Spring is an appropriate time to contemplate rebirth and renewal, and under new boss Mikel Arteta, Arsenal fans have been able to witness the blossoming of a talent long thought to be dormant.
Skhodran Mustafi joined the Gunners in the summer of 2016, but his time in north London appeared to be coming to an end last year. Informed that he was basically surplus to requirements in the summer, Mustafi had only a minor role during the last few months of the Unai Emery regime, as both manager and fans seemed to lose faith in his ability on the Premier League stage.
But under Arteta’s guidance, Mustafi has not only become a regular in the Arsenal first team but is starting to play a significant role in a much-improved Gunners’ back line.
The German international didn’t come into the team until Arteta’s fifth Premier League game in charge, against Sheffield United, but he took his opportunity well with a solid performance and has remained at the heart of the Gunners’ defence ever since. And since returning to the line-up, Mustafi and his fellow centre-half David Luiz have further strengthened the Arsenal back-line that has now conceded just five goals in their last five topflight games.
That sort of defensive form hasn’t been seen from an Arsenal team since the days of the legendary back line of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn. Their new found defensive resilience, with Mustafi at its heart, has helped them to develop some momentum, that has boosted the team’s chance to finish in the top four, according to Arsene Wenger, a man who knows a thing or two about Champions League qualification.
Mustafi’s partnership with Luiz, who has also come in for his share of criticism, is a remarkable testament to what can be achieved by a new manager with a fresh perspective. Mustafi himself has been open about the fact that he never really wanted to leave the club, and he clearly had the ability to perform at the highest level, so it is immensely encouraging to see Arteta find a way to get the best out of a player that had been written off.
It is also a quality of Arteta’s that will be particularly well-received by the hierarchy of the club. Under pressure to spend big to fix an ailing defence, they will be delighted if that particular headache is lessened by the new manager finding more out of the current squad.
And on a personal level, it is great to see Mustafi clearly enjoying life in an Arsenal shirt. Perhaps the most symbolic of his recent performances came against Burnley. A trip to Turf Moor to take on Sean Dyche’s rugged Clarets is exactly the sort of occasion on which previous Arsenal line-ups have wilted, whether under Wenger or Emery. Yet not this time.
Up against physical opponents and assigned the tricky task of trying to shackle the tricky Chris Wood, Mustafi rose to the challenge, winning the vast majority of his aerial assignments and helping to ensure that the Gunners left with another clean sheet and a valuable point.
And that personal determination shown by Mustafi was a reflection of the team mentality that Arteta has been able to instil within a short space of time. That’s why betting firms that are taking bets on the team’s success are starting to cut their odds on the Gunners making the top four, and on their prospects of tasting European success in the Europa League. Thanks to Arteta and his reinvented centre-half, the 2019-20 season could yet end in success.