Saturday July 24th, 2010

By the time defender Thomas Vermaelen had played just four games for Arsenal after last year's $13 million move from the Dutch club Ajax, coach Arsene Wenger already knew he had a bargain on his hands.

It was after that fourth game, a Champions League-qualifying victory against Celtic, that Wenger spoke of the Belgian's "football intelligence," an intangible quality he had also spotted in Alex Song, the young midfielder written off by many who had his breakout season the previous year. Against Celtic, Vermaelen was marshaling the defense, even telling the more experienced William Gallas where to position himself on corner kicks.

Another English club had scouted Vermaelen at every match the previous season, but decided to spend more than twice the price on another defender who had Premier League experience. "Thomas is a fantastic leader, you can see that," said Wenger, whose decision was vindicated when Vermaelen was voted to the Premier League Team of the Year.

One year later, Wenger has again raised eyebrows with his latest center-back signing, Laurent Koscielny, a former left back who was playing in France's third division four years ago. Koscielny was outstanding for Lorient last season, his first in the top flight, but was as surprised as anyone when Wenger made his move.

"I didn't hesitate when I heard of Arsenal's interest, but it is the only team I would have moved for," he told the French newspaper L'Equipe. "For me, it was Arsenal or no one."

While Vermaelen was at least a Belgium international, Koscielny is a far more unknown quantity, not yet an international of any sort (he qualifies for France and Poland).

"He has a real charisma and gives off a feeling of strength and serenity," Lorient scout Christophe Le Roux said.

He is not tall, like Vermaelen, but has excellent anticipation and is rarely forced to dive in for a tackle. Koscielny has called himself "a footballer, not a defender," and is fortunate that Lorient coach Christian Gourcuff and his coach at previous club Tours, Daniel Sanchez, demanded that their defenders start each move.

"I never saw him lose a one-on-one last season," Gourcuff said.

Koscielny played on the left of the center backs for Lorient but may start the season on the right for Arsenal. Wenger, who has already released Mikael Silvestre, William Gallas and Philippe Senderos, is in the market for at least one more center back. Pape Diakhate (Dynamo Kiev) and Phil Jagielka(Everton) have been linked to Arsenal, but Wenger is likely to bide his time and wait for the best price.

He did just that with his other major signing so far, Marouane Chamakh from Bordeaux. Wenger has bagged the $23 million-rated forward on a free transfer after toying with the idea of signing him last summer, and then holding off in January despite his team's injury problems in attack and a reduced $6 million asking price. Chamakh's presence could have helped Arsenal in its title challenge, with the Gunners fading after winning just two of their last seven league matches.

As it is, his addition gives Wenger flexibility in attack as Chamakh has the tactical awareness to fit into any system.

"He offered us a lot of options, and is superb at holding the ball up," Bordeaux coach Laurent Blanc said. "He allowed the team to move up as a unit because of his work rate at the front of our attack."

Under Blanc, Bordeaux played away matches using a 4-5-1 and home matches with Chamakh alongside another striker.

"I don't mind playing on my own or with other strikers," Chamakh told Surface magazine. "I have dreamed of the Premier League since I was a kid. It might be a risk, but it will be a new experience and I am not scared by it."

Arsenal might also expect to start the season fresher than many of its title rivals. Only two of its players, Spain's Cesc Fabregas and the Netherlands' Robin van Persie, reached the World Cup knockout stages, and both of them played in the final. Others, including Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott and Samir Nasri, all missed out and were able to have a proper break over the summer.

Wenger has also suggested that he is looking to replace Manuel Almunia as Arsenal's first-choice goalkeeper. Almunia has held the position for two years but never convincingly in the biggest games. He was blamed for Nani's opening goal in a 3-1 home loss to Manchester United, and, after an outstanding first half in the first leg of a Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona, made a poor decision just after the break that allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to lob him and open the scoring.

Wenger gave playing time to all three reserve goalkeepers -- Lukasz Fabianski, Vito Mannone and Wojciech Szczesny -- during the recent friendly against Barnet, and the coach has been linked with Mark Schwarzer (Fulham), Sebastien Frey (Fiorentina) and Samir Handanovic (Udinese). Signing a top goalkeeper has always been one of Wenger's rare weaknesses in the market, but this summer he might put that right. He has already signed two gems in Koscielny and Chamakh. One more in goal could see Arsenal challenge for a trophy, any trophy, it has failed to win since 2005.

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