When Gary Neville took charge of his first game as manager of Valencia, he should have known what he had on his hands.
Within ten minutes of the “first day of the rest of [his] life,” Neville had witnessed Shkodran Mustafi rise twice from set plays – once to hit the post with a thumping header, and the second time to have a goal disallowed for a push from a similarly commanding aerial attempt.
You get a similar vibe from Arsene Wenger, who seemed happy to try to offload the German defender to the highest bidder in the summer. That would probably have been a mistake, but one that wouldn’t have seemed particularly strange for Arsenal. This is a side who, for years, have lacked the ability to dominate physically, and whose need for a leader on the pitch – whether that’s spiritually or by example – has been in evidence for quite some time.
And when Mustafi headed in the first goal of the north London derby, Arsenal fans will hope that Wenger didn’t have his Neville moment.
At that point, Martin Tyler in the Sky Sports commentary box said that Neville, sitting beside him, would know all about the former Valencia defender. His co-commentator replied that Mustafi never played like that for him. And yet, he did. In Neville’s first game.
After seeing Mustafi play a big role in a derby victory, Wenger shouldn’t forget about the German in the same way. Arsenal’s problems over the last few seasons have been obvious and are well-documented, but the arrival of a dominating centre-back with strength and aerial ability is something that could have changed the course of history a decade ago. Instead, Arsenal morphed into something approaching self-parody as the went from a team who had a solid base with flourishes of flair in attack to tidy and technical all over with no room for solidity at all.
Last season, though, in his first year at the club, Mustafi didn’t really look like the answer. His physicality was never in question, but something seemed to be wrong with the man Arsene Wenger paid £35m for, breaking with the habit of a lifetime.
On his return from injury against Spurs, he showed why he cost so much. He is arguably exactly what his team needs. Indeed, that was in evidence at either ends.
To score from a towering header at a set-piece isn’t the most Arsenal goal you’ll ever see, but the two moments when Laurent Koscielny attempted to clear high balls only to bump into his German centre-back partner and almost present Spurs with chances were more vintage Gunners. Koscielny is the leader of the team, but those two mistakes came not because of Mustafi, but because his captain was arguably too eager to assert his own dominance, managing only to get in the way.
Leadership and taking responsibility have been missing qualities for the Gunners in recent times, but to have both Mustafi and Koscielny together could be a pairing which could bear fruit if given the opportunity. If used properly, Arsene Wenger could combine the brawn of the German with the technique of the Frenchman to create a formidable partnership.
But in order for any of that to happen, Arsene Wenger needs to accept Mustafi’s ability and make sure he settles properly into the team this season.