Johan Djourou vows to fight for his place at Arsenal
�Regardless of the extent to which Arsene Wenger strengthens his defence this summer he would do well to consider the form last season of one of his longest-serving players.
When Johan Djourou put pen to paper at Highbury on August 1 2003, at the age of just 16, he could hardly have imagined that he would have to show such patience – he would have to wait eight years to produce the consistent form which would yield a run in the first team.
A career plagued by injury problems curtailed the teenager’s progress again and again; even as recently as 2009/10, a knee injury kept Djourou sidelined for virtually the entire campaign.
But last season, the Switzerland international finally began to play to his undoubted potential – Djourou made 34 appearances, forging a solid partnership with Laurent Koscielny after Christmas as Arsenal went on an 11-game unbeaten run, conceding just six goals along the way.
This summer Wenger will almost certainly yield to fans’ demand and add experienced players to the Gunners defence, with Blackburn’s Christopher Samba and Gary Cahill of Bolton Wanderers top of the manager’s wishlist.
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The prospect of renewed competition for places at the back draws mixed feelings from Djourou.
While he welcomes the battle for starting spots, he is determined that having established himself as first-choice, he will stay there. As by far and away Arsenal’s most experienced Premier League centre-back, Djourou’s time to lead the line from the back may have come.
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“It was good for me to come back into the team, after the hard year I had with injury, to come back and play that well was very good,” Djourou told the Gazette.
“I’ve been here a long time, I want to keep my place and become a better player. When you play in the top flight each player has to push himself and battle for his place, and I am no different.
“I know I can improve and that I have a lot in me, so now I have to improve in time for pre-season and be ready for the team.
“I hope it’s the case that other players look to me because I have experience, and that the manager continues to have confidence in me. Last season, I had a little shoulder injury at the end, but I think overall it was very good for me.”
That shoulder injury, a dislocation sustained in the 2-0 FA Cup defeat at Manchester United in March, was a setback both for Djourou and for Arsenal, who until that point had not lost with him in the side all season. The closest they had come – a 4-4 draw at Newcastle – saw Djourou substituted in the first half with his side 4-0 up.
He returned barely a month later, and his dip in form upon his comeback against Liverpool can largely be attributed to the number of games he was forced to play while not fully fit, in the absence of the injured Thomas Vermaelen.
He escaped much of the barrage of criticism aimed at defensive colleagues Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci as Arsenal collapsed in the final weeks of the season, throwing away domestic and European trophy hopes.
As a player in whom Wenger has always kept faith, Djourou believes his manager has earned the right to be afforded similar patience.
As he points out, even the unbeaten ‘Invincible’ team of 2003/04 were built ‘step by step’, by the Arsenal boss, and did not achieve greatness in a single year.
But after a sixth consecutive campaign without silverware, patience is running low at the Emirates, and with a Champions League qualifier to face in August, this summer’s transfer dealings will shape Djourou’s future at the club as much as his manager’s.
But Djourou wants to be in the mix next season, and says the disastrous end to the last campaign has only strengthened Arsenal’s resolve.
“I know it has been said before, but we must turn the negatives into positives for next season,” added Djourou.
“Of course it was a disappointing season, it was difficult to take after we were playing for so many trophies at the same time, so it’s always hard to take when you come out empty-handed.
“But I don’t think we need to envy anyone, we showed against Barcelona at home and away that we can be a contender. The defence is not an issue, of course you’re always going to come back to the defence when you lose a game.
“It’s all over the pitch, there are 11 men, not only four against 11, and that’s what I think people tend to forget sometimes.
“The start of next season is important, but it has been the same before, it is nothing new for us. But we’re a big club and we know we have to be in the Champions League.
“We’ve been in this situation a couple of years ago when we had to play Celtic. You just have to be ready. Obviously we’re disappointed because we were so close to being top and we finished fourth, but that’s life, we cannot be down, we have to keep going.”