It is unquantifiable how worse off Arsenal would have been these past two seasons were it not for the consistent excellence of Shkodran Mustafi.
In his marshalling of an otherwise erratic back-line and what is more, in recent months, ahead of a goalkeeper enduring sustained and uncharacteristic ill-form; in his decision making, sharp and intuitive; and in his committed displays the German international centre-back has been little short of a model of reliability.
The 25-year-old has offered stability in the most unstable of environments. He has been, without exaggeration, peerless: according to WhoScored.com he has been the highest rated defender across the Premier League in 2017/18.
Yet last week at Wembley during the Gunners’ Carabao Cup final encounter with Manchester City he was reduced to being the subject of mockery. From just one mistake. One wrong decision from a thousand called correctly in the heat of a thousand battles this season. You may well recall the incident.
After roaming downfield for a set-piece and nearly getting on the end of an in-swinging free-kick Mustafi jogged at pace back into position. According the overly critical analysis dished up by Sky in the immediate aftermath of Sergio Aguero’s opening strike this was the German’s first key blunder as apparently he should have sprinted.
It could be argued back that it is entirely incongruous for a defender to sprint back for incoming goal-kicks: it is a rare sight indeed and furthermore any manager worth his salt would later rebuke the defender in question for wasting his energy when the ball is out of commission. Jamie Redknapp’s additional criticism – that Mustafi the whole time had his back to the ball – can certainly be countered. So he’s supposed to sprint at full-pelt but backwards; is that it Jamie?
Anyway, that is all by the by because now Mustafi is lined up to anticipate Claudio Bravo’s imminent punt. Except of course he’s not, because behind him lurks the lethal Argentine.
One gentlemanly shove with his right hip and Aguero has sent his marker running to the ref in appalment. Meanwhile the City striker artfully lobs Ospina in nets.
It was a mistake, and occurring in a final that was either going to prove to be Arsenal’s temporary salvation or notice of execution it was a very costly mistake too. Positionally he was woeful in that moment and once he was caught out the former Valencia stopper showed a timidity when challenged that frankly shocked. To this point all seems fair in the castigation of his actions.
What indisputably wasn’t fair however is how Mustafi’s momentary softness under attack came to symbolise the Gunners’ meek Wembley surrender. To some it was Arsenal in a nutshell. It summed up their lackadaisical, brittle mentality on their day of reckoning.
Whereas in reality and when viewed through a wider prism – as noted at the top – the very opposite is true. Or at least it was.
For however tempting it is to write off the unfortunate incident as a one-off the truth is that the form of Shkodran Mustafi has plummeted of late. His marshalling of colleagues, his decision-making, his commitment to the fray have all vanished into thin air and been replaced by a hapless concoction of rashness and indecision. Those stats hailed at the top only go to illustrate how good he so recently was. Now? He is a pale imitation of an always under-valued mainstay.
If those beyond the parameters of the Emirates Stadium associate the 20-cap international with the team failings that have taken Arsene Wenger to surely the end of his long tenure then he is hardly being defended by his own. Gooners too have been quick to target their scapegoat showing a short-termism that is impressive even for them. He is useless, they say. He must go in the summer.
Both from the outside and on the inside Mustafi has now come to symbolise all that is presently wrong in one half of north London.
How soon we forget what went before; the excellence and reliability that arguably helped to postpone this dramatic crisis until this late juncture.
Arsenal’s problems are substantial and far-reaching with Mustafi’s form being just one of them. But only his form, a temporary succumbing to the ordinary. It’s not fair or right to laden onto him anything meaningful or symbolic based on a singular – if costly – error of judgement.
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