In Saturday’s loss to Chelsea, the team’s performance can be interpreted limitlessly. Some say Diaby’s injury was our undoing, while others blame the likes of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Lukas Podolski for uninspiring performances, that just isn’t it. The devil is always in the defense, and that showed with the exclusion of Per Mertesacker.
When asked about his decision to bench the Big Friendly German, Arsène Wenger had this to say:
“That is a decision which was based on the opposition we played. You can say it was a wrong one maybe, but I believe [that statement] is a lowering the quality of the players who played, they are internationals.”
“If you do not play Koscielny or Vermaelen and cannot win the game, you will ask me the same question.”
The partnership between Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen has never quite clicked, and it was obvious on Saturday. Vermaelen tossed caution to the wind, making bombing runs forward, leaving the team exposed at the back as Chelsea surged forward on the counter attack. Koscielny seems to have a mandatory shocker every year to make up for his understated brilliance, and Saturday certainly seemed that day. He tried his best, but was ultimately to blame for the first goal, and came up short in attempting to stop the second.
A shambolic performance from our central pairing, so it comes as a surprise that Arsène persists with the two of them playing together. Apart from an ankle injury last year, Mertesacker was a consistently solid player in the heart of our defense, and it came down to him being different from Koscielny and Vermaelen in every way: he’s ridiculously tall, he can’t jump, he would get outrun by an extreme walker, and he has yet to score for us. The thing is, he’s our X-factor, that missing piece to the puzzle that you can’t put your finger on.
Mertesacker blends physicality with intelligence better than most of the centre backs in the modern game, so well that he needn’t use his huge frame as the only option in defending. What Mertesacker does better than anyone else is read the game, anticipate what’s going to happen next, and cut out the danger before it even becomes apparent. He’s made 5 appearances so far, and has only made 5 tackles. Yes, he only makes 1 tackle per match on average. You might think that would constitute him being a weak tackler, but the fact that he’s flanked by Carl Jenkinson, who averages 3 tackles per match, balances everything out. Jenkinson’s tackling tally is reciprocated by Mertesacker’s interception tally of 13 in 5 matches.
It’s not that Per is a crystal ball, it’s just his skill set and how his style affects our defensive play. He’s not the only player who can intercept the ball either; Vermaelen and Koscielny have successfully intercepted the ball 12 and 5 times respectively. What Mertesacker does for the team goes deeper than what a statistical value can represent. This “X-factor” I refer to is his sense of calm and purpose during a match, and how he manipulates players around him to snuff out any danger. The next time Mertesacker and Jenkinson play together, watch how they communicate and cooperate with each other. When Per speaks, Carl listens. I maintain one of the main reasons for Jenkinson’s recent improvement is his improved understanding of his role, and the credit for that should be shared between Per and Steve Bould.
When Carl plays alongside Koscielny or Vermaelen, he looks lost. He has no role, other than being the flanking defender. He’s just not the same. Not to say that Jenkinson is nothing without Per, but he does seem to need someone to lean on at the moment.
For a long-term partnership, I think Vermaelen and Mertesacker are first choice. Obviously, rotation is paramount, but Koscielny and Vermaelen should only be paired together either out of necessity, or against lower teams. For big games, we need a big German.
I know people will disagree with me, so give me your opinions in the comment section below!