After an opening to this season in which Arsenal appeared to have solved many of their renowned defensive frailties, old foibles soon returned with a marked vengeance. Amidst talk of assistant manager Steve Bould – considered integral to the Gunners’ early impregnability – being marginalised by Arsene Wenger , the Frenchman’s team have been increasingly porous in the course of stumbling out of both domestic knock-out competitions and slipping outside of the Premier League’s top-four.
Last night’s resilient display in Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena was rendered futile by a chaotic home performance in which Arsenal were fortunate to concede only three times. It can’t have escaped the attention of Wenger, or his club’s supporters, that what was arguably the side’s most complete display since they overwhelmed West Ham United at Upton Park more than five months ago came with Carl Jenkinson playing at right-back.
The 21 year-old was a fixture in the Gunner’s team which started the season with successive clean sheets against Sunderland, Stoke City, and Liverpool, before finally being breached during a 6-1 demolition of Southampton. By the time of that victory against the Hammers, Arsenal had lost just one of seven Premier League matches, conceded only five goals in the process, and negotiated a tricky Champions League tie – triumphing 2-1 away at Montpellier.
While the Gunners’ subsequent – and now annual – loss of direction and confidence has been well documented, the absence of Jenkinson for a large chunk of that period has been largely overlooked. In the wake of Arsenal’s win at West Ham, Martin Keown – the former Highbury defender and a particularly stern judge – singled out the Harlow born man as one of the nascent Premier League campaign’s most impressive performers.
Referring to the callow and extremely naïve rookie who was thrown into first-team action so soon after his arrival from Charlton Athletic a year previously Keown said;
‘Last season, he looked like he was apologising for being at the club but now he looks like he’s been there for ever’.
Wenger evidently has faith in his young defender. The Gunners’ manager saw enough in Jenkinson’s mere eight starts for his previous employers in the 2010/2011 season (he actually began that term on loan at Eastbourne Borough in the Conference Premier) to offer the full-back his big break at the Emirates.
Jenkinson’s exceptional form in this season’s initial months convinced Wenger to offer the quick-learning player a fresh five year contract. Another manager to recognise Jenkinson’s progress was Roy Hodgson. England’s boss called the right-back into his November squad for a friendly in Sweden, having secured UEFA clearance to do so – required following the player’s youth level appearances for Finland, the country of his mother’s birth.
In contrast to the remarkable professional strides being taken by Jenkinson while earning his place in Arsenal’s long-term plans and securing a treasured international call-up, he was cast into the role of frustrated bench dweller as soon as Bacary Sagna returned from a fractured leg sustained late last season.
The former Auxerre man has been a mainstay of Wenger’s sides since arriving in the summer of 2007, and the manager clearly believed Sagna’s presence would strengthen his first-choice ranks. As events have come to pass, the 30 year-old has been part of an Arsenal unit which has been dealt a series of crushing blows this term. Most tellingly, the Frenchman’s body language and application have betrayed an unhappy and less than entirely committed soul.
Sagna is said to be dissatisfied with the finer details of a contract offered to extend his stay beyond next year, and looks likely to depart the Emirates at this season’s conclusion.
Arsenal’s reluctance to boldly invest in a 30 year-old with an unfortunate history of serious injury and a questionable attitude is understandable. Whether or not Jenkinson’s terrific form since being restored to the Gunners’ team after Sagna again pulled up lame following the costly Champions League capitulation against Bayern will deter Wenger from seeking another right-back outside the club will be of interest to many observers.
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