It was the first real test of Shkrodan Mustafi’s character, but instead of wallowing in despair at the rough treatment he being was given by Burnley’s big centre-forward, Sam Vokes, he saw the funny side. Penalised for holding onto the shirt of Vokes, he protested that it was actually he that was being backed into – and demonstrated it by performing the act on the referee.
Mustafi had another flashpoint with Vokes late in the game, when he was felled by an elbow that opened up a small wound on his forehead. But again, he got up quickly and was then involved in starting that attack that helped get Arsenal earn a late 1-0 win over Burnley.
The tussle with Vokes was one of the most engrossing feature in an otherwise dull encounter with Burnley, which Mustafi passed with flying colours. He has settled into the rhythm of the Premier League now and the battle showed just how much he enjoys the physical side of the game.
Indeed, it seems to be something he relishes otherwise why would a centre-back who just about reaches six-foot try to out-jump a player who is comfortably taller than him? But Mustafi more than held his own and certainly, the battle with Vokes serves to highlight the type of player he is.
Mustafi likes to play on the front foot, just like his partner Laurent Koscielny, as he constantly looks to break out of the backline to try and intercept the ball before the striker. In that respect, he’s also not too dissimilar to Per Mertesacker who had license to attack the ball, wary that his pace would be exposed if he didn’t. In Arsenal’s system, Mustafi offers the best of both worlds. Although he’s slightly shorter than your typical centre-back, at 1.84cm, but his leap allows him to compete with almost any forward.
He’s great with the ball too as he showed especially at the end of the game against Burnley when he tried to make things happen by fizzing the ball between the lines. Each time Arsenal had it at the backline; he would stretch wide across the pitch with his arms up looking to receive the ball, because already he had seen the picture.
Of course, this serves to highlight that Mustafi is the typical Arsene Wenger centre-back and the scouting detailed in the book, The Deal by Jon Smith, was to ensure Arsenal got the right player. That means that Arsene Wenger could be meticulous to the point of dithering but the numbers, especially interceptions, showed Mustafi suited the style.
“Arsenal’s operational model is based on an American corporate style,” Smith told Evening Standard. “I think StatDNA takes time to churn out the information they need. Of course, they can monitor players all year round but an individual’s statistical data changes with every game. That probably slows the system down.
“Fans have got to understand that while we all grow up with tribal loyalties in our hearts, clubs are businesses now. Arsenal is the archetypal co-habiting club in sport and business. It crosses that divide. It may be a bit lugubrious in its football dealings sometimes but that’s because it is a business. In the end, by signing the players they did, Arsenal’s summer dealings were in the top five of all clubs.”
Arsene Wenger certainly believes he has got the right player but is keen to temper excitement. He says that Mustafi and Koscielny “have a good relationship and it bodes well, but you have to be careful, because he’s so young.” The Gabriel signing, based on how impressive he was intercepting the ball and improved passing numbers once Villarreal changed style, serves as a cautionary tale. But like Gabriel, Arsenal supplemented the information crunched by the software by getting to know the player and Mustafi certainly had the resilience and commitment to indicate he could be a success. By his own admission, the last season at Valencia was tough, average even, but the experience can only toughen a person.
Mustafi’s impact so far admittedly in a small sample of games, raises questions about where Per Mertacker fits, especially with his contract expiring soon (and Rob Holding and Gabriel waiting in the wings). The most difficult moment for a player to come back into a team from a lengthy absence is when it becomes more dynamic and the partnership between Koscielny and Mustafi is just that. Both love to attack the ball, though with Mustafi more the aggressor now, Koscielny can naturally hang back and survey play. Mustafi is also proactive when progressing play from the back, lessening the reliance on Koscielny who last season was often tasked with playing the splitting pass out due to the curious way Arsenal like to build play.
Of course, dynamism matters less with centre-backs as it’s all about partnerships. Yet the issue, as Mikel Arteta drew on when he left the club, is accepting that you are probably not good enough to be first choice anymore. Mertesacker, of course, is far from this position – his words suggest he’s ready to fight for his place – but that feeling of not quite being able to offer that bit more might hang over the player.
Further up the pitch, the evolution of Arsenal’s style raises similar questions. Olivier Giroud could find his place in the side marginalised as Wenger transplants a more mobile game. It’s not just Alexis as the false nine of sorts; the wingers, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi, often come inside in the build up, what Jurgen Klopp calls getting “behind the midfield” and that has aided to make The Gunners more fluid. It gets Arsenal closer to Wenger’s preferred formation of having “one behind the striker, and one or two on the flanks who come inside. I always feel that if you have players who can deliver the decisive ball in all areas of the pitch, you have many more chances of being creative. If it’s only focused on one central part, where it’s usually more concentrated, you have more space on the flanks to create.”
At the same time, it’s hard to come to firm conclusions that this is the way forward for Arsenal. The current set-up seems to rely on having certain conditions present for it to work most smoothly – runners in behind and defences sitting off Arsenal when they pass the ball in midfield. It’s perhaps significant that Wenger hasn’t made any unforced changes to his side since the 3-1 win against Watford in the league and Europe except Mustafi for Holding. And the Burnley game showed, just like against PSG and Southampton, when teams press in the middle, it can put off Arsenal’s passing game.
The false nine movements of Alexis have worked because of the layered questions it asks opposition defences: push up to meet him and run the risk of exposing the space behind, or drop back 5-10m only to defend space instead of the man on the ball. In any case, if the midfield screen in front doesn’t fulfil its functions, then Arsenal are likely to have a field day.
Still, it’s the affliction of the modern game to demand perfection. Arsenal have recovered from their slow start and with each win, just like the case of Mustafi, seem to be going from strength to strength.