Missing Mertesacker now the most vital part of Arsenal's defence

The Gunners' centre-back pairing of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny once again looked vulnerable in the 3-1 Champions League victory over Olympiakos on Wednesday night
By Greg Stobart at Emirates Stadium

As Steve Bould prowled the technical area while Arsene Wenger served the second game of a two-match touchline ban, the former Arsenal defender might have reflected that the Gunners were producing an ugly victory more befitting of the era when he played in north London.

Except the Arsenal assistant manager was concerned. He was worried about the defensive lapses that have crept in to the Londoners’ game in the last week, citing a lack of confidence following the home defeat by Chelsea on Saturday.

Goals from Gervinho, Lukas Podolski and Aaron Ramsey put Arsenal on track for progression to the knockout stages of the Champions League as they made it two wins from two matches with a 3-1 victory over Olympiakos here on Wednesday.

Was uncharacteristically sloppy at times both on and off the ball, notably letting Machado in at the death of the first half. Consistent fouling afforded the opposition the chance to build attacks

Needless yellow on the half hour mark ensured that he was treading on eggshells for the remainder of the game but dealt pretty well with Olympiacos' at-times one dimensional attack. Spurned headed chance to kill the game off.

Yet the Gunners were nervous for much of the evening, particularly in defence as the centre-back pairing of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny failed to communicate and were often far too casual.

That was particularly the case in the first half. Olympiakos thoroughly deserved their equaliser on the stroke of half-time through Kostas Mitroglou’s header and the Greek visitors would have scored more were it not for a woeful finish from Paulo Machado. A better team would have punished such sloppy defending.

After three clean sheets in their first three Premier League fixtures this season, Bould was hailed for transforming an Arsenal defence historically considered fragile under pressure.

So he was quite happy to accept responsibility for the defensive lapses while still hailing a “great result” for Wenger’s men.

“We looked a bit nervy and we improved second half,” said Bould. “It’s a results industry and we ground it out. Without being fantastic we’ve had a great result.

“Getting beaten on Saturday may have knocked our confidence a bit. We’re hoping that’s gone and we get back on track. I think the result from the weekend drained us. We lost a bit of confidence.”

“The defence is down to me, isn’t it? We will look at it and try to correct it. After three clean sheets there was only one way to go. The goals against us in the main have been set pieces which I think we can improve on. I think we are doing OK.”

The heart of the defensive problems against Chelsea and Olympiakos could lie in the central defensive pairing. Vermaelen, in particular, looked uncomfortable and uncertain under pressure and both he and Koscielny have performed far better this season alongside Per Mertesacker.

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The calming, steadying influence of Mertesacker, who was absent with a virus, has been highlighted in his absence in the last two matches. If the German international recovers before the weekend, he will surely start away at West Ham where the hosts will look to target aerial balls to Andy Carroll.

While Mertesacker dovetails well with his centre-back partners, using his experience and reading of the game, there is a growing school of thought that Vermaelen and Koscielny are too similar to play together and defend with complete authority.

Both players are aggressive and look to win the ball whenever possible, but it means gaps are created that are not being plugged by their partner. There is not a mixture of qualities, meaning they end up playing as individuals rather than a pairing.

Bould would not be drawn on what he considers Arsenal’s best centre-back pairing, but Mertesacker has suddenly become an absolutely vital component of the Gunners’ back four this season.

The twinkling toes of Gervinho as a centre-forward - he scored his fifth goal in as many games - and the clinical finishing of Ramsey and Podolski helped get Arsenal out of trouble against Olympiakos, but it must not paper over some obvious cracks.

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