Mertesacker, it’s time to say goodbye…. almost
Anyone who has visited this site before or follows me on Twitter will know that I am a massive Per Mertesacker fan and may be confused by the title. Let me start by saying I still firmly believe that Per is the best central defender we have, his reading of the game, his general positioning and his leadership is unmatched in the Arsenal back-line.
Contrary to popular opinion I think Mertesacker has been the foundation of the vastly improved defensive performances of Arsenal in recent years. Per will occupy a special place in my heart for his largely unappreciated efforts. He has provided me with some exquisite memories over the years. The FA Cup semi against Wigan, the goals against Tottenham, the back bumps with Theo, the countless times he has snuffed out danger with a flick of one of his lengthy legs, endless subtle movements into space to cut off passing and running angles or hundreds of expertly executed offside trap initiations. I cannot be more effusive in my praise for what I believe he means and has meant to this team.
At six and a half feet he can seem ungainly but is actually quite graceful and there is an elegance in his perfectly timed challenges, most of which go unremembered in favour of exaggerating the times he has been exposed for pace or failed to clear a high ball. Even when a defensive cock-up isn’t his fault, it’s his fault. When he is to share the blame he takes all the blame. A perfect example is the challenge that led to him being sent off against Chelsea at the weekend.
I absolve him of no guilt, it was a clumsy challenge and a rare brain fart from a usually intelligent and fastidious defender. It was indefensible in many ways but I shall try to give some context instead. It looks to me like he is expecting his colleagues to spring the offside trap which is maybe why he looks across to see if the offside is going to be given. I think that theory holds water because he holds his run ever so slightly to allow Costa to get goal side of him long before the ball is played. The lazy assumption that Mertesacker is slow and that’s why Costa ghosted past him seems too easy a stick to brandish – he’s not that dilatory.
Mertesacker uses stereotypical German efficiency to move forward at precisely the right time to catch the opponent offside, it’s sad to say that some of his colleagues aren’t as prescient as him and fail to support him in this endeavour more times than should be acceptable.
That aside, and still merely adding context not offering absolution, Mertesacker was put under unnecessary pressure in the lead up to that incident. Flamini and Ramsey had pushed far up the pitch, leaving a huge amount of space between them and the centre-backs. With both Monreal and Bellerin also high up the pitch Per and Laurent had no choice but to move up themselves and hold a high line.
A high line is always going to expose a slower player like Mertesacker which is why it rests on Koscielny to balance that partnership and offer rapid cover. On this occasion I don’t think he would have got near Costa had he opted to take on the keeper – as 99% of strikers would do in the situation – instead of tumbling for the freekick and card. This is not to suggest that Koscielny should share the blame but to offer the context that the balance in the partnership had broken down and it left us exposed.
Now, it is this balance and the potential for it to have more moments like that which has led to this article. For every great player, and even the average ones that make up the squad, there needs to be a plan of succession and it is my belief that we should expedite the succession plan for Per or explore other options within the squad.
That is not to suggest a Gabriel/Koscielny partnership – I am no fan of this idea. I would be more in favour of a Gabriel/Mertesacker partnership or a new player/Gabriel or Koscielny partnership.
Koscielny and Mertesacker has worked so well because the former was able to compensate for the latter’s pace and the latter brought leadership, positioning and a superior ability to read the game to the table. Recent incident aside the latter’s ability for that has not diminished and I have always strongly felt that Mertesacker’s drop off would be less pronounced and far slower than that of Koscielny. Rapid recovery defenders like Koscielny pitch at a much steeper angle than a player who never had much pace to begin with.
I’ve seen many brain farts from Koscielny this season and he seems to swing from looking world-class to washed up in a game or two and then back the other way. Mertesacker largely, excuse the pun, looks the same player so the easiest answer would be to replace Koscielny with Gabriel and have them forge a similar dynamic. I would be in favour of this but it’s a short-term solution and throws up other potential problems.
Calum Chambers is supposed to be the heir apparent for Per but I fear he is being utilised in too many positions and getting too little game time to develop into that player any time soon. I believe he has the attributes but as our fourth choice defender he’s years away from where we would need him to be to be a worthy successor to Per. Even if he were our first choice from the bench or in rotation I believe he’s at least 3 seasons away from being ready to take over and I’m not sure Per has three seasons left in him as absolute first choice.
Whether it be Calum or a new player signed in a season or two they will need a period of adjustment to the squad and then to Gabriel for them to replicate the best of Mertesacker and Koscielny which just delays the necessary and puts us in the potential situation of an exploitable defence during a period we would hope to be exerting our dominance in the league.
It’s for that reason I believe the time has come to bring in Per’s successor. Our top target for the summer should be to find a player who can read the game as well as Per and then we can us the 2016/17 season to gradually hand over the reins. Ideally that player would possess greater pace which would extend the Arsenal career of Laurent Koscielny.
If this comes to pass I still strongly believe Per will outstay Laurent at Arsenal because he will fulfil the Keown role of elder, dependable statesman. Laurent will quickly be moved on when his position as starter is under threat as Toure was before him.
It’s almost time to say goodbye to Per and it’s of the utmost importance the transition is handled properly.
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