Sven Mislintat’s little black book has delivered another Greek centre-back. After the January signing of Konstantinos Mavropanos, Arsenal have now added Sokratis Papastathopoulos to their defensive ranks. The defender joins on a three-year deal from Borussia Dortmund.
So, what exactly have we bought? The best word to sum up Sokratis would be ‘uncompromising’. He is a typically aggressive centre-half, who does not ever hold back. He certainly won’t be bullied in England, a common fear when defenders arrive in the Premier League. Sokratis is much more likely to be the bully and the very biggest games have often brought the best out of him during his five years at Borussia Dortmund.
Just ask Robert Lewandowski who, especially in matches in Dortmund, regularly struggled to make an impact as Sokratis was tenaciously up against him anytime the ball moved forward.
Above all else, the Greek is excellent at winning challenges both on the ground and in the air. He relishes directly facing an opponent and excels in one-on-one duels. Sokratis will almost always win the ball, timing tackles excellently and making full-blooded challenges without a moment of hesitation.
This can, of course, be an issue. Sokratis is so focused on winning the ball back that he ends up dragged out of position to engage with players in non-threatening positions and turns a blind eye to off-the-ball movement. Whether or not he wins the ball is not an issue but he gets attracted to it when it goes out wide or is played in front of him.
By playing on the front-foot so determinedly, he can ignore the the spaces he leaves and isn’t always aware of the risks of leaving his team-mates exposed. Strikers who drop into midfield and flick the ball on or turn quickly can easily drag the defender out of position, leaving a gap in the backline for their teammates to exploit. The same goes when the ball moves out wide, with Sokratis always eager to engage an opponent on the flank whether or not he is covered in the middle. That approach does come off at times (and looks excellent when it does) but last season it was, more often than not, to the detriment of the team.
When playing with Mats Hummels – a similarly front-footed defender – Sokratis failed to adapt his game at all and Dortmund were left remarkably exposed. If he can’t recognise the need to change according to his environment then the prospect of pairing him with Shkodran Mustafi is not necessarily an appealing one.
A quick look at the numbers illustrate just how aggressive the Greek is in his play and, to be fair, how successful he is when he gets things right. He won more tackles per 90 minutes (1.84) than any of Arsenal’s regular central defenders last season but also committed far more (1.41) fouls. That’s compared to one foul per 90 from Mustafi and 0.6 would per 90 from Koscielny. The pattern continues when compared to Sokratis’ Dortmund partners from last season and to other leading Premier League defender such as Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi.
Vertonghen – winning ‘only’ one tackle per 90 minutes and committing 0.59 fouls – is comfortably one of the best centre-backs in the world now, especially in a pressing side. The numbers go some way to painting the picture that Sokratis’ approach is more aggressive and focused on winning the ball back than it perhaps should be. Winning relatively few tackles doesn’t make a player a bad defender but Sokratis’ defending and his performances are very much defined by how many tackles he can win. It’s a very tight line to walk.
The new signing also has a welcome cynical side – something recently referred to on this website as bastardosity – that Arsenal could certainly do with a sprinkling of. There is, of course, the risk of being punished. Though Sokratis is often tempted into snide challenges or shirt pulling at set-pieces he does struggle to mask those actions.
Among his endearing quirks are a penchant for going down and getting a little attention, not unlike David Ospina or (RIP) Olivier Giroud. That’s something we’re used to but it’s also a little odd to see a grunting centre-back pull those stunts. We can also get used to some risky shirt-pulling in both boxes and some – to be fair – very comical shrugging after committing a blatant foul.
Papa is leaving and I want to remember one of his best moments with a BVB jersey: almost killing Daniel Caligiuri and thinking it wasn't big deal. pic.twitter.com/uizLs0n43F
— JF Moore 🇧🇷 (@sanktburki) May 28, 2018
Turning to Sokratis’ abilities on the ball, Unai Emery has also already talked about his desire to have possession and play out from the back. Opposition sides in the Bundesliga would tend to mark his partner so Dortmund were forced to build up through Sokratis, whose technique is average and decision making on the ball is sloppy. His passing is often predictable, leaving team- mates in trouble even though he himself completes most of his passes.
Having said that, Sokratis is a surprisingly effective dribbler and (not unlike Laurent Koscielny) will often drive into spaces in front of the defence with the ball if opposition sides are too passive and leave a space for him to move into. From those slightly more advanced areas the issue that he’s not a great passer is removed, though he can sometimes kill the momentum by playing a square ball out to the touchline.
Turning 30 this summer, this is yet another signing for the short-term and one that has to work out immediately. One wonders if Sokratis has been targeted for his experience and whether or not the club would have considered signing him had Laurent Koscielny not suffered a serious Achilles injury in early May. Concerningly, his leadership skills were called into question late last year after Peter Bosz left his job as Dortmund head coach.
“More was expected of Sokratis,” Bosz’s assistant Hendrie Kruzen said in an interview. “He was the vice captain and had to show leadership qualities but he let us down instead.”
Sokratis has presumably been targeted to act as a leader in the dressing room so an improvement will certainly have to be made there. The likes of Chambers, Holding, and countryman Mavropanos will need an older centre-back to guide them through tricky games and help them develop. That will be one of Sokratis’ biggest tasks but he is not usually the sort to shirk responsibility, at least not on the field.
Though this piece may come across as negative (please don’t forget the positives mentioned at the beginning!), his five years at Borussia Dortmund were largely good and, in fairness, it’s hard to say how much the managerial situation at the club and the overall poor form throughout the team affected him. Last season may have marked the start of a decline for the defender but even that could only have been exaggerated by the mess the club was in. Though most Dortmund fans are unbothered by the move, Sokratis was offered a new contract to stay at the club but could not agree terms.
On the other hand, it’s very frustrating to see a player his age and with his ability making the same errors as four or five years ago and, at 30, the pace he has now will only leave him. Whether or not he will be able to adapt is up in the air.
When he plays well, Sokratis can be a tremendous defender, but he will need a calm head alongside him if Arsenal are going to regularly get the best out of him. Sokratis and Mustafi are both extremely proactive defenders and it’s fair to assume both would perform better alongside a calmer sweeper-type player like Per Mertesacker. Should Mustafi stay at the club he may have to change his game as having two proactive centre-halves in the same side would be an incredible risk.
The signing does fit in with Arsenal’s January business and the arrival of Stephan Lichtsteiner: the club seem to believe there is a desperate need to improve right away and it makes sense to target players who are definitely attainable and have experience. I wouldn’t judge the new Sanllehi/Mislintat partnership on this window alone and Arsenal appear to be trying to plug obvious holes with obvious (and inexpensive) answers before turning to a bolder and more forward-thinking approach further down the line. That seems reasonable, if nothing else.
Lastly, Sokratis’ fortunes at Arsenal lay in the hands of Unai Emery. The new head coach has presumably given his ok to the deal so we will have to see what he can make of Sokratis’ attributes; how can he get the most out of the defender and how well can he use the team to lessen the impact of his flaws?Hopefully Emery’s new-look system will provide some level of protection for poor judgement.
As long as the defence works as a unit, Sokratis can become incredibly valuable part of the machine.