in the Old Trafford massacre but there is no denying that the area of the pitch once considered Arsenal's greatest strength has become their most frustrating weakness. Although all managers are liable to make signings that fail to settle as expected, the list of Arsene Wenger's defensive additions makes for pretty grim reading; from Igors Stepanovs to Sebastien Squillaci, via the likes of Efstathios Tavlaridis, Pascal Cygan and Mikael Silvestre, Arsenal's defensive recruits have, on the whole, been more inadequate than impenetrable.
The aforementioned names may seem to prove otherwise, but a propensity for calamity has not in fact been a pre-requisite of playing at the back for the Gunners in recent years. The likes of Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and William Gallas have all proved to be shrewd acquisitions over the past decade while Thomas Vermaelen, the man currently charged with halting Arsenal's opponents, has consistently shown the sort of assuredness that could one day see him mentioned in the same breath as Messrs Dixon, Adams, Keown and Winterburn, as well as other former stalwarts like Frank McLintock, David O'Leary and Pat Rice, in the Gunners' defensive pantheon.
Since arriving from Ajax two years ago, Vermaelen has become a firm fans' favourite at Emirates Stadium, with his aerial prowess and physicality endearing him to a set of supporters and a manager whose team has often been accused of being bereft of those qualities in recent times.
One of those supporters is former centre-back Martin Keown. As a boyhood Arsenal fan, a three-time winner of both the FA Cup and Premier League and a veteran of 17 years at the club as a youth-team player and first-teamer, the former England defender certainly has the authority to scrutinise the Gunners' defence. And while prolific captain Robin van Persie has been stealing the spotlight as Wenger's side have enjoyed a renaissance over the past few weeks, Keown is convinced that the return to fitness of Vermaelen has been just as crucial.
"It was a difficult start, but they've shown a lot of character since losing at Manchester United," Keown tells ESPNsoccernet. "There are key players back in the team - Thomas Vermaelen especially. Vermaelen is absolutely key to what they do. He satisfies the needs of the manager because of his technical side, his passing his crisp and it's almost perfection the way he passes the ball.
"But he satisfies me, and other supporters too, because of his physical side - that's what I want to see. I feel he dominates people, he attacks the ball, he organises and I just feel much more comfortable when he's playing. For me, he's equally as important as Van Persie now that he's back in the team and playing well."
Keown's assertion about Vermaelen's importance is certainly supported by the statistics; since the Belgian arrived at the club two years ago, Arsenal have won 61% of games with him in the starting line-up compared to 53% without, while in the current campaign the Gunners have conceded an average of 0.7 goals per games when Vermaelen has been present compared to 1.83 without and have also kept clean sheets in 40% of the games he has started, compared to 25% without.
The centre-half has appeared back to his imperious best this term and his latest contribution was another telling one, scoring a vital equaliser against Fulham after his own goal had put Wenger's side on the brink of a shock home defeat. His return to the first-team action has been a real boost, especially after he missed almost the entirety of last season with a serious Achilles injury that led some to proffer concern that his career could be curtailed.
Vermaelen's role as senior defender is one that allows parallels to be drawn with Keown who, as Wenger's elder defensive statesman played a vital role in helping future 'Invincibles' Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Lauren and Kolo Toure, acclimatise to life in the Arsenal first-team. Vermaelen, too, is responsible for being the reliable constant in an ever-changing defence, one that Keown recognises isn't perfect but that he feels has the potential to come good.
"I've been pleased with the new signings," says Keown, whose articulate responses are a world away from the aggressive, spiky persona he exuded on the pitch in his playing days. "I think Arteta has been a very good character to have in, they need someone with his leadership and that experience. Mertesacker as well, whether he plays in the team or not, is bringing experience to the back four, which is invaluable. Andre Santos is a roaming left-back, I'd like to see him defend more but he's in the typical mould of a left-back for Arsenal - Wenger likes them to get forward.
"Lately, Koscielny has been playing right-back, with Mertesacker alongside Vermaelen in the middle - I think Mertesacker still has a lot to offer, whether he's No. 1 or not remains to be seen. I think the other two are maybe the future. They've all played their part but while they're doing okay at the moment, we don't want them to be complacent though. As soon as Arsenal seem to get pats on the back, the form dips - if you go by recent years. There's a lot of work to do but they're going in the right direction.
"If you look at the side that beat Barcelona 2-1 at home last season, there's Wilshere not playing because of injury, Nasri gone, Fabregas gone - they were all were instrumental. The heart of the team was ripped out and they were the players that gave Wenger real belief so you have to give him time to rebuild his own belief in the team, get the key characters back in and start to develop it -and they're doing that."
When it comes to the future, Keown is forthright that Wenger is the man to continue to lead Arsenal and having experienced the Frenchman first hand - enjoying a reinvigoration under him - he has no doubt that when the 62-year-old eventually decides to call time on his spell in North London, it will be on his terms.
"He will decide when he leaves, that's how powerful he is at the club. He decides not anyone else; he'll know when the moment's right. He creates an environment where it's just great fun. It's great to come in every day. You learn a great deal. When he first came in, we were working with mannequins, doing technical stuff that we'd never done before. It really improved me, he's great to be around as well. I wasn't sure if nice guys can win things - we'd all been a bit of an angry bunch before Wenger arrived but he demonstrated that you can still get along with everyone, you can still have a smile on your face and win and when you do that it's more enjoyable and tastes better.
"He and [former Arsenal boss] George Graham were like chalk and cheese, George was quite confrontational, to say the least. There's nothing wrong with that but some of us respond to different styles of management and the approach that Wenger had, my record was much better under Wenger, I preferred that. I don't think anyone enjoys getting a rollicking in any industry. I just needed to unravel my talent and Wenger helped me to do that.
Martin Keown was speaking at an event celebrating ESPN's coverage of the FA Cup. ESPN continues live televised coverage of this season's competition with two exclusive second round matches: Fleetwood v Yeovil on Friday December 2 and Sutton United v Notts County on December 4.