Per Mertesacker’s impact at Arsenal was played down even before he kicked a ball for his new team. Arriving from Werder Bremen in the summer of last year—that chaotic, throw-everything-into-the-trolley-at-the-last-minute summer—the German international was deemed too slow for the pace of English football and not good enough to fix that problematic area for Arsenal. At this stage, is it a fair shout to say Arsene Wenger has pulled another great buy out of the hat?
English football seems to want it all from every position on the field: centre-backs need to be tall, fast, strong, and good on the ball. Funnily enough, it’s similar demands from centre-forwards as well. Unless your striker has all of these attributes in his locker, he’ll be dismissed just as quickly and easily as Mertesacker was.
But it’s hyperbole, it’s hypocrisy, above all, it’s just a bit daft. Lets forget the negativity surrounding John Terry and focus solely on the centre-back of Chelsea. Isn’t that what everyone wants from a central defender? One of the best leaders in the game and one of England’s finest. Yet Terry isn’t the quickest, nor would he waltz up field from the back and launch attacks from deep. The waltz, something we see regularly from Spain’s centre-backs, is more akin to a trudge when referring to Terry and his overall ability on the ball. But that’s never a problem. Maybe it’s his passport.
Mertesacker is exactly the type of defender Arsenal needed and had been crying out for. It wasn’t a last minute dash and a lack of clear thinking that brought the German to Arsenal, Arsene Wenger had tried to bring the centre-back to the Emirates during the previous summer. Maybe something to do with transfer fees stopped that deal ever happening. But he’s the perfect partner for either Thomas Vermaelen or Laurent Koscielny; a duo who really don’t complement each other well, at least not consistently.
The debate was there on the table prior to this season kicking off: who should partner Thomas Vermaelen? Was the captain really droppable in favour of either of the other two? Wenger more or less made his mind up that Vermaelen would be the regular go-to centre-back due to his carrying of the armband, while one of the other two would be picked on merit. Perhaps Mikel Arteta, an undoubted starter for Arsenal, should have been given greater consideration for the captaincy. At least there’s comfort in knowing Barcelona wouldn’t publicly raise his easily forgettable “Barcelona DNA.”
But it tells you a lot of Mertesacker and his influence at Arsenal when fans seem to mourn his lack of inclusion in the starting XI. Arsenal’s attackers played some excellent and fearless football away at the Etihad against Manchester City, but Mertesacker was the clear star performer.
The German didn’t need pace or even his obvious strength to keep City’s attackers at bay; his reading of the game is what really shone through. And even with an early yellow card to his name against Liverpool, his performance never allowed for another booking. He doesn’t play with an erratic nature, flying into challenges that serves no great purpose in the defence of his goal. He appears to be meticulous in his approach, never succumbing to the quality and wizardry of the opposition.
Every defence needs a calming head, and how many times have Arsenal heard the same story rolled out about them needing an experienced centre-half? Do they come much more experienced that a German international at the peak of his powers with close to 100 international caps?
Per Mertesacker is the closets thing Arsenal have to an old fashioned centre-back. No nonsense, just a desire to defend and to defend well. The other two regular centre-backs at Arsenal are a modern hybrid of the position, one combines his upbringings of Dutch total football, while the other’s pace and build would make him appear a comfortable fit for a few other positions. But Mertesacker has proven quickly to be the team’s most valuable asset in defence, a player who settles the back line and guarantees a comfortable adaptation to the contrasting attacks that are regularly on display in the Premier League.