Today we continue with the second installment in my ongoing series highlighting players of the Arsenal “Banter Era”. Stretching from 2007, when Thierry Henry left the club for Barcelona, to 2017 when the signs were on the wall that Wenger was going to be fired, Arsenal’s “banter era” covered a decade of ups and downs, winning the FA Cup three times and coming close to winning the League twice. But almost in spite of the decent trophy return this was an era largely defined by a team of players who were almost good enough, who fans fought over constantly, and who opposition fans often ridiculed. The banter era players were both a testament to Wenger’s genius – that he could keep a team in the top four with these guys – and also a sign that there were deep problems at the club. But despite all that, these are players who always made us at least laugh at the ridiculousness of Arsenal’s situation at that time, if not at their own actions.
When it comes to “banter” left backs I could probably condense this post down to just two words. There seems to be no argument about who Arsenal’s worst left back was during this era, a player whose name appears on pretty much every top ten “worst Wenger signings”. But just putting his name out there puts all the blame on him when the reality is that Arsenal were dreadfully understaffed in the left back position and had such a dearth of talent there that Arsene Wenger played our star right back in the left back position, thus managing to weaken both sides of the pitch at the same time.
I am of course talking about Andre Santos. And while he is famous for swapping shirts with the traitor Robin van Persie in full view of the cameras, at half time, in a game which Arsenal were losing, at Old Trafford, that was toward the end of his story at Arsenal and doesn’t even touch on the craziness that was Arsenal at the time.
The start of his Arsenal career wasn’t that bad. Signed in summer 2011, he scored his debut Arsenal goal in just his 2nd start with the club, against Olympiakos in the Champions League. A month later he got his 2nd Arsenal goal in the wild 3-5 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Despite the early goals and his promise going forward, there were some signs, however, that perhaps the defender Andre Santos wasn’t super good at defending.
Santos at Arsenal coincided with an almost high water mark of statistical reporting on footballers. There were a number of statistical analyses done on Santos during his first 6 months at the club and most of them showed a player who was good at passing, good in the air, tackled well, and so on. There is an infamous article which purports to prove that Andre Santos is “defensively, one of the League’s best left backs”.
But these stats were one of the first times where I started to question what these data points were really saying. Because for me, while I could see that he had a high pass completion rate for example, I could also see that when he did give the ball away, he just let players run past him. And when he missed a tackle, he didn’t just miss the tackle, he blew Arsenal’s entire defensive formation (ok, there wasn’t much to Wenger’s defensive plan, but there was something, and when he made a mistake it was usually the exact wrong thing) to pieces like a Lego tower falling over in a slight wind. And worse, when he did track back, he made game-losing defensive errors.
What Andre Santos’ time at Arsenal taught me more than anything was to take tackle, interception, etc. stats with a massive grain of salt. So much salt. Because even if a player does win 90% of his 50-50 aerial duels, if the 10% he loses are so mind-numbingly dumb and destructive, that matters a lot more.
But more than just a few odd stats, what happened during the Andre Santos tenure at Arsenal was not even entirely his fault. See, Santos was injured in December of 2011, just a few months into his first Arsenal season. He ended up getting ankle surgery and sitting out from December 6th until March 12th when he came on for Kieran Gibbs (who scored his first Arsenal goal that day). Andre Santos was never meant to be Arsenal’s starting left back – that was Gibbs in 2011/12. But Gibbs picked up a hernia and Santos had to start. Then Santos picked up an injury and suddenly, Arsenal were playing Thomas Vermaelen at left back.
This was a constant problem with Arsenal during the banter era. Most teams get injuries and some teams will even get multiple injuries in the same position on the pitch. But with Arsenal it always seemed like when one player got injured, the next guy would step in for a short period and then get injured himself. Again, this can happen to any team and isn’t really anyone’s fault but it happened at Arsenal often. And this problem was compounded by the sense that the penny pinching meant that even if we had subs available, they just weren’t at the right level to challenge the starter or fully and competently fill in for the designated starter. And even the starter himself sometimes wasn’t even that good. Gibbs was a decent left back and would have been an excellent substitute but Arsenal wouldn’t even give him any real competition until Nacho Monreal arrived in January of 2013: after shipping Andre Santos out.
Santos arrived at Arsenal during the infamous “trolley dash” after Arsenal lost 8-2 to Manchester United. He immediately became good friends with Robin van Persie, who had one eye on the door early on that season. He then immediately got injured. Then dropped to the bench. And when he did get a chance to play (which was often) he was always found to be just a bit below what we needed. Then the next season, after van Persie publicly stabbed the club that had given him everything for the better part of a decade, he swapped shirts with the traitor, at half time, in a game in which he was being humiliated by Rafael and Antonio Valencia. Santos played 87 minutes for Arsenal after that game. 54 of those minutes in his last match, a 2-2 draw with Liverpool, where he was subbed on because of a Kieran Gibbs injury.