Per Mertesacker has been a rock at the back since joining Arsenal in 2011.
Recently, however, he finds himself on the outside looking in. With Arsenal’s inconsistent defensive efforts, the team could certainly benefit from his skills and his expertise.
Here are a few reasons why the big man should be put back in the starting XI.
Finally healthy and fit
Mertesacker has finally shed the knee injury he suffered last summer. He was reportedly fit since early spring, but Wenger either didn’t trust that or did not want his first start to come at such a tumultuous time. But in his recent performances, he has proven that he is capable of playing at a high level for all 90 minutes.
You cannot blame Wenger for being cautious. At the age of 32 and not playing regularly, one can understand the worry that the BFG would not be up to match fitness. But in every match he has played since coming back, he has looked nothing short of fully fit. In fact, that should make him more fresh than some of the other defenders at Arsenal who were off on international duty this summer.
With more games at inopportune times this season, Arsenal will need more fit players than ever. Mertesacker will certainly play some, but he should be considered first choice, not simply used as a rotation player for Europa League and cup games.
Mertesacker brings a physical presence to the defence that none of the other center backs have. Standing at about 8’9”, the BFG is able to win headers that Monreal and others simply are not capable of contesting. His playing style is ideal for teams with more physically imposing strikers. Mertesacker’s two most recent competitive games exemplify this strength.
The FA Cup final was a masterclass. Rob Holding and Mertesacker ran a terrific good cop-bad cop on Diego Costa. Holding put hard tackles on him in the open field, and Mertesacker commanded the box. After the match, Martin Keown declared that this match should be known as “The Mertesacker Final.”
Chelsea attempted 55 long balls, and only completed 19 (35%), as opposed to 50% for Arsenal. Having the German Giant hold down the center of the defence played a huge part in Chelsea not being able to play it long to Costa or over the top for their wingers to run on to.
In his start against Cologne in the Europa League, he played excellently as well. The Billy Goats repeatedly tried to play the ball long to striker, Jhon Cordoba, but Mertesacker won a large percentage of those headers. The Gunners admittedly looked shakier defensively in this match, but after switching to a back four at halftime, all was (mostly) well.
In the most recent game against Chelsea, one cannot argue with a clean sheet. However, Mustafi did not look confident playing as the central player in a back three. He has looked better playing as one of the outside central defenders, with his tendency to get forward and apply pressure. Doing that while playing in the center spot leaves Arsenal wide open on the counter. Putting Mertesacker back into the team allows him to move back outside.
Mertesacker’s recent performances suggest he is more than capable of hanging with top competition, especially when the other team fields a more physical striker.
Arsenal have a recent history of captains who cannot stay on the field to actually, you know, captain the team. Mikel Arteta was named captain in 2014, and played only sparingly over the next two seasons. Part of this was due to injury, and partly due to not being able to force his way into the team. After he left, Mertesacker was named captain and promptly suffered a knee injury. He did not start a match until the FA Cup Final on May 27th.
Over the last several years, Arsenal have struggled for on-pitch leadership. Having the captain in the stands certainly cannot have helped the situation. Koscielny is a world class central defender, but is not a vocal leader and organiser . Having Per on the pitch solves this problem. He is a leader capable of organising the defence, having done so for Arsenal in the past and for Germany on the way to a World Cup title.
All of the younger players in the squad look up to him. Playing alongside an experienced and more level-headed defender like him would be excellent for Rob Holding’s development. Holding has looked less of a sure thing this season than he did last . The most worrisome thing has perhaps been his positioning. Having the captain next to him for a run of games could help him be more positionally aware.
Finally, his leadership and tendency to stay in his position is a terrific foil to the likes of Monreal, Mustafi, and Koscielny, who all love to bomb forward.
Those three love to apply pressure high up the pitch and join in the attack. It comes off most of the time, but once or twice a game the Gunners are left completely exposed.
Mertesacker (not being very fast) has never been very attack minded. Deploying him would keep Arsenal more stable and positionally astute.
Having the captain on the field would strengthen Arsenal mentally and tactically.
Statistics courtesy of FotMob