He might not get the plaudits he deserves but the German has become Arsenal’s first-choice centre-back and has finally shrugged off any queries as to why he’s attained so many international caps for Germany by transferring his form for Die Mannschaft into his performances in a red and white shirt.
The title of this article might well have raised a few eyebrows, given the criticism that Per Mertesacker has received this season but some perceptions don’t always correspond to reality.
Let us reminisce back to where it all started. Per Mertesacker joined Arsenal on transfer deadline day in 2011 as part of a mad rush by Arsene Wenger to increase the quality of his squad
Following an 8-2 battering at the hands of Manchester United at Old Trafford and several subsequent departures, it was clear that the Gunners needed defensive reinforcements.
The German international, in addition to Andre Santos, Mikel Areta and Park Chu-Young, set sail for the Emirates just in time to pick up the pieces, but it’s fair to say that despite a tough start in North London, Mertesacker is finally showing his true self to the Gunners faithful.
Despite his evident flaws, the German has been a key component in Arsenal’s defence this season and though he might not be one of the quickest centre-backs around, he has a very sharp football mind and is a brilliant reader of the game.
The statistics suggest the giant central defender is telling the truth he’s more than adapted himself to English football, he’s excelling in it.
A string of impressive season performances have seen the former Werder Bremen player leapfrog Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny as the de facto No. 1 central defender on the roster, and his overall play is improving by the game.
Mertesacker is no elite ball-winner. He’s too spindly to tear around the pitch looking to mug forwards and make them look silly. He defends with his positional sense.
What’s really impressive is his passing ability. Wenger’s fluid system requires ball-happy centre-halves to function properly, and the 96 cap man mountain has made huge strides in this area.
In terms of the other centre-back options at Arsenal, Mertesacker provides something different to both Vermaelen and Koscielny, both of whom are similar types of defenders in that they are pretty short, nimble footed, are good with the ball at feet and are prepared to challenge for the ball higher up the pitch.
Mertesacker is almost the exact opposite in that he sits back deep and reads the game, his major attribute being his positioning to counter possible attacks, making him a good foil for either Vermaelen and Koscielny. Though he is very slow by Premier League standards, he is nonetheless effective as Arsenal’s recent defensive record will show.
His height is another added bonus given his 6’7 frame and his ability in the air is a vital defensive skill for Arsenal given the general lack of height in the squad.
Mertesacker may well never be considered amongst the best in the League, his style of defending will never allow that. The cautious style is a direct comparison to the all-action style of the likes of Vertonghen and Thiago Silva but despite that, he is the key defender in Arsenal’s side and yes, probably the team’s best defender.
His consistency and reliability this season have been key factors in Arsenal finishing in a Champions League places and while he is not spectacular, he offers more to the Arsenal team than any other defender.
He might never get the plaudits he deserves and some will just never take to his style. But there is a reason that he is one of the first names on the team-sheet for Wenger.
The question for the manager next season will not be who to start at the back but who should start alongside Mertesacker at the back.
Photo via 2e14