Mertesacker Is Still Our Top Defender
Back in July I wrote a piece on Mertesacker saying I believed Mertesacker to be our best defender (the definition is important so bear with me) and most disagreed. A few months into the season and things had changed and only the minority didn’t like him. Fast forward to now and we’re back to the majority not liking him. What do you think the odds will be that in a few months time everyone will love him again? I’d be willing to put a few quid down with Betfair Premier League on Per finishing as a top 5 rated centre-back at the end of the season.
Why do some Gooners fluctuate their opinions on a player so drastically? First Giroud was a top signing, then he was the next Chamakh and now he is a top player again (although some will still have you believe he is crap).
I preferred Cahill when we signed Mertesacker and was disappointed we signed Per instead of Gary. I soon came to prefer Per and was glad we signed him instead, and thought he was our best defender. I still think that today. I still think Mertesacker is our best defender. Gibbs and Jenkinson for me have been the stand-out performers but I still think that Mertesacker is our best defender.
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. And since when was pace a prerequisite of being a good footballer? I remember when people said Theo couldn’t play football and he was only a professional because he was fast!
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. Aside from a few individual errors from our back four this season (Mertesacker included) we’ve been generally quite solid and I think Mertesacker has been a huge part of that. I think some of our most shambolic defending has been when he hasn’t played. Koscielny and Vermaelen are fast players and should use (and mostly have) that pace to compliment Per when he plays. Arguably Per and Koscielny or Vermaelen is a better partnership than Koscielny and Vermaelen.
Players are meant to compliment each other so Per being exposed for pace is as much someone else’s fault as it is his. Being slow isn’t an individual error so it should/could be seen as a team weakness not a personal weakness but if the right-back and other centre-back are making up the pace then the weakness is covered and they can benefit from Per’s positioning, marshalling of the defence and defensive leadership.
A great example of players complimenting each other is Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell. 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 which didn’t always work. Sol Campbell had the positional sense of Per but also had the pace. Sadly Sol Campbell’s don’t grow on trees and we shouldn’t live in the past anyway.
Per a very tidy passer with excellent distribution and 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 can’t use his pace to recover from a bad move so he reads the game and he does it extremely well. 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 we 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 level of composure and elegance that Mertesacker showed in his first season and improvements he has shown this season has filled me with a great belief. I believe he can still improve in the air, which is his weakest area although he has a respectable number of successful defensive headers/headed clearances, and if he does that and continues 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.
Don’t give up on Mertesacker just yet or dismiss him as a bad player because such things have a nasty way of biting you in the arse if they prove you wrong or make you look like a horrible git if you say “I’ve always said he was shit”.
Stay positive and believe in this team. Wenger has done a good job to build a decent core under the radar and to resist buying players for the sake of it. This summer we should be able to build upon our core with quality that takes us to the next level and doesn’t just sustain us.
The new era is coming and I fully expect Mertesacker to be a part of it.
Thanks for reading and let me know if you agree/disagree! Please comment on this post, subscribe by email, share with friends and follow me on twitter (@thedanielcowan).