Mertesacker Can Be The Heart Of A New Famous Back Five

By Daniel Cowan
In Arsenal
Jul 25th, 2012
23 Comments

One of my favourite tweeters to have on my timeline, and I’m sure one of yours too, the one and only @Artekkers posed a question recently asking his followers who they would like to partner Koscielny as centre-half. This question and its responses intrigued me somewhat as it shows that a few more than I expected are thinking similarly to me with regards to our centre-backs.

I’m a big fan of Vermaelen but I think that Koscielny has proven over the past two years that he is our top defender so Koscielny should rightly get the nod as our first choice centre-back. The responses to @Artekkers seemed to be in favour of Vermaelen over Mertesacker which didn’t surprise me as Vermaelen is a fan favourite but I was surprised at how many people genuinely think that Mertesacker is a bad defender.

I’m going to throw this out there. I think that Mertesacker is our best central defender. Koscielny has been our best performer but I still think that Mertesacker is our best defender and that Laurent and Per should be our first choice pairing.

Mertesacker

I remember in summer 2009 having a discussion with my dad, who is also a massive Gooner, (and owns a great pub in Prague to drink, eat and watch the football if you’re ever out there) about Mertesacker. As he gets every game from every league he watches a lot more Bundesliga than I do and he was championing Mertesacker as the player to sort out our defence and I was passing him off as too slow. Fast forward to September 2011 and my dad was really happy we had signed Mertesacker and I was pissed off we didn’t sign Cahill or Jagielka. Fast forward to 2012 and I’m a massive fan of Mertesacker and my dad doesn’t think he’s right for the league (but hopes that he is wrong and Per adapts).

I don’t understand the negativity from some supporters toward Mertesacker. You don’t make over 80 appearances for the German national team if you are an average player let alone a poor one. Germany is blessed with great players so to get the level of caps Mertesacker has you need to have a little something special about you.

Mertesacker has been criticised for a lack of pace however I think it unfair to label him a bad defender just because of a lack of pace. When settled at centre-half (and at a similar age to what Per is now) Baresi, Maldini, Cannavaro, Moore, Adams and Bould were not possessors of great pace, they were possessors of great minds.

To me, a great defender is a defender who doesn’t need to tackle. Excellent reading of the game, superb positioning and the ability to force the opposition to move into closed space is more important than tackling and pace. I actually think the requirement of pace for a centre-back is a mark of inadequacy. If a player is blessed with pace then that is fantastic and an added bonus however the need to use that pace to defend on a regular basis is a shortcoming. The need for pace is for recovery and recovery (when not defending a counter-attack) is usually a result of poor positioning which is a sign of unintelligence. This doesn’t necessarily mean that those types of players are bad defenders, in fact it’s actually okay to have one in your team but only when you have an intelligent reader of the game like Mertesacker playing alongside them.

A great example of this is Kolo Toure. I loved Toure, I thought he was a fantastic servant to the club but I have always said that he is an unintelligent defender. Defenders like Kolo have power and pace which is great but they also tend to lack positional awareness and the ability to read the game at speed which is why they miss headers or see balls fly over their heads or get outsmarted by opposition attackers. Players like Kolo need intelligent defenders next to them. Kolo was fantastic for Arsenal because he had Campbell or Keown with him who could marshal him but was average at best when paired with a similar defender and had to rely on speed to protect the goal. When the time came for Wenger to choose between Kolo and Gallas the decision I suspect was probably easy. Kolo needed his hand holding which Gallas didn’t (although some medication might have helped William a bit) and his knees were starting to go and his weight was creeping up both of which had knock on effects to his pace.

In Vermaelen we have a player half-way between the reader and the recoverer which was fantastic for us and quickly cemented him in the first choice defender spot. Then we bought Koscielny who is also part reader part recoverer but brilliantly he has the speed of a recoverer but also the brain of a reader; a combination that will see him lauded as one of the best defenders in the league if not Europe very soon. A combination he shares with Vincent Kompany who we all know to be the best defender in the league.

Vermaelen and Koscielny

Moving back to Mertesacker… Not only is Per a very tidy passer with excellent distribution he is also a surprisingly tidy tackler for a man of his size. He is rarely clumsy in the tackle and as such has a very low foul per game rate. Another reason he rarely fouls is his reading of the game. Per isn’t a recoverer, he is a reader and a fantastic one at that. If you watch him and I mean truly watch him in games you will see that he doesn’t need to fly into tackles or out-muscle other players. He just sets up in the best position to see play develop and casually steps into new positions as the game changes and he senses danger. More often than not this discourages players from attacking into the space he is protecting because they see that, like a great chess master, he has his lines protected and his next three moves thought out. To those caught up in the excitement of the game (which is entirely understandable, we don’t turn up or tune in just to watch one player) these subtle movements can go unnoticed and Per is only acknowledged when he screws up.

However I believe that if we all paid a little more attention to the incredible reading of the game that Per possesses and displays that we could all agree that he could be at the heart of a new back five the famous back five could be proud of. It won’t be easy and they’ll probably never be as good but if they came a reasonably close second in all time Arsenal defences they’d be the best defence in the league.

The Famous Five… and Keown 😉

The level of composure and elegance that Mertesacker showed in his first season has filled me with great hope. I believe that he can work on a number of things and, like Koscielny, show his full ability in his second season. If Per can improve on his weak areas (mainly aerial duels as he’ll never get any faster) and can continue to display his superb reading and positioning I believe that he will be a big part of a new era of success built on the foundations of steady defence.

I do not believe that Szczesny is as good as Seaman just yet but he could be. I believe that his natural ability, sheer confidence and most crucially his concentration skills will take him very far indeed. With a solid back four you need to have great concentration as you shouldn’t be very busy.

In Sagna we have the best right-back in the league and I believe that in a few years he will have some competition from Jenkinson and possibly even Bellerin if he has stepped up by then.

Gibbs I am a great believer in. If he can stay fit I think he has the ability to be as good as or possibly even better than Cole. Many of us hate Ashley but if we take out the bitterness and emotion and remove the nostalgia for Winterburn and Sansom I think the majority of us would recognise him as the best left-back we’ve had and if Gibbs can emulate or surpass that then that would be amazing for us.

Mertesacker and Koscielny I think should be first choice and their partnership as experienced and adapted players would rival any partnership in the league in my opinion.

A dependable and confident goalie, two solid full-backs and two readers of the game at centre-back, one a insanely good reader of the game, the other a highly accomplished reader blessed with pace is the makings of a title-winning defence. All they need to do is stay fit, harmonise and work on keeping a line and with Bould coaching them and passing on his knowledge I believe that could happen very quickly.

We all know that the defence last year was our weak point but with a back five playing as a settled unit and Mertesacker at the heart of it I think we’ll finally have some stability and quality.

I leave you with this great video by @CWDcomps – until next time!

Thanks for reading! Please comment on this post, subscribe by email, share with friends and follow me on twitter (@thedanielcowan).

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About "" - 495 Posts

I am a South London born Gooner now living in Leigh-On-Sea, Essex. I'm a husband, daddy, podcaster, trainer enthusiast and aspiring author. My work is my passion and for that I will always be grateful. Here is where I write my thoughts and views on Arsenal Football Club, the greatest team the world has ever seen.

23 Responses to “Mertesacker Can Be The Heart Of A New Famous Back Five”

  1. Vermaelen is going to be the captain or a co-captain so there isn’t a chance Mertesacker starts over him. Regardless of that, he is clearly our best defender and clearly most suited to the English game. It is ludicrous to suggest he will not be starting and this is nothing to do with favouritism. He makes the least mistakes, he is fearless, he is versatile, he is the best aerial player we have had in half a decade if not longer and he is arguably the most productive goal scoring centre half in football.

    I don’t understand this obsession Arsenal fans have with Koscielny. Given he was very good the first half of the season, but his second half was worrying and he really regressed back into the poor habits that he was producing during his first season. He still is prone to making one poor error per game and that is not nearly acceptable, especially for a defensively poor team like Arsenal. His last month or 2 of the season really was quite appalling. His growth has been pleasing and I am certain he will be better again this upcoming campaign, but in no way is he deserving the lauds fans are giving him and I don’t understand where it’s came from. I think everyone are holding onto the brilliant game he had against Messi, and this is often cited when the debate arises. He is not yet in his prime in terms of effectiveness, but to say he is our best defender, let alone the first man picked in the middle, is really stifling to me.

    I don’t know whether it’s blind fandom because he had a couple of good games against UCL opponents, whether it’s because he signed a new long term deal or whatever the case may be. Yes he has a lot of talent, although you are certainly overrating his abilities as a reader of the game and a recoverer, at least over the entire sample of his Arsenal career.

    The phrase best used to describe Koscielny is ‘inconsistently talented’. He has enough talent to be one of the better defenders in the league, but he is no where near as consistent as someone like Terry or Vidic or Kompany or even Vermaelen.

    As for Mertesacker, the biggest issue I had with him was that even at 6’8 he was physically irrelevant. Seldom did he win a ball in the air…that is just shocking at the height he has and the brain we all know he possesses. Positionally he made some stupid mistakes last year as well, I remember a few games against quicker wingers when he was caught out showing them way too much of the goal and way too little of the sideline. I know he’s intelligent because he has a plethora of caps for Germany and I saw flashes of what he could do last year, but he, like Koscielny, show lapses in judgement just as often.

    Vermaelen and Sagna are first picked. I really love Gibbs’ promise and should he stay injury free he could be something in-between Clichy and Cole, he’s certainly a better defender than Clichy, and I would have Koscielny starting because Mertesacker gave me no indication of having the grit and niggle to be a successful starter in the EPL. I am not finalising my judgement of him nor Koscielny on a season or 2 because this is the hardest league in the world to acclimatise to, especially after coming out of supremely inferior leagues, but they both have to improve on their, at least to me, obvious inadequacies before I am comfortable even comparing them to Vermaelen.

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      Wow! That is some comment. Kudos for taking the time to write that!

      Wenger has said in the past that he doesn’t really attach too much importance to the armband so I would expect him to pick a player purely because they are the best choice not because they had the armband. Gilberto was once vice-captain and he didn’t get the armband when Henry left so until the new captain is confirmed I wouldn’t assume that it’s going to be Vermaelen. I understand that it would send out the wrong message if he wasn’t chosen but as I’ve stated, Wenger doesn’t attach much importance to who wears the armband. Vermaelen probably will start but that isn’t because of his status as vice-captain, that is because Wenger prefers to have a left footed player and a right footed player in central defence.

      Regardless of that, he is clearly our best defender and clearly most suited to the English game. It is ludicrous to suggest he will not be starting and this is nothing to do with favouritism. He makes the least mistakes, he is fearless, he is versatile, he is the best aerial player we have had in half a decade if not longer and he is arguably the most productive goal scoring centre half in football.

      Yes he is a good goalscorer and oddly most of his goals aren’t from set-pieces which means he is far too close to the other teams goal and not waiting to defend his own. He actually made more errors that Mertesacker and Koscielny last year according to Opta. I never suggested he would not be starting, I suggested that he should not start because the other two are better.

      I don’t understand this obsession Arsenal fans have with Koscielny.

      There are quite a few that don’t understand the obsession with Vermaelen either. 😉

      He still is prone to making one poor error per game and that is not nearly acceptable, especially for a defensively poor team like Arsenal.

      All of our defenders made errors last year. Koscielny’s were mainly mis-kicks, Vermaelen’s were from being miles out of position.

      I think everyone are holding onto the brilliant game he had against Messi, and this is often cited when the debate arises.

      I actually only started to warm to him this season. Sure he was immense against Messi last year but that only made me see that he had potential. Watching him in every game and seeing the subtle things that don’t get picked up by TV cameras or highlight shows was what made me appreciate him. Statistically he has been our best centre-back this year and has probably been our most reliable defender. Like most players who make a few errors early in their careers any future error is blown way out of proportion. Vermaelen had the luxury of not making many, if any, major or glaring errors in his first season and that is why his errors now are skipped over and ignored.

      He is not yet in his prime in terms of effectiveness, but to say he is our best defender, let alone the first man picked in the middle, is really stifling to me.

      I believe Mertesacker to be our best defender in the true sense of what a defender is and what a defender means to me. I do believe that Koscielny is the first name on the sheet because I can’t remember him not being picked last year when he was fully fit but I remember both Mertesacker and Vermaelen both being on the bench when they were fit.

      I don’t know whether it’s blind fandom because he had a couple of good games against UCL opponents, whether it’s because he signed a new long term deal or whatever the case may be. Yes he has a lot of talent, although you are certainly overrating his abilities as a reader of the game and a recoverer, at least over the entire sample of his Arsenal career.

      Or maybe you underrate him? I could say that you have a bit of blind fandom concerning Vermaelen.

      The phrase best used to describe Koscielny is ‘inconsistently talented’. He has enough talent to be one of the better defenders in the league, but he is no where near as consistent as someone like Terry or Vidic or Kompany or even Vermaelen.

      Statistically he is both in numbers of tackles/interceptions/duels etc (more so than Vermaelen and Mertesacker) but also in percentages. When called to action he has come out on top vastly more than not.

      As for Mertesacker, the biggest issue I had with him was that even at 6’8 he was physically irrelevant.

      He’s 6’6 but that’s by the by 😉 I have already mentioned that he does not use his physicality to win the ball. He rarely tackles because his positioning is so good. Too many people wrongly consider good defending as making tackles and interceptions and winning aerial duels but if you are positioned right and read the game well then you don’t need to be diving into tackles or climbing over players to head the ball away. If you can do that well when required then great but the trick is to not have to.

      Seldom did he win a ball in the air…that is just shocking at the height he has and the brain we all know he possesses.

      He has been weak in the air I agree and did mark it as his main point of improvement.

      Positionally he made some stupid mistakes last year as well, I remember a few games against quicker wingers when he was caught out showing them way too much of the goal and way too little of the sideline.

      He’s not infallible but I think I know the games you are talking about and I believe a lot of that is down to the full-backs not offering enough protection. He will get better as he gets used to the pace of the league. This was his first year remember.

      I know he’s intelligent because he has a plethora of caps for Germany and I saw flashes of what he could do last year, but he, like Koscielny, show lapses in judgement just as often.

      All players do that sometimes and I think that his early errors (mainly the Blackburn game) gave him a bit of a bad reputation which many supporters have been either unable or unwilling to look past. Sadly he joined the club at a time of what could be considered real crisis and where every mistake has been ruthlessly punished by the fans. Look at the treatment of Arshavin, Walcott and Ramsey this year. I stopped talking about other clubs having no class when our fans started acting with so little decorum towards Ramsey. I saw a side of Arsenal fans that I had never seen before and I was shocked. What shocked me most was the treatment of fan favourites and how their mistakes went unnoticed. No one gave Vermaelen, Arteta or AOC grief when they made mistakes that Mertesacker, Song and Rambo made. In the case of Rambo and AOC, one could do no right and other could do no wrong. Sorry for ranting about that 😉

      Thanks again for the comment. I really enjoyed reading it even if I didn’t agree. I hope to see more from you on the comments board for future posts as well. Cheers.

    • don says:

      spot on

  2. trent says:

    Nice article, i agree with your points on the potential of Arsenal’s back four. However, i have more doubt about Mertesacker coming good at Arsenal. You’re right about him needing an athletic partner; if you look at Bremen’s defensive record with Naldo and then without it’s clear that Mertesacker’s effectiveness can depend pretty heavily on his partner. However, Bremen played very differently to how Arsenal play. I don’t believe Mertesacker is cut out to play in a high defensive line, which is part of playing “the Arsenal way”. With Germany and Bremen he almost always had two reasonably conservative holders in front of him and neither team often utilised a particularly high line with him in their ranks. Germany have changed their philosophy a bit recently, but lately Mertesacker has been overlooked, for whatever reason.

  3. vernat1066 says:

    I think the BFG and Kos could be very good together, however I also think that we need Verm on the pitch so perhaps he needs to play in front of the back four as a defensive midfielder or front sweeper where his aggression and pace can help. It would mean if Gibbs or Santos bomb forward he could fill in on the left flank, otherwise I believe the team is too outwardly quiet and we need that overt aggression and fight that Verm brings. Good post and thanks for making some interesting points

  4. MattR says:

    I agree with you that the Mertersacker Koz defensive partnership is our best option but I can’t see it happening. With Vermaelen being given the Captain’s armband I think he’ll be the first name on the team sheet every week. That means that one of Koz or Mert will be left on the bench (probably Mert).

    Unless we change to the 3-5-2 formation 😉

    • Raw Vag says:

      I think 352 would work well for arsenal IN SOME games…
      ————-WS13————–
      ——–LK6-PM4-TV5———
      BS3-JW19-MA8-AS17-AS11
      ———-POD-OG12———–

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      That would be ideal and I blogged a few weeks back about how I thought that could work but I don’t think it’s likely.

  5. Lexington Gooner says:

    I agree that PM and LK are our best pairing but also like TV on the pitch, especially late in games. An issue with not starting TV is that currently he seems the likely successor to RVP as captain, though I’d prefer Sagna if I had a vote. If TV is the captain, he has to start, at the expense of PM unfortunately.

    I think that if TV and LK start, especially with Santos at left fullback, we need also to start a DM who seldom strays across the center line. With PM instead of TV, that requirement eases.

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      Wenger has said in the past that he doesn’t really attach too much importance to the armband so I would expect him to pick a player purely because they are the best choice not because they had the armband. Gilberto was once vice-captain and he didn’t get the armband when Henry left so until the new captain is confirmed I wouldn’t assume that it’s going to be Vermaelen. I understand that it would send out the wrong message if he wasn’t chosen but as I’ve stated, Wenger doesn’t attach much importance to who wears the armband. Vermaelen probably will start but that isn’t because of his status as vice-captain, that is because Wenger prefers to have a left footed player and a right footed player in central defence.

    • Raw Vag says:

      Arteta for captain, he should start every game in my opinion, or the young Pole in the goal?

  6. pedantic george says:

    I think Laurent is better than Kompany,I do,really.
    Also is prefer Santos to Gibbs.
    And Arteta for captain .So TV can be first change.
    Nice blog btw.And I like a blogger who replies to the replies.

  7. ologs says:

    Love the video at d end.I have always like mertesacker

  8. Nir says:

    I share the opinion of your dad. He have been following Per for long and he definitely knows one or two things more about him. Per is a very good defender buy pity not for Premiere league, at least not ahead of boss and TV5.

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      I think you misunderstand the point of that part of the blog. My dad was actually a very big fan of Mertesacker for years and was desperate for us to buy him.

  9. sam says:

    I surely can not be the only one that upon seeing Mertesacker line-up for Arsenal suffers from severe heart palpitations, anxiety attacks, and a generally feeling of impending doom? He was simply comical at times! And as for his German international record, he was part of a German team widely mocked (by Germans) for having the worse back four in the history of German football.

  10. Z-Whiz says:

    I am as big of a believer in Gibbs as the next and I think he does have great potential, but I would honestly rather see Kos and Mert in middle against better opponents with vermaelen and sanga outside. I still don’t full try Gibbs cuz he gets too attacking especially near the end of games when we’re winning. Vermaelen seems to only push up late in games when down and a goal is needed. Depending on the opponent though, I could see those 5 all getting plenty of solid time.

  11. how abut this formation

    ————-Chesney————
    Sagna—Mert—Kosc—Santos
    —————-Verm—————
    ———-Song—-Arteta———
    Walcott——-Pod———-Gerv

    i think santos is an underrated player. he is poor when tracking back to defend but what he lacks in defending he makes up for in attack. he and gervinho were a decent pairing last season when healthy. vermaelen can play as dm, his aggression and fearlessness could be used in the midfield. this way santos can creep forward and verm can track back and cover santos when needed. and since verm scores more often on non-set pieces, he can push forward and song can push back. what do you think?

    • of course this would defeat the purpose of a sounds back 5 if you have a left back who is not known to be a good defender. i guess you could try this with gibbs instead, who is more well rounded and has a much higher work rate. a humble athlete.

  12. SimP says:

    Great piece (probably because I agree with it)! I watched him pretty closely last year at the home games and have been banging on about his positional play for months. When my (other club-supporting) friends dismissed him with comments about his lack of pace my stock answer was to advise them to watch him closely because he doesn’t need to run – he’s usually in the right place to just stick out a foot and tackle.

    After one of the more depressing draws as the season tailed off (in the absence of Arteta) I got chatting with a couple of German lads who were on holiday in London and had managed to get tickets for the game. I ended up giving them a lift back to Paddington and in the car they asked me what I thought of Mertesacker. There was a slight tone in the delivery of the question and a pause at the end which suggested they were expecting a torrent of criticism or sarcasm. When I said I rated him the relief was palpable. One of the guys said that he’d played all those games for Germany and never been booked (I’ll stand to be corrected on that) which suggests that he doesn’t need to make desperate, last minute lunges, he stays on his feet and keeps his head.

    I agree his heading needs work and he’s not quite adapted yet. Did he expect to be a first choice for so much of last season? But season 2 beckons and (hopefully) he’ll get on the score sheet too.

  13. don says:

    this article is an abselote shocker full of rubbish this is how to goes for defenders: No.1= Thomas Vermaelen, No.2= Laurent Koscielny No.3= Per/Johan/Miguel (who could take over).

    • Daniel Cowan says:

      If you hate it that much why bother posting a comment? Like I said in the blog, if you think Vermaelen is our best “defender” (ie someone who actually defends) then you haven’t watched Mertesacker closely enough.

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