On September 10th 2011, I watched Arsenal play for the first time at the Emirates. My A level results had come out a fortnight before and my big brother thought it a good reward for my decent grades. Arsenal beat Swansea thanks to a very fortuitous Andrey Arshavin goal. This was the first game after the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford and the trolley dash that ensued in the following days. In an otherwise unremarkable game, Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker made their Arsenal debuts. Being more familiar with Arteta a domestic signing, my eyes were more trained on the lanky German. As Swansea broke from one Arsenal corner, a lady sat nearby turned to us and said " My Lord. He is SO slow."
That's the lingering image most fans hold of Mertesacker. What is oft discounted is that it is very rare to find him isolated against a pacy striker. His intelligence wins him comparisons to Tony Adams who despite being not very quick was one of the premier organizers of the teams he played for. Adams, a one club man captained Arsenal at youth and senior levels whilst also captaining the English national team. Adams and Mertesacker have served as great challenges to the reductionist view we hold of Pace and Speed. Yes, it is a great asset but football intelligence and a great sense of positioning are more important.
The lanky German has been the finest defender to grace the League this season. After initially struggling to take to English football, he has quietly made his mark becoming one of the most important players in this Arsenal team. This has been a long time coming. Last season, he was surprisingly dropped when Arsenal played Chelsea at the Emirates. The rationale behind this being that a Koscielny and Vermaelen combination would be more mobile and better equipped at dealing with Chelsea's forwards. . Up to that point of the season, Mertesacker had started every game in the League and Champions League. The two goals Arsenal conceded came from set pieces. Both the product of impetuous Vermaelen fouls. It also didn't help that Koscielny was the most culpable with his marking for both goals. The lesson was clear: Arsenal needed Mertesacker.
Of late, I have been tempted to suggest that Mertesacker's transfer from Werder Bremen is the most symbolic of the Emirates era. Just like Dennis Bergkamp's arrival served as precursor to the champagne football of the last decade at Highbury, Mertesacker's was the first in a seismic shift. One of the reasons given for Arsenal's regression has been that the French league had gotten progressively weaker. When Arsene Wenger first came to England, he had the knowledge of an unheralded market and he took advantage of this. Jamie Carragher, the ex Liverpool stalwart speaks of how he effectively wrote off any signings from the French league by Liverpool on the basis that "If they were any good, Wenger would have bought them." As Wenger had to devise a plan to save Arsenal from the havoc brought by the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, Mertesacker's arrival foreshadowed a more Teutonic outlook. The next year, Lukas Podolski would join. The year after, Mesut Ozil. Wenger, a man born in Alsace, a town that borders France and Germany and a childhood supporter of Borussia Mönchengladbach boy had stumbled upon his next grand scheme. When Barack Obama became the first black President of America, there was a poem that went viral. It went "Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk/Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run/
Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly". That was akin to the foundational impact Mertesacker had by being the first prominent German to join Arsenal in the Emirates era. It goes without saying that, his presence was one of the selling points in convincing the German brigade and it has had a great domino effect in the wake of the links to wunderkind, Julian Draxler and defensive midfielder, Lars Bender.
Per Mertesacker does not give many fouls away. He makes 0. 28 fouls per match. The players with the most fouls committed in the League this season being Leroy Fer and Ramires. Ramires's rate being 1.8 fouls per match to Fer's 1.96. This is obviously a skewed statistic considering those players are midfielders and are more exposed so I decided to look up the statistics for defenders: Mathieu Debuchy with 1.68 fouls per match and Branislav Ivanovic with 1.3 fouls per match are the worst offenders. Again, it can be argued that this statistic is skewed as those players are wingbacks who are more exposed to fast, skilful wingers. Comparing him to three of the most acclaimed centre backs in the League, Mertesacker shines. Vincent Kompany gives 0.65 fouls per game, John Terry 0.53 and Everton's Phil Jagielka 0.33.
|Player||Fouls/Match||Yellow Cards/ Match||Clean Sheets||Blocks/ Match||Clearances/Match|
Not only is he a tidy tackler, he's also displaying leadership qualities. It is well known that he's the fine collector of the team. In a sense, alongside Mikel Arteta he's the true leader of the team. Whilst Arteta and Ozil could be viewed as the technical leaders as Dennis Bergkamp was to the Invincibles, the BFG is more of what David Winner calls the "Clenched-fist warrior". Tony Adams. Terry Butcher. John Terry. The classic English centre back leader. When Mesut Ozil, disappointed after the loss to City aimed straight for the tunnel, Mertesacker admonished his friend publicly for failing to acknowledge the fans. When Santi Cazorla lost the ball that precipitated Christian Benteke's goal against Aston Villa, Mertesacker's displeasure was very evident as he attacked the ever smiling Spaniard. In the game against Coventry City, journalist Rob Draper writes of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain receiving the "mother of all reprimands" from the German before likening him to Martin Keown at Old Trafford when upset. When news came that Theo Walcott suffered a season ending injury Mertesacker delivered THAT adorable message on his Facebook page. At the one game I've been to this season, he and Olivier Giroud were the last players to head for the dressing room as they made it a duty to applaud the fans. These all point to different strands of leadership . Being the organizer of the team on and off the pitch whilst also being a custodian of the fan-player relationship. It's why we love him and sing affectionately of our "Big F***ing German".
These days, Arsenal are an advertisement for the German model specializing in understated, efficient performances. It can't be said that they blow teams away like Manchester City in this stakes but they have been consistent in racking up the points by doing the minimum. It's like they're consciously not over exerting themselves trusting that they can get the job done whilst with minimal stress and energy. Per Mertesacker paved the way.
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