Per Mertesacker has drawn criticism from increasingly larger sections of Arsenal supporters this season, not that that is particularly shocking; it is rare that an Arsenal player will not be criticised by supporters at some point in his time at the club. The German World Cup winner, affectionately known as the “BFG” (let’s pretend it stands for “Big Friendly German”), has gone from fan-favourite status in the past years to something of a scapegoat for a handful of Arsenal’s poor results earlier on in the season.
Even Wojciech Szczesny’s father has criticised the German, claiming he showed the “agility of a rhinoceros” during Arsenal’s defeat at Southampton, which prompted the Arsenal goalkeeper’s being dropped from the starting line-up . One may accuse Arsenal fans and Mr Szczesny of being unfair, as the former in particular are known for being fickle, but it is very clear that, now Mertesacker is in his thirties and the twilight of his career, he does not have too long left in Arsenal’s first team.
His first season at Arsenal was successful up to a point: he put in some fantastic performances, particularly away to Marseille in the Champions League, but some were worried that he’d be exposed for his lack of pace all too often, and suffered a long-term injury in the second half of the season.
In his second season, he came into his own: he played 34 out of 38 Premier League games; scored his first Arsenal goal against Tottenham; and, towards the end of the season, formed a special defensive partnership with Laurent Koscielny as Arsenal won eight and drew two of their last ten games and pipped Tottenham to fourth place.
It seemed that Arsenal had found a near-perfect defensive pairing to stand them in good stead for years to come. Mertesacker and Koscielny compliment each other perfectly: the former has fantastic positioning, but lacks pace; the latter has pace in abundance and makes endless brilliant tackles, but has been caught out of position on occasion, though in recent times that area of his game has improved. Therefore Mertesacker is able to cover for Koscielny’s occasional positional lapse, giving him more freedom to follow the ball more and make some stunning challenges; Koscielny helps Mertesacker out on the pace side of things.
In the 2013-14 season, the partnership reached full penetration. The two rarely missed a match, effectively ending Thomas Vermaelen’s career, and put in some staggering performances as Arsenal stayed at the top of the league until the second half of the season—injuries curtailed their chances of winning the league—and ended their nine year wait for a trophy by winning the FA Cup. Mertesacker in particular was excellent: he was named in the Premier League team of 2013; captained the side on occasion; and scored the late equaliser in Arsenal’s tense FA Cup semi-final win over Wigan Athletic. Many Arsenal fans began to compare him to Tony Adams; many believed that he would be able to continue performing at this level long into his thirties.
It is a shame that Per Mertesacker did not sign for Arsenal two years earlier, as their respective title challenges in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons did not come to full fruition due to lack of quality defensive options. The German will always be remembered fondly by Arsenal fans after he leaves, and had his moment in the sun when he scored that crucial goal against Wigan, but there is a chance that, had he played in those two seasons, he could already have earned heroic status in North London.
This season has been much more difficult for Mertesacker. That is not to say that he has been appalling, but he has not performed at the level of last season, and seemed exposed without Koscielny whilst the Frenchman was injured. He incurred the wrath of Arsenal fans really rather badly after Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at Anfield, where he appeared to cower out of the way of Martin Skrtel’s late header which lost Arsenal two points.
Since then, with the return of Koscielny, he has performed at a much higher level, but many believe that he does not have long left as Arsenal’s first-choice defender. Indeed, the signing of Gabriel from Villarreal suggests a possible replacement, and the Brazilian’s debut against Middlesbrough was promising to say the least. Is Per Mertesacker’s time at Arsenal up?
In his defence, conditions have been much tougher this season: Mathieu Flamini has been very poor, and whilst he was playing regularly in the first team, offered little protection for the defence; Mertesacker had to look after Calum Chambers whilst Koscielny was injured, and the youngster, though promising, has a lot to learn as he adapts to the centre-back position. Since Koscielny’s and Francis Coquelin’s return, he has looked much more assured when he has played, and put in a stirring effort away to Manchester City. However, there is no question that Arsenal can do better than him.
Now that they have paid off their stadium debt, Arsenal have a lot of money available to them. Certainly, they are very able to attract players of top quality: Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez both signed within a year of each other, and the Gunners are no longer to accept mediocrity representing their strongest side. It is time for the club to show some serious ambition; much has been spoken of a desire to win league and Champions League titles, and players of the highest calibre are needed to win those types of competitions.
This season, Mertesacker has not produced the performances of a Premier League champion, though he has put in the performances of at least a strong backup defender. Now that Gabriel is on the sign, perhaps it would be right for him to play a secondary role in the squad, helping Calum Chambers to develop, and filling in for Gabriel and Koscielny when needed. However, if Arsenal are to show serious ambition, they should sign a truly world-class centre-back and let Mertesacker play first team football elsewhere. That would be ruthless, but that was how the club was run in the Invincibles era: those not up to standard were shifted off pretty quickly.
The defender I would most like to see playing for Arsenal is none other than Diego Godín. The Uruguayan was crucial in Atletico Madrid’s La Liga title and run to the Champions League final last year, and, alongside Koscielny, would form an even more formidable defensive pairing than the Mertesacker-Koscielny partnership at its peak. He himself may be in his thirties, but it seems he will be able to keep this level up long into his thirties like Arsenal fans hoped Mertesacker would.
Having said this, it is unlikely that Arsenal, having signed Gabriel, will make another big name signing in the same position only a few months later. Moreover, it is unlikely that Arsène Wenger would want to sign a player so advanced in his career, so it is much more plausible that Gabriel will take over from Mertesacker, and the German will stay on as a squad player for a little longer. As mentioned earlier, Mertesacker would be a very strong backup, but it seems a shame to force him not to play much first team football.
In conclusion, I want Arsenal to sign Diego Godín, but then again, I want Arsenal to sign an endless list of world-class players. It is much more realistic that Arsenal will allow a defensive pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel Paulista to develop under the watchful eye of Per Mertesacker, whilst he helps the promising Calum Chambers to reach his full potential.
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