Per Mertesacker – Stick or Twist?

Originally Posted on Goonersphere.

It would seem that the factor of form in regards to sportsmen is now moot.
Whereas once the majority of the watching public could differentiate between a professional simply having an off day and not performing to their maximum potential – and when a player has travelled to the end of their career and cannot will their muscles and brain to work in perfect symmetry as they once did – now it would seem that the once bold lines that separated the two have merged and one howler is enough to consign someone to the footballing scrapheap.

Last season, Arsenal’s extended stint at the zenith of the Premiership table was chiefly down to a stingy defensive record. Despite conceding a shedload of goals in three games that Gooners everywhere will be keen to erase from the memory banks ( Chelsea, City and Liverpool if you have a penchant for mental S&M ) more than half of the 30 goals conceded in the league campaign were down to those hammerings. A solid foundation repelled attacks with aplomb and the central defensive pairing of Koscielny and Mertesacker was lauded with regularity.

Like a footballing version of the ‘good cop, bad cop’ dynamic – both players added different skills and made up for each others weaknesses. Where Koscielny can sometimes be seen as a bit rash, Mertesacker is the cool head. Seeing as Mertesacker has all the pace of an early morning queue in a Post Office, it is thankful that Koscielny has a rapidity to his movement. Mertesacker is a fantastic pre-emptive influence, sniffing out threats and expertly positioning himself to snuff out the danger. Koscielny is fantastic at getting in the way of passes and shots and both can be a threat at set-pieces.

Last season, they were held aloft as a prime example of a defensive partnership. Gooners were in no doubt they were more than equipped to quell all manner of opposition.

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This season, Koscielny still remains one of, if not the best, defender in the League. Seeing as his main rival for this mantle – Vincent Kompany – seems to have been found out and isn’t the impervious one-man wall the media painted him to be, Koscielny has attained a remarkable level of consistency and continues to perform.

His partner in Arsenal’s defence has been sent to the knackers yard.

Some wobbly performances that have been severely punished ( the Monaco 1st leg will forever haunt him ) have rendered the giant German ostensibly substandard. Fans from all angles have frothed at these aforementioned displays and the fierce spotlight of criticism has focused on Mertesacker.

The German World Cup winner who only last season was a titan at the back is now supposedly not good enough to lace Pascal Cygan’s boots. Rumours are rife that he is a distant relative of Igors Stepanovs and Mikael Silvestre. These tongue-in-cheek stories may carry humour within them but how can one player swing from being vital to disposable in less than a season?  Scratch that, how about one month?

The Champions League Last-16 1st leg tie Vs Monaco has left indellible scars in the mind of Gooners as the favourable draw they had wished for proved to be a false dawn and a tactical naivety became apparent. Monaco, who in an attacking sense were distinctly average, took advantage of an increasingly desperate Arsenal side and struck three times to leave Arsene Wenger’s team needing a miracle in the 2nd leg.

Social media turned out in their droves to hang Mertesacker out to dry and his flaws that have been apparent from his first day in an Arsenal jersey were now inexcusable and must be dealt with in a severe manner. He had performed miserable and even his primary asset of reading the game deserted him, leaving a lanky German struggling to keep afloat.

He was promptly dropped for Arsenal’s next game but his replacement – the new boy Gabriel – passed his initiation test as a Gunner and injured himself. This meant a swift return for Mertesacker for arguably Arsenal’s biggest game of the season. The F.A Cup tie Vs Utd.

The result is common knowledge. The performance was heroic and even though a clean sheet was out of reach – the defence which included visible liability Per Mertesacker – the Gunners defence was resolute and held firm.

This was of course not the focus of the game as it was a team performance which showed that Wenger’s team can keep up with the big boys. Mertesacker’s showing was evidence though that he still has what it takes. You would hope that the next time he has a stinker, fans would be a little more understanding and take into consideration that not every game will be 90 minutes full of the highest level they can manage. Players dip. Also, as he is a defender, a mistake is more likely to cost his team dearly and thus any erroneous moments will be thrust under the scrutiny of unforgiving pundits and supporters alike.

On the other side of the argument, it must be said that these players earn a fortune playing what is essentially a game. These men train through the week so they can attune themselves to be the very best they can be. To hone every available skill they own. To sculpt every asset and muscle memory so any weakness can be overridden. The best facilities, the finest trainers. A comfortable off-pitch life so every focus can be on their game. Nothing is left to chance. So when a player plays three or four games where the level they are displaying is far from the echelons that is required – questions regarding the effort of a player must be levelled at them.

Criticism of a players poor performance is more than warranted. If a professional footballer has cost his team the game through their own errors, then a critique is just. To decree that a player is simply not good enough to play for the club whereas previously they deserved to wear the jersey – that is idiocy.

Supporters have the greatest barometer to decide if a player is up to the mark or not. They simply have to hark back to the days when those cult heroes of mediocrity that every club possesses plied their trade. For Arsenal, it would be the aforementioned Cygan, Stepanovs, Silvestre. Mertesacker is a German hero, a World Cup winner, an Arsenal giant. He has been more than adequate for his team and if it wasn’t for a poor run of form then the doubt would be nothing more than a few dissenting whispers.

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Mertesacker also loves the club he plays for. Due to his accolades and his sheer effort on the pitch, he also commands respect, which is vitally important on the pitch. He has had some moments this season where expletives and questions had to be hurled at him. Every fan is well within their right to question if he should be on the pitch. Fans should also never forget that form is but a variable in a complex equation that makes up a player performance.

Mertesacker will eventually be replaced by Gabriel. In the meantime though, the BFG is still more than ample to stand alongside Koscielny and resume what was and can be again – an impenetrable defensive partnership.

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