A number of things were inevitable this past summer for Arsenal: the club were going to have to make a difficult decision on the Samir Nasri situation, Cesc Fabregas would depart for his hometown club Barcelona, and Arsenal would buy a centre-back. While much of Arsenal’s transfer dealings were focused heavily on their two star midfielders, many were hoping to add a bit of grit, a bit of English steel, and a bit of a Premier League experience and quality to the defence. The bid for Gary Cahill was deemed ‘derisory’ by Bolton, but with Arsenal the opening bid usually is, and Arsene Wenger moved on to other targets. I for one am glad Per Mertesacker came in instead of the now Chelsea centre-back.
Most said Arsenal had missed the opportunity to add a young, English centre-half with knowledge of the English league and the capability of playing in the style Wenger encourages from his side. Cahill seemed like the only option at this point, and one who would significantly improve Arsenal’s leaky defence. The option to sign the experienced German Per Mertesacker was met with a round of frustration and many ‘experts’ in the game dismissing the tall German as too slow to be a success in England. Well, as far as Arsenal were concerned, they weren’t looking for an ineffective sprinter—they have those already—but an experienced international who had played in one of Europe’s top leagues was a must. There’s was nothing quick about Tony Adams, nor are the other centre-backs in the country who are regarded as the best gifted with blistering pace. It’s not a necessity if you know what you’re doing—and Mertesacker is an excellent reader of the game.
Rafael Honigstein pointed out earlier in the week that Mertesacker prevents danger before it happens and reads situations well to compensate for his lack of mobility. There’s no disguising the fact that Arsenal’s defence have looked the most secure with him in the line-up. Not watertight by any means, but safe and with a confident leader able to guide the makeshift defence.
The notion that he was a panic buy is also widely off the mark, as Wenger has had Mertesacker on the radar for at least a year and even tried to sign him from Werder Bremen the summer prior. The 70-plus caps for Germany cannot be ignored either. Their national team have been performing consistently and excellently in international tournaments and certainly don’t have a shortage of quality centre-backs. With the small budget that Arsene Wenger likes to make people think he has, Mertesacker represents one of the better options available to Arsenal at the time.
The difference between him and Cahill is that there was a much bigger gamble on the part of the Englishman. Cahill has no prior experience of playing in the Champions League, nor is he equipped with the knowledge of how to deal with the pressures of playing for a team competing for silverware. Yes he was already playing in the Premier League, but the lower teams regularly pick up points from the top clubs; it doesn’t mean I’d like to have the majority of the Blackburn line-up playing for Arsenal just because they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford. That’s the sort of result the Premier League prides itself on and one everyone would rather see than the weekly thrashings dished out by Barcelona and Real Madrid. Cahill looked out of his depth when Chelsea lost to Napoli on Tuesday night. Of course, there are wider problems at Chelsea than just Cahill’s period of adjustment, but what Arsenal have in Mertesacker is a player who is not unfamiliar with European competition, and not one who is yet to reach double figures in international caps.
Mertesacker offers an alternative to the very similar styles of Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Kosciely; both of whom are good centre-backs and widely considered to be the best options at Arsenal. The problem with Cahill is that he would have added a third option to an already familiar style at Arsenal. He’s capable of playing with the ball at his feet, will help the side push further up the pitch, and offers something going forward. The German represents something that has been missing from the defensive-line at the Emirates for far too long, and someone who has played a significant role in at least improving the Gunners’ defence.
His absence will be greatly missed for the remainder of the season, and it might be an eye opener to those who simply and foolishly dismissed him due to his lack of pace.