Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Nobody’s Per-fect

When a highly-populated hivemind has formed its collective opinion on a player, it usually takes something gargantuan from that player to change their headline, be it positive or negative. The struggle is greatest for defensive players; their more impressive work often goes unnoticed, or is merely added to a portfolio that can be ripped apart by one mistake that lead to an opposition goal. Finding an accurate assessment of a defender is a task far more difficult than it probably should be.

The composite view of Per Mertesacker had been sealed for many before he had even arrived at Arsenal. ‘Slow’, ‘lumbering’ and ‘all-round unsuitable’ for The Great Premier League. His early struggles merely added to the preconceived notions. This was ignoring the whole team being quite the mess at the time, especially on the defensive side, and that he had arrived after the season had already started and was settling into a new league. No, it had all been written.

It took a while, but Mertesacker brought down the vast majority of those who had doubted him. Some of the praise may have come through gritted teeth, but his talents deservedly became more widely accepted and appreciated. Arsenal’s eventually shifting to a deeper setup lent itself more to his abilities, and Laurent Koscielny proved a superb partner. Indeed, with the German’s guidance and a structure that allowed him to make his quick judgements far better, he greatly reduced his error count.

A functioning, helpful system and good protection are essentials for pretty much any defender to flourish (degrees, of course, vary). Finally, in that efficient 4-2-3-1, Mertesacker had his discerning aggressor, Koscielny had his leader and cleaner, and both had the strong, intelligent shield of Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey’s partnership. With the cover options at hand, one or two at very most could be removed at a time; but together, all four thrived.

The pre-existing ‘slow’ arguments about Mertesacker had since been readapted to ‘he needs Koscielny and his pace to cover for him’. It is not that Koscielny makes Mertesacker better, nor vice versa, but in each other they cover every necessary rung of defending, both doing what the other does not. Mertesacker’s impressive partnership with Jérôme Boateng through World Cup qualifying, who is stylistically similar to Koscielny, speaks to this, just as Koscielny’s own encouraging performances when paired with Raphaël Varane have, too.

The World Cup proved something of an exception. Mertesacker was originally paired with Mats Hummels in the back four that comprised of four centre backs. It generally worked quite well, but the two play in a very similar way. When the midfield was surpassed, neither attacked the ball and they became easy to push back. Jogi Löw reverted to Mertesacker-Boateng for the Algeria game, but in an unsuitably high line, and with an inexperienced centre back as the right back for the first 70 minutes. It was Mertesacker who was removed, just before Löw finally went back to a system that suited him (and Hummels, for that matter). A strange time.

Back to Arsenal, the setup there had, since March 2013, worked perfectly for him and all those around him. He returned home, a World Cup winner, without so much as a minute of pre-season. On top of that, he initially had a new partner with a style overly similar to his, who had fewer than 30 professional matches to his name. And from there, he was thrown into a new, unfamiliar system that pushed the line higher up and put the job of protection more on the one defensive midfielder; and in Arteta’s absence, Mathieu Flamini struggled with the job.

Everyone struggled defensively in the 4-1-4-1, and most of the forward players did too. Koscielny got injured just before the switch back to something more reminiscent of the 4-2-3-1, but with him out, Mathieu Debuchy’s injury pushing Calum Chambers to right back and Isaac Hayden also unavailable, the only option left was Nacho Monreal.

Monreal has actually mostly done very well as a centre back, circumstances considered. But his defensive style even at left back is more about standing off the forwards than attacking the ball and, like that pairing with Hummels, neither steps out and relieves the other of the immediate attacking pressure, meaning the midfield has to do more to protect it. Without Arteta, Arsenal have not really done so — most evidently against Hull, in the last half hour against Anderlecht and away to Swansea. Often it was a non-issue, but when the pressure did come and the midfield was found wanting, the back line was, too.

The disaster at Stoke showed this to a point, but with a few variations. Monreal’s injury pushed Chambers back into the centre, which in turn sent Mertesacker to the left side of the pairing. He was stationed on the left whenever he played alongside Bacary Sagna, and tended to do well, but at the Britannia, in the absence of a ‘ball-winner’ he seemed to try and take on the role himself, and his discomfort with it all was more than visible. Debuchy shares that ability to attack the ball, and although he is no long or short-term solution, he could potentially give a neat balance in lower-pressure games, if the need is there.

With Koscielny out for Liverpool and Chambers is available again, he will likely play centrally next to Mertesacker, with Debuchy at full back. If Arteta does indeed make it, that should help ease the strain on the defence somewhat, but if he does not then there is cause for concern again. That being said, the team collectively sit deep and, above all else, the midfield remain organised and sensible, keeping a minimum of space between themselves and the defence, they should come away unscathed.

As Mertesacker hits 30, Arsenal cannot keep relying on him as much as they have done for the last two years. Last season he was arguably the most important player in the team, both as the main enabler of the functioning deep line, and as the one who had no natural replacement. However, with Chambers in place of Vermaelen, Koscielny is now the one with no natural cover, increasing the Frenchman’s importance.

Signing players to be backups is rarely the best way to do things, but at this point, the ideal scenario has to be cast aside until at least the summer. The requirements are fairly clear: an ball-attacking left-sided centre back who preferably isn’t Champions League cup-tied.

Winston Reid is one who can do both roles, and is definitely available in January. The step up might be an issue at first, but within the Premier League he has shown himself to be more than comfortable. An alternative is Nicklas Moisander from Ajax, who is unfortunately cup-tied, but would be a useful signing. Someone Champions League-ready who is capable on both sides and in both styles, like Sokratis Papasathopoplous from Borussia Dortmund, would be perfect. But those players are both in short supply and high demand, and it being January only makes such a buy even more unrealistic.

There is far too much willingness to simply revert back to the initial generalisations on Mertesacker rather than make allowances for the state of affairs around him. Despite having no pre-season, he has played every single possible minute since returning (bar the League Cup) and the back line and general system have been anything but settled most of the time. Koscielny’s return and hopefully a new signing in January should allow him to just go back to doing his job.

And when he does, it should again become pretty clear that he is rather good at it.

Follow Michael on Twitter – @RoamingLibero

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