Today we continue with the fourth 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 a time 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.
Today we are going to look at right backs. My favorite right back of the Wenger era is Lauren. I had a look through the Statsbomb data for the Invincibles a few years ago and one player stood out amongst all the greats on that team, for tackles, interceptions, passing percentages, and so on it was Lauren. I was fairly new to football when I watched the Invincibles season, and I have to admit that his play passed me by. In my defense, I was dazzled by Henry, Pires, Vieira, Campbell, and Ljungberg but everything Lauren did knitted that team together. He had pace, power, and an incredible football mind. If I ever get off my lazy ass and take a look at that Statsbomb data again I will write an article about him and how important he was to the team.
And after Lauren left Arsenal we had Bacary Sagna, who was my 2nd favorite Arsenal RB of all time. Another huge player for us who went on to play for City and was unlucky not to win a Premier League (or any other league) title in his career. During Sagna’s time at Arsenal his understudy was Emmanuel Eboue and I have to admit that while he’s a pretty obvious pick I’m reluctant to name Eboue because his post-playing career is so heartbreaking. I know he’d never read this but I just don’t want to add any grief to his name. He would be a good choice though because the fans used to teasingly sing “you’ve only come to see Eboue” at other fans whenever he played. And there was that disastrous moment when Wenger subbed him on to play CDM and had to sub him off because he was having a nightmare. Like so many other players during this era, it’s not his fault that Arsene Wenger often did wild things that just flat out didn’t work.
If I rule out Eboue it doesn’t leave me many options. We’ve got Carl Jenkinson, Hector Bellerin, and Mathieu Debuchy. What’s interesting about these three players is that they all suffered major injuries which either halted their careers or severely sidelined them.
Bellerin was one of the best right backs in the League for his first two seasons at Arsenal. He was especially dangerous because of his pace, and his ability to get forward, put in a deadly cross, and then recover for a tackle if needed. He was unassailably Arsene’s best right back since Sagna. But unfortunately he is remembered mostly for what happened to him during the Emery years: he suffered a major injury to his knee on 19 January 2019 and was out for 9 months. After that he never recovered, specifically his sideways movement was almost entirely gone. But the time frame for these articles is up to 2017 and in that time period, Bellerin was a good right back. So, I cannot include him in the Banter Era. He would absolutely be a candidate for the Emery Era, though.
Carl Jenkinson is an Arsenal fan. He had Arsenal bed sheets growing up. And just like every other Arsenal fan, if Arsene Wenger asked you to play in an away game at Manchester United a few days after the squad lost both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, you would obviously say “hecking yes!” And you would also be roasted alive by the opposition, end up being the reason why Arsenal conceded several goals, and almost certainly also get yourself sent off.
To be fair to “Corporal Jenkinson” after that shocking and career melting match at Old Trafford, he worked incredibly hard in training, started quite a few matches for Arsenal and got himself good enough that he earned an England call up.
But, he did become something of a joke amongst the fans. It pains me to say this but he was jeered off late in his Arsenal career. Wenger said at the time that he needed to gain some confidence and I applaud him standing up to Wenger and demanding instead that he get more playing time and asking for a loan deal. But just like everything else about this era of Arsenal, he somehow failed to reach personal terms with Crystal Palace after the two teams had agreed to a transfer fee, and he rotted at Arsenal for the rest of the 2016-2017 season, playing 0 minutes after January.
So, if Bellerin’s fall came in the Emery Era, I don’t want to be mean to Eboue, and Jenkinson is, well, Jenkinson probably shouldn’t have been at Arsenal and frankly given his talent level, I’d say he overperformed, then Debuchy is the one. Bought in 2014 from Newcastle for around £12m, he was expected to replace Sagna. His Arsenal career started out just fine but then he was injured in the match against City in August and was out until December. And when he made his comeback three months later, Marko Arnautovic shoved him off the pitch and dislocated his shoulder, he didn’t play again for Arsenal that season (2014/15) and his absence gave rise to Arsenal and Barcelona academy grad, Hector Bellerin.
I remember watching Bellerin play in that first season and he was a revelation for Arsenal. I told a friend who owned a kit-selling place to get ahold of as many Bellerin shirts as possible and they did and still sold out. Bellerin’s play made it impossible for Debuchy to get a start but it’s also a fact that he wasn’t even really good enough to dislodge Calum Chambers who wasn’t even a real right back. Who know what position Calum Chambers is best at?
The next season Debuchy returned but was immediately dropped by Wenger after a poor showing on opening day and Bellerin fully cemented his place as first choice. Debuchy would ride the pine until December with the exception of one match that Bellerin missed: a 1-1 draw with Spurs. He played 77 forlorn minutes in that match and it was easily the second worst right back display I’ve ever seen from an Arsenal player. And subsequently he was dropped completely from Wenger’s plans, he didn’t even really make the bench for Arsenal matches. After that he went on loan to Bordeaux in January 2016.
While on loan in Bordeaux he stank the joint up so bad that when he returned to Arsenal he basically just sat around collecting a paycheck from August 2016 until he left on a free in January 2018. For his salary, Arsene played him 16 minutes in the Premier League, he got four starts in the Europa League (3 at CB), and 2 League Cup starts.
What makes Debuchy the perfect Banter Era right back is that he was never good enough from the start and then we were saddled with him when he was injured and after that we couldn’t get rid of him because his salary was too high for the level of play he brought (he was on the verge of a move to Nice but wanted to keep his £4m a year salary so they bought someone else). Instead of having competition for young Bellerin, instead of having a player who could play a few matches here and there and give Bellerin a rest, we had an old dud just taking up money and space. Classic Banter Era team building.