Adapting to the rugged intensity of the Premier League can often be a daunting undertaking for overseas players given the frenetic pace and general robust nature of England’s top-flight. Customarily it’s said that foreign imports take the best part of a year to find their feet and fully acclimatise to the culture of their new surroundings both on and off the field. That is especially true in the case of Per Mertesacker’s following his move to Arsenal from Werder Bremen.
The German international had spent his entire eight-year playing career in his homeland taking in separate spells with Hannover 96 and Bremen prior to his deadline day switch to the Emirates Stadium 13 months ago. Widely revered as one of the finest central defenders in Europe, with over 70 caps for his country, it was expected that Mertesacker would fortify an ailing rearguard that had been lambs to the slaughter in that infamous 8-2 mauling at the hands of Manchester United just days earlier.
Firstly it’s worth pointing out that Mertesacker’s defensive game has never been built around outpacing opponents instead using his acute ability to read the game and position himself accordingly to deal with any oncoming attacks. But true to form the towering 27-year-old was unable to fully demonstrate his talents in a thoroughly underwhelming debut year with Arsenal. With the Gunners also finding life tough in the first half of the season the finger of blame was often thrusted in his direction as he became a regular scapegoat amongst the Gunners support following a string of weak displays.
Despite his command of the air it was Mertesacker’s lack of speed and mobility that often saw him exposed early in his Arsenal career and unable to utilise his excellent positional sense to compensate. It became apparent very quickly that opponents would frequently look to exploit this absence of pace whilst poor understanding with new defensive partner Laurent Koscielny further inhibiting the stronger aspects of his game. Additionally being brought in to replace Thomas Vermaelen added further pressure to perform leading Mertesacker to routinely abandon his defensive principals in order to fulfil the Belgian’s defensive duties.
That being said he did gradually came to terms with the unrelenting pace of the top-flight and began to exhibit the calm and stability that won him many plaudits and the captains armband during his five-year stint at Bremen. But just as he was starting to find a vein of consistency in his form Mertesacker’s campaign was cruelly cut short by an ankle injury suffered on an untidy pitch at Sunderland in February.
And with Koscielny forging a strong partnership with Vermaelen it was anticipated that Mertesacker would find his first team opportunities limited in the new term only for an injury to the former offering him a surprise stay of execution. The German has since gone on to prove why he is so highly regarded around the continent playing a pivotal role in Arsenal’s strong start to the season in which they now possess the best defensive record in the league keeping three clean sheets in four games and conceding just one goal.
Theres now a discernible confidence to Mertesacker’s approach that was missing in the previous campaign whilst his leadership qualities have brought a rare streak of tranquility to the Arsenal backline. Now partnering Vermaelen at the heart of defence he provides a crucial counterbalance to the Arsenal captain’s buccaneering, albeit reckless, style.
It’s telling that Mertesacker’s pass success rate is around 93% compared to that of Vermaelen, who only completes 89% of his attempted passes, whilst his tackles and interceptions per game are significantly lower than his all-action defensive partner highlighting his excellent positional awareness that rarely sees him need to commit himself to challenges and allows him exert an authority in aerial duels. Of course many will attribute the assuredness of his recent performances to the aforementioned habitual period, and whilst that has undoubtedly played a part, the influence of Steve Bould has unquestionably been the deciding factor.
Since replacing Pat Rice as Arsene Wenger’s number two Bould has been has been credited with radically altering the shape and mentality of Arsenal’s defence and improving the balance of the team as a whole. Mertesacker has benefitted markedly from this change now operating in a deeper defensive postition to counteract his lack of pace and give him a yard head start in a potential foot race. Furthermore it allows him to utilise his skills as a perceptive reader of the game to maintain a steady presence and break up opposition attacks all the while retaining possession and giving the players in advanced areas a platform play higher up the field with his neat ball distribution.
His metamorphosis into an accomplished Premier League centre back will have caught many by surprise given his punishing start to life in England and Arsenal fans are now starting to see Mertesacker grow into his role as their defensive rock. Whether Wenger allows him to further reinforce his blossoming partnership with Vermaelen now that Koscielny has returned to fitness. But nevertheless the towering German has finally started to shake off the tag of being another foreign import who just couldn’t cut the Premier League mustard.