For years, Arsenal have needed an enforcer. It probably didn’t matter exactly where on the pitch they had one, but after the departures of the likes of Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira from the club in the early 2000s, that central midfield berth looked like the obvious place.
Perhaps that’s what has stopped the Gunners from actually being able to deal with what they’ve really lost in the intervening period of time: solidity, both mental and physical.
In the summer of 2016, Arsenal made what seemed like a fairly expensive panic buy when they threw £35m at Valencia for Shkodran Mustafi. It was the kind of signing that seemed to highlight the problems that Arsene Wenger has had to face in a transfer market he seemed for so long to rail against: he felt that he had no business signing a player like Mustafi for so much money, and yet he simply had to get his man. In years gone by he might have gone without just on principle. Now that capitalistic tide is sweeping up even Wenger.
That should scare Arsenal fans. Because although he does appear to be very much in Arsene Wenger’s plans, the German defender is also one of the club’s only truly solid players.
A tough away game against high-flying Burnley is the kind of game which may well have seen a spineless Arsenal lose in years – even weeks – gone by. A last-minute Alexis Sanchez goal finally saw the Gunners through, but it was Mustafi’s performance at the back which provided the springboard.
As the robust centre-back alongside partners Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal, Mustafi won nine aerial duels, more than any other player on the pitch. But that alone isn’t the impressive part: Mustafi contested 14 defensive aerials in the whole game, whilst Monreal and Koscielny contested just three apiece. The German centre-back wasn’t just dominant in the air, but he took responsibility at the back, too. And that’s the kind of leadership Arsenal have been sorely lacking for years.
Beyond that, however, he also completed 84% of his passes – not bad when that number will have been decreased thanks to so many headers – and even managed to create a chance with one key pass.
All in all, Gunners fans should be praising their centre-back for more than just his good performances: they should be hoping that his attitude rubs off on the team that’s exactly what Arsenal have been missing for years.