Monday, April 22, 2024

Blanket Party

In the front of my notebook, I have the names of the Arsenal squad written out in squad number order. This is designed purely to provoke the powers of recall. When I cannot think of anything to write about for this column, I scour the names for inspiration. Is there something of interest I can say about one of these individuals for 1200 words or so?

As such, I have written some kind of profile piece on pretty much every single member of the first team squad to date. Some of them on more than one occasion. The only player I have not written about in this manner is Shkodran Mustafi. I don’t like writing hit pieces (not about Arsenal players anyway). Partly, because it goes against my nature a little, but largely because it is not intellectually satisfying, or even particularly challenging.

‘This player is bad and here are all of the reasons I think he is bad and the majority of the readers probably agree that he is bad’ is not rewarding for anyone, really. This is not to say that I don’t try to write about players that are playing badly or whose form is in some form of turmoil. Some of the most satisfying articles to write are defensive pieces.

Maybe there is a particular tactical or physical issue that you think is preventing a maligned player from reaching their potential. That requires thought and analysis and invites challenge from readers. I’ve never had any such explanation for Shkodran Mustafi’s frequent brain farts, so I have always shied away from writing about him. Penning a peroration about Mustafi feels like a populist move akin to a politician kissing a baby’s forehead in front of a swathe of conveniently positioned photographers.

What I have found interesting is that Mustafi’s reputation online hasn’t manifested itself inside the stadium. I have never once heard his name jeered, I rarely hear an audible groan as he approaches the ball and I cannot recall many acid tongued rants aimed in his direction. The distaste for the German has been largely been an online phenomenon- not unlike the tribal fandom that Mesut Özil seems to inspire, which also does not scan inside the stadium.

I think this is because Mustafi is, 90% of the time, not actually a bad defender. He is not a sword swallower, which is to say that he does not seem to invite a gruesome death with every move. Most of the time he is competent- good even. But he has a software glitch that just does not seem to be fixable.

My interpretation is that he suffers momentary psychological faults under pressure. He probably knows this, Unai Emery probably knows it too, but he cannot get rid of it any more than Phil Jones can stop his facial muscles doing gymnastics as opposing attackers bear down on him.

Emery’s trust in Mustafi has eroded over the season. He clearly prefers Koscielny and Sokratis and when Mustafi has played recently, out of necessity, he has either been fielded out of position at right-back, or else he is hidden inside a back three. Against Watford and Crystal Palace, Emery did not feel he could rest Koscielny with Sokratis suspended. He did not trust Mustafi to babysit Mavropanos, despite Koscielny’s physical issues.

Mustafi’s errors are usually borne of a desire to find the nearest and swiftest exit from pressure situations. Whether it be by sliding on his backside, leaving the ball for a colleague, committing a ridiculous foul or claiming a non-existent infringement, the gaffes are nearly always a personal exit strategy. Whether the move ultimately succeeds or not, it takes Mustafi out of the game and curtails his involvement. It’s the football equivalent of pulling a sickie.

I think his latest mistake against Crystal Palace might see the end of the in-stadium entente and he might start to feel the brunt (or at least the underlying groan) of the boo boys. I sincerely hope not, an Arsenal player getting rough treatment from their own fans never sits correctly with me. It offends something in my programming as a fan.

Yet I fear, on this occasion that the mob might start to bray for blood. This is especially unfortunate because Arsenal’s defence is being held together by a 33-year old who ruptured his achilles tendon less than a year ago. Arsenal are going to need Mustafi before the summer when, surely, his Arsenal story will end. The tide of opinion has firmly turned against him.

At this stage, Shkodran is damaged goods and it is difficult to imagine the club recouping even half of their £35m outlay. When he joined, Mustafi seemed to be a good ball player at least, with a penchant for line breaking passes from the defence. That attribute seems to have faded in recent seasons.

Arsenal need to raise some capital and selling Mustafi on would be an ideal avenue to realise some. He has two years left on his deal; he has just turned 27 and once formed part of a World Cup winning squad. Tempting another club ought not to be too difficult- extracting a satisfactory sum from them will prove much trickier.

Laurent Koscielny turns 34 in September, Nacho Monreal is 33, Stephan Lichsteiner and Carl Jenkinson will surely continue their careers elsewhere after this season. Arsenal have enough squad surgery to do on the defence, a 27 year old World Cup winning centre-half really shouldn’t be their principle concern given the relative financial restrictions they are operating in, but the situation is that grave now. The current fiscal situation is due in no small part due to spending so poorly on players like Mustafi in Wenger’s final years at the club.

Every squad has its punchbag- in the stands and online. Every comedy needs a catchphrase and every tragedy requires a villain. There has been so much squad turnover at Arsenal in recent years that Gunners fans have lacked reference points as long serving players have left. We have lacked cult heroes and pantomime villains as we’ve gotten to know a new squad and manager.

Another reason that writing this sort of article is unattractive is because you don’t want to be accused of contributing to the pile-on. I wouldn’t flatter myself to regard this column as influential in that regard (Bacary Sagna would have a statue if it was), but there is still a pang of guilt. It calls to mind that scene from ‘Full Metal Jacket’, when Private Joker reluctantly beats Private Pyle with the soap bar in a pillowcase.

I have often become angry with players in the heat of a game situation and read and even partook in the online feeding frenzy against him, only to rue that choice in the days that follow as the well is increasingly poisoned with vitriol. After a while, the negativity starts to get a little out of hand and it affects your chi. It’s an unfortunate and unforgiving business, all of this.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

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