Just before the deadline of the 2011 summer transfer window a tall, rather thin blonde German by the name of Per Mertesacker signed for Arsenal in an £8m deal.
The signing wasn’t a complete surprise as he had been linked to Arsenal before but many did not see him as an Arsene Wenger type centre half. Remember the boss did not sign Tony Adams or Steve Bould, these two legends were very much part of the furniture before Wenger’s arrival.
Since then there have been a few hit and miss signings that have been purchased to play at centre half. Sol Campbell, Laurent Koscielny and Kolo Toure (who was converted from right wing) have all been successful. There was then the likes of Pascal Cygan, Johan Djourou and Philippe Senderos who some may argue had the talent but did not perform to the level expected of them when given the chance. Stopgap signings such as Sebastien Squillaci and Mikael Silvestre were disasters, two of Wenger’s poorest signings and very much panic buys who I don’t think Arsene really acknowledged as long term Arsenal players.
However, Per Mertesacker was coming to Arsenal at the age of 26. He was approaching what is known as the prime of his career and after missing out on Gary Cahill it was believed that the German was the man Wenger identified to build his defence around.
The signing of Mertesacker was deemed in the main negative by fans and the media. He did not have the best of seasons for old club Werder Bremen, had never played for a top European side and was noticeably a player that did not have any kind of acceleration or pace.
Despite that he had won an impressive 75 caps for Germany, which is something I will touch on later and even from early interviews seemed a likeable character.
Mertesacker had what was widely received as a poor first five months at Arsenal. His lack of pace was something other teams exploited, despite being 6 ft 6 tall he was beaten quite frequently in the air and was often seen as a soft touch who could be bullied. However one thing I noticed about our now German maestro was he didn’t let mistakes affect his game. He would often make errors, sometimes costly ones but he would then go on to have a very impressive second half. Of course this would not be mentioned in the media or even by our fans because of the fact that the mistake had already been made and therefore, regardless of what he had done the rest of the match had a bad game in the eyes of the critics.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for defenders sometimes. If a striker misses a sitter in the first 10 minutes of a game but then goes on to score a hat trick he will take home the man of the match award. If a defender makes a blunder and his team concedes a goal but then doesn’t put a foot wrong for the rest of the game it won’t get mentioned.
For me, his many Germany caps were beginning to make sense. With coaches and scouts watching all the time and analysing 90 minutes of a football match and not just the five seconds it could take to make an error. They knew the qualities Mertesacker had and hence kept picking him for the national team.
After Christmas in his debut season Mertesacker was starting to give his doubters something to think about. In typical German fashion, he had learnt from his mistakes and started to form a very healthy partnership with Laurent Koscielny. Unfortunately his season ended early with an injury at Sunderland. I don’t think everyone was necessarily convinced by Mertesacker but a few did realise that he was a player with more qualities than expected.
The start of the 2012/2013 posed a problem for Arsene Wenger. He had already given the captaincy to Thomas Vermaelen so naturally either Laurent Koscielny or Per Mertesacker was going to be dropped. I think this is an indication of how much the manager rated our German centre half because despite Koscielny showing world class form for a good six months he went with a Mertesacker – Vermaelen partnership.
The gaffer was rewarded with three clean sheets in the first three Premier League games with Mertesacker being excellent in what looked a new solid Arsenal defence. A few weeks later Wenger decided he needed extra pace against Chelsea so dropped Mertesacker to the bench in what proved to be a big mistake.
Not only did Koscielny make individual errors but that solidness and leadership we had with Mertesacker was taken away and we looked vulnerable. The boss was rightfully criticised for dropping arguably our best player of the season. He was quickly reinstated for the next game and went on to be one of the first names on the team sheet for the rest of the season. I’m not saying he was perfect because he wasn’t but the fact that the large majority of Arsenal fans were now rating and appreciating his talents, showed how far he had come. He was still not rated by the media, often labelled as a weak link to our side and still ridiculed by fans of other clubs for a lack of pace.
However this year has seen a change of attitude from external opinions on Mertesacker. With Arsenal top of the league, losing just two of our first 12 league games and top of our Champions’ League group, people have started looking a bit closer at how our players are performing and not just basing it on their perceived stereotypes. This season Mertesacker has been the outstanding centre half in the league. A lot of this is down to the man himself who has learned what it takes to be a successful defender in the Premier League. He reads the game expertly and times his tackles to perfection. He’s learnt very quickly from the mistakes he use to make and is a leader who others look up to in the squad.
However, I also think the coaches and rest of the team should share some credit in the way Mertesacker now shines at the back for Arsenal. His biggest weakness, his pace or should I say lack of it is protected against by our full backs and midfield. Per simply plays within a small radius outside the box. He doesn’t get dragged to the wings, out of position or rush into tackles. If a striker is last man against Mertesacker (which you very rarely see) it’s because something has gone wrong earlier in the defending process of the team. The fact this team has been together for a good few years and now know each other’s game very well has arguably benefited Mertesacker more than any other player.
In a strange way his lack of pace has actually turned into an asset. Per knows he can’t get caught out or left behind because there’s simply no way he can recover. Instead he reads the game, defends properly and commands his other defenders to do the same.
It looks as if he’s going to be extending his stay here which is fantastic news. A four year contract is said to be on offer and many see him as a strong candidate to be the next Arsenal captain. He deserves a new contract and is finally getting the recognition his talent deserves.