Mertesacker Is Still Our First Choice Defender
Every week I read a new article about how an Arsenal player’s career is over and Wenger is looking to move them on in the summer and were it not for Theo Walcott, Per Mertesacker would be the person about whom most of these articles are written.
I’m going to verbosely, possibly even garrulously, explain why I don’t think Per is going anywhere but if you’re short on time I’ll summarise it thus; Mertesacker is our defensive leader and the view that Wenger wants to replace him with Gabriel holds not one single shred of evidence.
Much like the Schneiderlin rumours I believe it’s more a case of what certain people want rather than what is actually happening.
Per Mertesacker lacks pace, let’s not be shy about that, but like humanity over the course of history he has evolved and adapted to compensate for that. His positioning and reading of the game is almost unrivalled in the Premier League. A step to the right here, a shimmy to the left there (sounds like the start of a great dance routine) is all it takes for Mertesacker to more often than not take up a position that snuffs out danger before it even kindles.
Mertesacker has shown over the course of his Arsenal career that he, like any defender, performs best in a settled defence and when he has the right protection in front of him – thank you, Francis. He also performs well with a pacey recovery defender like Koscielny – no surprises there.
When Gabriel joined the club it was considered only a matter of time before he displaced Mertesacker and once Gabriel started in the FA Cup people were convinced they could hear the nails being hammered into Per’s coffin. How shocked they must have been to see Gabriel rotated out and Mertesacker starting in the very next game.
Gabriel starting his first Arsenal game could not possibly have been to give Per a rest and to let the manager see him in action in a relatively low risk game. No, it was definitely because Mertesacker is error prone, slow and not worthy of the starting line-up. Except it wasn’t.
Mertesacker game back from the World Cup looking weary, and due to our lack of defensive cover wasn’t afforded the rest he should have had. Despite many transfer rumours and the promise to replace Vermaelen no reinforcements were brought in until January. He was clearly not at his best and an ever changing defence certainly didn’t help him get back into physical and mental shape. Unsurprisingly his critics started to come out of the woodwork again.
Like any player, Mertesacker is not infallible and some of the criticisms directed toward him are fair however I feel he is far too often unfairly maligned for the mistakes of others and his defensive partner, Laurent Koscielny, who is by no means immune from criticism, benefits from the deflection of blame and responsibility of a lot of his own errors to Mertesacker who is then unjustly chided for it.
It is bizarre that a player of Mertesacker’s ability, experience and influence is such an easy target for the finger pointers and more so that he shoulders the bulk of the responsibility for errors made by others.
Against Reading Arsenal were twice lucky to have Reading players called offside when they were clearly on. The social media reaction was to claim how lucky Mertesacker was because he would have been killed for pace. Even without video replays it was clear to see that the team sprung an excellent offside trap as Mertesacker, Debuchy and Gibbs moved up in unison whilst Koscielny took a step back a fraction too early.
Both times Koscielny played their man onside and with a keener linesman we could have been caught out. I have no doubt that had that been the case Mertesacker would have been blamed for being exposed for pace. Yet it would not have been his fault at all. Positionally and tactically he was inch perfect. The line was let down by Koscielny and this happens a lot.
Another example is the Wayne Rooney goal in the FA Cup quarter final. If you want to blame individuals you cannot look past Koscielny but again Mertesacker was blamed despite Rooney being ‘Koscielny’s man’.
Don’t misunderstand me, Koscielny is a fantastic player and I am not suggesting we shift the blame to him instead. I do think, however, that we need to recognise his positional limitations and truly appreciate that the Mertesacker and Koscielny partnerships works because they complement the other’s weaknesses and strengths.
It’s pretty evident that Wenger believes so too as he continues to play them together when Koscielny has had an uncomfortable Achilles injury – which may go some way to explaining some of his offside errors – and Gabriel continues to play the odd game here and there.
I don’t think Gabriel is Mertesacker’s replacement any more than I think he is Koscielny’s replacement. I think Wenger has purchased a player who can challenge both players for a starting spot and who is young enough to eventually be the first name in defence in a few years time.
That said, I think Koscielny has more to worry about from Gabriel than Mertesacker does. Wenger is famously in favour of a left-sided centre-back being left-footed, which Koscielny is not, and he has also shown a preference for a partnership of a sage reader of the game and an expeditious recovery player.
It is quite early days but Gabriel seems closer to the latter than the former and that makes him a direct competitor for Koscielny. That said, Koscielny has proven himself something of a hybrid which made him much more valuable than Vermaelen and Gabriel could prove himself, or indeed may already have proven himself to the manager, to be similarly built which may explain why he has looked so comfortable with Koscielny in the few games they have played together in a way Vermaelen never did.
Mertesacker announced his international retirement after the World Cup which should extend his club career. Any doubts about his pace should be allayed by the fact he never had much to begin with. Players who rely on pace tend to have shorter careers because it is often the first thing to go. The Mertesacker’s of the world made careers in spite of their lead-legged sprinting ability so a drop in pace is unlikely to make a huge impact on their career above natural ageing.
The game may have moved on from the days of Bould and Adams but it is worth remembering that that partnership delivered a domestic double and one half of it went on to form the aforementioned Wenger preferred type of partnership to deliver another double four years later.
I see Mertesacker at the heart of Arsenal’s defence for at least one more season and him being an integral part of the squad for at least two to three more after that.
If you were in any doubt as to what Wenger thinks about Mertesacker’s position in the squad you only have to look at his press conference quote on Gabriel.
He’s ready [to step up]. He came on in the FA Cup semi-final and I think if Per is not ready, Gabriel will start.
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