This was written for and first featured on TheShortFuse.com.
Per Mertesacker is a highly impractical man. He is the same height as a standard doorframe and has the acceleration of a cruise ship. With his colossal frame, his running style – which is oddly reminiscent of a mechanical tape measure being reeled in after having been stretched to its limits – and his resemblence to a tripod being knocked over by a gust of wind when making slide tackles, it takes some time not to be terrified by his awkward style.
Just as we took some adjusting to him, he took some adjusting to Arsenal and the league as a whole. His early days were hardly error fraught but there were some notable instances: namely the poor games against Blackburn, Chelsea and Norwich. Unfortunately for Mertesacker, these games were live on tv here, so many of those who saw him struggle ran this image of him. The reputation that was created here has since preceded him in the eyes many neutrals, and even some Arsenal fans – few of whom still remain.
Mertesacker is phenomenally underrated by the stupid and the easily-led. It’s easy to look at Mertesacker and see a slow, clumsy-looking defender and simply stick with that impression, as so many have done. A lot of Mertesacker’s better work does go unnoticed due to the fact that Arsenal are very rarely under the proverbial cosh, and so the maintenance of order and stability is taken more as a given. His positioning is habitually perfect, negating many of the problems his lack of pace causes.
“Centre back is difficult for people who come from abroad, it was a bit of a shock for him, but this season he has come back very fit, well prepared, and of course knew what the expectations were for him and did extremely well. This season especially, as you [the media] have noticed, he has been outstanding. The criticism was always completely unjust. It was overboard, we always say you have to deal with that.” – Arsène Wenger
In some ways, Mertesacker epitomises Johan Cruijff’s idea that “The sports press often confuses speed with insight. See, if I start running slightly earlier than someone else, I seem faster”. He is a fantastic organiser within the defence and his calmness spreads its way through the defensive unit and the team as a whole. His reading of the game is pristine, so much so that it is relatively rare to see him forced to go to ground to make tackles. He heads off most potential danger before it can become a cause for concern. So much of football relies on timing: Mertesacker’s is sublime. Many opposing forwards have found that it’s tough to outrun someone who knows their next move before even they’ve even made it.
The initial struggles of his first year have stuck in the minds of many far more than sustained good form from around October 2011 onwards, until his season-ending injury (with a brief lapse during The Great Full Back Crisis of January 2012). As he settled down, the team similarly settled with him, and while Thomas Vermaelen was injured, he built up his partnership with Laurent Koscielny. The Frenchman took deserved plaudits, but it was and is thanks to Mertesacker that we see Koscielny perform as well as he does. After the Spurs loss at the start of October, Arsenal lost just one of the 12 games they played up until the turn of the year (away at Manchester City).
As the full back options began to fall away one by one he, with Koscielny, held the backline together admirably. That was until Mikel Arteta joined all the full backs on the ever-growing injury list and an illness-struck and visibly uncomfortable Mertesacker struggled with the rest of the depleted side.
“Maybe he is less elegant and the visual impression is less pleasing, but he is efficient and intelligent.” – Arsène Wenger
The season-ending ankle ligament injury the German picked up on the especially battered potato field at the Stadium of Light was doubly unfortunate for him, as it coincided with the return of all the full backs. His loss was instantly felt: in the three games immediately after the injury, they conceded 8 goals, including the infamous 0-4 collapse away to AC Milan. The incredible disarray and panic that embraced the Arsenal defence that night illustrates just how greatly needed Mertesacker is.
The injury curtailed any selection anxieties Arsène Wenger would have once he had all his defenders fit again until the start of the new season. Common logic dictated that the new captain Vermaelen would be a certified started and that coming off such an impressive 11/12, Kosicelny would be his partner. But this is Arsenal; we can plan as intricately as we like (sometimes) but the world will still find a way to screw us over.
In this case it actually worked in our favour, to a point. Koscienly’s injury kept him out of the first two games of the season, allowing Mertesacker the chance to re-earn his place. As part of the so-called ‘Steve Bould Effect’, the defence was sitting deeper and with Arteta and Abou Diaby in front of it, it was better protected. Mertesacker shone brightest, holding the whole operation together with a tranquil disposition that had not been nearly as prominent in his first season.
“Perhaps Per Mertesacker [is underrated] because people think he looks tall and slow, but he’s a very intelligent player, clever and always trying to help his teammates. He’s always training hard and keeping up the good work. I think he’s much better than people think.” – Mikel Arteta
This was the main difference between the Mertesacker of 11/12 and 12/13. In the former, he had been thrown into a team in a mess with a back four which was rarely the same from one week to the next. Many of those later made to fill in at full back needed extra protection as they were often not playing in their natural positions. All at the same time, he was having to adjust to the league and its style, while the midfield in front of him had to go through a similar process of learning itself. The only instances of trouble Mertesacker has had this season are when he has had his control of the situations at hand taken from him, usually by the defensive line being pushed unnecessarily high.
Vermaelen looked, at first, to be reveling and sharing in the newly-found tranquility in the defence, but began to lose his way. The issues with the balance in the defence are far better explored in this – in very short summary, Vermaelen’s overexuberance combined with Mertesacker’s lack of mobility led to bad things. Real bad things. Alongside the cleverer and better Koscielny, the balance is perfect. In being able to cover what the other cannot, they bring the best from eachother. Their record together says all it needs to: they played 9 of the final 10 games together and in those Arsenal conceded just four times. One from a direct free kick, two penalties and just one – when already 3-0 up against Reading – from open play.
“Per is a very good player. He reads the ball well. He is clever, attacks the ball and wins headers whereas I can go behind and be quick and cope with the long balls. He is good technically so he is good for the defence. Per is calm on the pitch. He is good for me, he uses his experience, this helps me, and he helps the team.” – Laurent Koscielny
Despite having started 33 league games (and coming off the bench for one other), he committed just 12 fouls all season. His only proper mistakes: Spurs at home, Swansea away in the FA Cup and the red card against West Brom all came from the aforementioned occasional issue of the defence pushing excessively far up the pitch. His lack of pace only becomes a problem if Arsenal make it one and for most of the season, it was no problem at all.
He will still have his undue detractors but their numbers are ebbing away. The willfully blind will clutch onto their prejudices and refuse to climb from the holes into which they have thrown themselves, but those who watch Mertesacker and those who know will continue to be proved right over the years to come. In his own words, he has “become an integral part of the team, and earned respect.” Arsenal finally have the defensive stabiliser they have needed for so long.