Per Mertesacker, the BFG.
The whole season I have mostly seen complaints about the German with compliments far and few between. The complaints mostly comprise the following:
He’s too slow.
He’s too slow.
He’s too slow.
He’s too slow, people say he makes it up with his intelligence… but he’s too slow for me.
Some fans have been clamoring for a new CB to be signed; because, Mertesacker is too slow. More extreme and damning verdicts have surrounded his attitude and effort on the pitch – no effort and a cowardly attitude when having the likes of Chambers and Monreal beside him.
Yet, he’s my favorite defender in the Arsenal squad. As I mentioned above, there was a comment that somewhat begrudgingly accepted the man’s on-field intelligence but gave more weight to his lack of pace.
It’s his intelligence that has won me over. Fans tend to underestimate intelligence when it comes to defenders; they tend to go gaga over the same attribute if attributed to an attacking player – Ozil, Bergkamp, etc.
Not just his intelligence, he is incredibly calm as well. I’ll elaborate on both [intelligence and calm] through the course of this post; but, first I’d like to rewind just a little.
Per Then, Per Now
Per Mertesacker did leave a lot to be desired when he first joined the Gunners; and, I’ll admit I was skeptical at first but I kept Laurent Blanc in mind and recalled how the French legend struggled in his first season at Manchester United but stepped it up the following season.
Can the same be said of the BFG? Let’s have a look at some statistics:
Summarizing the Statistics
On the face of it, Per ‘s percentage of tackles won in 14/15 reduced by 3% over the previous season – dropped to 45% from 48%. Having said that, he lost fewer tackles but also won fewer tackles.
His aerial duels win percentage is also his highest compared to previous seasons while he made significantly more interceptions as well. Lastly, his number of blocks is his highest as compared to previous seasons as well.
On the face of it, generally all numbers have improved. Does that mean he has improved?
Context, Context, Context!
Before I interpret the statistics, let’s go back to some basics so there is a lot more context to the statistics when I do interpret them.
I spoke earlier of intelligence. What does intelligence, for a defender, entail? The following:
- Anticipation – strong reading of the game results in strong anticipation which leads to interceptions. The ability to figure out the pattern of passes being employed in front of you and where exactly in your zone one of the passes will travel through requires really good anticipation. Sometimes it can be the movement of the striker/attacker in your zone; sometimes it can be reading the eye movement of the midfielder who will hit the pass – both and other factors contribute to reading of the game. However, the timing of stepping in front of the pass receiver to intercept is SO crucial. Move too soon and the attacker may move differently allowing the defender to be taken out of the equation; move too late and the opposition is allowed to continue building their attack. You literally have to move forward/step-in as the ball leaves the passer’s foot so the passer has no idea that his pass might be intercepted! Interceptions break up play and hand the possession over to your team.
- Decision Making – making the decision of whether or not to go for a tackle and/or the type of tackle you want to execute. Stand your ground or commit? Back off or commit? Slide in or stick with the man? Deciding who to pass the ball to, play it long or play it short. Deciding whether to guard your zone or help your team mate out in a certain situation. Should I step in to intercept now or do I wait a couple of more seconds? You get the idea.
- Positioning – this is both linked to an independent of anticipation. It’s linked because sometimes good anticipation results in intelligent positioning. Otherwise, understanding how the opposition is playing and where the threats will come from and in what nature; will ensure good positioning as well. Again, good positioning makes it more difficult for the opposition.
- Composure – I stated calm earlier, this is a better word. Composure not only minimizes the risk of a bad decision being made but also exudes a level of confidence that can place one’s opponent on the back foot; make them more hesitant with their execution.
Still not convinced of the importance of intelligence and still think lack of pace is the worst thing in the world? Let me add some further context by quickly revising Arsenal’s style of play from two significant angles that make intelligence, well, significant!
High Line, High Press
Arsenal usually plays a high line for their high press game. A high line, as you know, gives the opposition plenty of green to run into especially when counter attacking – a high possibility when Arsenal loses the ball.
Now place anticipation, decision making, and positioning in this framework. In a high line, you want your defenders to intercept balls as much as possible to stop any threat of the opposition attack getting in behind with plenty of ground to cover. Those three attributes are so crucial in this context.
Midfield Cover, Lack of
The Arsenal midfield, especially now because of Le Coq, tracks back slightly slower than what we may see in other teams. In the event that our defensive line does fall back or starts deep, with only Coquelin shielding them initially; the opposition midfield will try their upmost to penetrate our defense as soon as possible before the rest of the Arsenal midfield drops back.
Our defenders are on the back foot in this situation; a tackle cannot be mistimed or premature, an interception attempt cannot be misguided, one must not lose his head and stay calm. If any of those happen, the opposition will either get in behind or win a free kick in a dangerous area. Or worse, we concede a penalty!
Yes, it can be argued that a defender with more pace would make up for a mistake by being able to recover those few yards, he just lost, really quickly. Fine, fair enough; but, why get in that position in the first place? A recovering defender also increases the risk of committing a foul.
Interpreting the Statistics
So what do the improvement in statistics say about Per Mertesacker?
The BFG has won fewer tackles and lost fewer tackles compared to previous years. The won/lost ratio has decreased by 3%; not really a significant percentage. However, I think it’s interesting that he has committed less tackles – 27% less than the previous season.
I believe it’s a sign that he has made a decision to minimize the events that follow a center back losing a tackle. Moreover, it’s a sign of going from being on the back foot i.e. allowing the attack to impose themselves and forcing you to contemplate tackling; to going on the front foot i.e. take the initiative to thwart the attack.
A 22% increase in interceptions over the previous season. This can be either a reflection of improved anticipation and positioning hence more interceptions; or improved decision making by prioritizing being proactive versus reactive. Either way, it’s intelligence. We can also look at where his interceptions took place on the field over the course of the season; well, we don’t HAVE to but just to validate some earlier points about Arsenal’s style of play, let’s do so!
(Tactics field generated at http://outsideoftheboot.com/tactics-creator/)
Before jumping into the ramifications of this heat map of sorts, take note that his interceptions on the left hand side of Arsenal’s field took place mostly in games where he played LCB when either Chambers or Debuchy partnered him in the middle.
You will notice that a considerable amount of interceptions have taken place around the half way line; either on it, just across it, or just before it. That, dear readers should not be a surprise, because of our high line and high press.
The other concentration pockets come around the edge of the box; when we’re on the back foot. However, because Per has the composure; he does not lose his head and prefers to intercept rather than go flying in with a tackle.
Last to note are his interceptions in wide areas; I didn’t mention this earlier but you’re well aware of our full backs’ tendencies to go forward and who covers them? Per Mertesacker. Who anticipates that our exposed wing might be exploited? Per Mertesacker.
To be honest, this was something I would not have looked at had I not had a short conversation with Dave (@goonerdave66) about the BFG. He said he felt the German had improved but felt he could do more with aerial duels. Though there is an improvement in that department, I don’t think it’s enough to look at Per in isolation for this statistic so I’ll address this later on.
Dave also mentioned how he felt Arsenal had to adapt its ways to accommodate for Per’s lack of pace and that could be counterproductive at times. Though to some extent I think I’ve covered how that isn’t the case, I’ll see if I can add further weight later on as well.
Per Compared to his Peers
Arsenal, Chelsea, Southampton, Manchester City, and Manchester United conceded the least goals in 14/15. Let’s have a look at how Terry, DeMichelis, Fonte, and Smalling fared in their stats:
John Terry actually won more tackles than lost. However, his interceptions are well below any of the other defenders. I believe that’s a reflection of Chelsea’s style of play; players fall behind the ball really quickly which gives the defense a protective shield. This shield becomes difficult to penetrate. Passes are difficult to thread through. Opposition midfield/attackers will tend to run into trouble because there just is no space; so, they get tackled. Terry is the only player to have a slightly better percentage of aerial duels won than Mertesacker as well.
Manchester City actually plays somewhat similar to the Gunners. Their midfield is not as disciplined when falling back which explains DeMichelis’ high number of interceptions. However, look at the number of tackles he has lost. Even the number of tackles he has had to make. People have pointed to City’s attack being relatively impotent without Aguero; their defense isn’t exactly an impregnable wall either. I didn’t include Kompany’s stats here but you should have a look, not encouraging either.
Fonte is an interesting case and on the basis of these stats I would want him to be signed up! However, he is 31 for starters. What I find interesting is his number of interceptions; considering Southampton’s work ethic as a defensive unit I expected similar readings to Terry. Maybe Messrs. Wanyama and Schneiderlin aren’t as effective as we thought? I’ve barely watched the Saints this season so I can’t say why Fonte has such high numbers; but, after the Blues, Southampton has conceded the least goals. One factor that CAN push his numbers up is Southampton’s possession. If they have less possession generally in a game; and if their midfield isn’t as strong as it seems, the defenders WILL have their work cut out.
Lastly, Smalling is another player who, like Per and DeMichelis, does not have the luxury of a protective midfield. His stats are comparable to Per but with fewer interceptions. Experience versus inexperience perhaps?
The conclusion here is that we actually have a very good defender in our squad. It’s no coincidence that he’s been capped 100 times. He more than makes up for his lack of pace and I can’t recall any game this season where we suffered because of his lack of pace. Yes, there was the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in which Costa and Fabregas caught our high line. However, both Per and Kos chased after to Costa to no avail.
I DO have stats comparing Per to Pique, Hummels, and Boateng because of their respective teams’ playing style which can be deemed similar to Arsenal from a defensive perspective; but, this post is already quite long and the stats aren’t really THAT telling. Oh, I also included Howedes as well in that comparison since he was linked with us for a short while!
I’ll just touch upon a couple of other things before wrapping up.
Being the most senior and experienced defender in the squad, it is no coincidence that he’s been Captaining the side in Arteta’s absence.
His leadership has been called into question whenever the defense has seemed to fail. That’s fair enough. One would expect him to guide the likes of Chambers, Debuchy, Bellerin, Monreal and Gibbs. I think it’s easy for us to target him when an obvious mistake is made by any of the youngsters or when the back four seemed all over the place. Yet, when Monreal actually provided stability as a center back, all credit went to Monreal. I’m not saying Nacho didn’t deserve credit; but, surely Per helped him out as well?
Fans also refer to his comments post-Monaco as a negative. To be honest I don’t really read much of post-match or even pre-match interviews because questions which have obvious answers are usually asked so players/managers really just say what we already know. Seldom do we get anything different. Anyway, I looked up the quotes on Google and I don’t quite see what the issue was with his statements?
Coming back to the football, I’ll admit that I was shocked at his defending for the second Monaco goal; it wasn’t typical Per but in a way it was typical Arsenal. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen an Arsenal defender go in for a challenge out wide, high up the pitch, when it wasn’t necessary. It was a costly blip, and so was Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dispossession.
Before the return leg he said the defence talked to each other to sort out issues and I think we have been relatively more solid as a defensive unit since then, no?
Wrapping it Up
Along with his interceptions, I also enjoy the way the BFG holds his ground when a player tries to take him on. He just stands tall, almost stationery, watching, waiting…waiting for the player to show a second of overconfidence before he puts his foot in calmly and dispossesses his opponent.
He is a fine defender and I feel he is under appreciated. I did not even talk about his distribution from the back which I feel has pretty much compensated for Arteta in that particular department i.e. passing out from the back. So that’s another quality he brings.
I look forward to him and Cech working together, two cool experienced heads organizing our defence. Hopefully he’ll be a bit more rested during the season to give the likes of Gabriel and Chambers more experience.
One thing I didn’t address is whether or not Arsenal IS having to compromise in order to accommodate his weakness at times. Mostly I don’t think Arsenal is doing that; but, yes Koscielny or any one partnering him do have two tasks at hand – defend, and cover Mertesacker. I guess some people want Arsenal to play the high line and high press every match so we can constantly place pressure on the opposition; and, feel that Per isn’t the man for that. It’s debatable; I’ve given some food for thought with some points aforementioned.
Anyway thanks to Squawka for there superb service and ‘till next time!
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