The Continuing Growth of Per MertesackerPosted: October 2, 2012
Modern football is entrenched in short-termism. A new signing is given all of five games to prove himself, after which he will have had his reputation made. At Arsenal, we have seen both sides of this in recent years. There is the lingering smell that is Sébastien Squillaci, who was considered a solid centre back after his early games. Yes, really. With the benefit of hindsight, this seems all the more ridiculous when juxtaposed with Per Mertesacker. Maligned by the foolish and the unaware alike after his first few performances, he has completely overturned the perception of him from some areas of the crowd.
His start was not the easiest and he did struggle, but only a fool would write off a defender with 75 German caps (now 82). His main misfortune came from the fact that his poorer games (Blackburn, Norwich and Chelsea – all away) were televised, and so those who saw the difficulty he was having all quickly became experts on him. Shortly after he settled he became instrumental in Arsenal’s post-crisis recovery, before succumbing to injury on the potato field of a pitch at the Stadium of Light.
He started the 12/13 season well paired with Thomas Vermaelen, in a settled backline (with Carl Jenkinson and Kieran Gibbs as the full backs) which kept three clean sheets in a row and conceded just two in five overall – one a penalty, the other a mistake by Wojciech Szczesny. The very, very tall German looked pristine, his perennial calmness transmitting through to the rest of the back four. The biggest challenge to confront him was Luis Suárez, a player against whom many expected him to struggle, given his speed and agility, but with the exception of one clever turn from the Uruguayan at the start of the game, he was unable to get past him.
His best game came away against Manchester City, where he put in an outstanding performance. Against a forward line of Sergio Agüero and Edin Dzeko, with the creative talents of Yaya Touré and David Silva behind them, Mertesacker was near-perfect, making a brilliant seven interceptions, not committing a single foul and completing 87% of his passes (46/53). City did not provide a great threat, and Mertesacker was a big part of keeping them at bay.
It was therefore a big surprise that he was moved to the bench for the following week’s game at home to Chelsea. The thinking behind it was clear: against the quick Chelsea forward line, the fast Koscielny was arguably more adept for the task. Although it baffled for many reasons: namely Mertesacker’s aforementioned good performances, Koscielny’s relatively poor game at Eastlands (despite his goal) and the ability Mertesacker showed to handle more mobile, agile players.
And it did not go as planned. Koscielny was far from his best and the game was lost. The game was ideal for Mertesacker: Arsenal defended fairly deep, while Chelsea did not look to play with Torres running at their defence. Mertesacker’s finest qualities are his positioning, his reading of the game, his intelligence and his calmness. Koscielny is a more athletic player, but is also a strong reader of the game. He came in at third in Arsenal’s 40m speed tests in the spring behind Theo Walcott and Benik Afobe. He often recovers from being out of position with his pace.
On top of this, the Frenchman is more comfortable on the ball. Arsenal will face many games this season in which they will be playing against ‘parked buses’. In these games they will look far more to dominate possession and to push their opponents further back. With this, they themselves will take on a higher line of defence, potentially leaving them more susceptible to counter attacks, thus utilising further Koscielny’s speed and aptitude in possession.
Mertesacker, with his height, is ideal against opponents who will seek to bombard Arsenal aerially (which is not to say Koscielny is by any means ill-suited to them) and in others when they are pushed deeper by stronger opponents, as they were at City; here, his abilities are best shown. Vermaelen, in his captain’s notes in the programme for the Southampton game, spoke of what an important influence Mertesacker had become on the pitch as a ‘talker’ and an ‘organiser’; two things Arsenal could have done with on Saturday.
Arsène Wenger has made clear that his preferred pairing is Vermaelen and Koscielny, but that could be set to change if Mertesacker continues how he has started. He has developed a strong understanding with the new captain and their respective traits complement one another well and give the team a solid balance. It could end up being very harsh on Koscielny, who is a magnificent defender, but with Vermaelen a certified starter, the remaining place is Mertesacker’s to lose, for the time being.