The question has been asked for a few years now. Just who is going to be the partner for Laurent Koscielny? We’ve had so many false dawns; Djourou, Vermaelen, Mertesacker (although I think that he did fill the void adequetly for 2 seasons), Gabriel and now Shkodran Mustafi. Yes we’ve also brought in the likes of Chambers and Holding but they are far too young to be given the responsibility to play a mainstay role in the back line.
With Wenger stumbling upon the back 3/5 approach some 6 months or so ago it opened the door to someone who had begun to fall out of favour towards the end of last season. Not only this but it enabled the likes of Chambers and Holding to have some hope at breaking through sooner rather than later. When the final games of the season were coming thick and fast injury prevented Mustafi from really having that chance and our Cup Final showdown with Chelsea was carried out with a makeshift back 5 to say the least. Mertesacker, Holding and Monreal made up the back 3, flanked by Bellerin at right wing back and Oxlade Chamberlain at left wing back. Plasters and sticky tape galore is the only way to describe it. This season, however, Mustafi has come back from injury with a mixed bag of performances until the North London Derby. Playing vs the leagues’ most in form striker and lauded midfield backing any sort of brittle-like performance would have been pounced upon. Mesut Ozil was given the MOTM award, but I really think it ought to have been given to Mustafi. He blocked absolutely everything and won the majority of balls in the air. He ensured that they would just not pass up until the very last kick of the game. We’ve seen that he is capable of this type of performance before, however it’s never been against one of the top sides and that is why there is some new found hope with our defensive line. Couple this with the fact that it’s no longer a duet with Koscielny but a triumvirate with Monreal involved as an additional ball carrier/keeper from the back. Monreal’s stint at centre back has really blooded him into one of the most consistent performers for Arsenal and enabled him to slot in seamlessly into the back 3. All of these individual circumstances, these stars aligning, these happy accidents have allowed for Mustafi to be given a chance at thriving in this Arsenal side.
The hard part of this is going to be whether he can be consistent enough and the really big tests will be coming thick and fast simply due to the varying degrees of opposition that we will play over the next few weeks especially. We go away to Burnley where we will likely have a lot of the ball and look to avoid the counter as well as set pieces. The key here will be maintaining focus if we are struggling to break them down, as many have also found this when playing Burnley. Not pressing to high up the pitch is going to be important if the scores are level the deeper the game goes. This is followed by welcoming Huddersfield to the Emirates who will be similarly set up. Now we know about Burnley’s threat but with Huddersfield being a newly promoted side into Premier League, it may well cause some complacency to seep in. Mustafi can be one of the catalysts to ensure this isn’t allowed by leading from the back. It’s once again an opportunity to build on the confidence off the back of the North London Derby. We then welcome Manchester United to the Emirates and this is where Mustafi will really be tested, along with the rest of our back 3. They are one of the biggest sides in the league and you can expect that the likes of Lukaku, Pogba, Fellaini and Ibrahimovic will play a big part in testing how strong our back 3 really are. The Derby was just about the win and not the performance but thankfully we were treated to both, but this has meant that a little hope has rekindled itself into our lives. That hope will either be fully found or lost over the next few weeks and Mustafi performing as he did vs Sp*rs, and indeed Chelsea, in our next three fixtures could make or break his career at Arsenal.
If he makes an error of any kind and it leads to us dropping any points in the next three fixtures the pitchforks will be out and as we all know, the players all use social media and it won’t take much to crush the spirit of the young German. I’m not trying to say that he is susceptible or deals with social media hate badly, as there is no way for me to know this, however I can say that both good and bad sentiment will play a part in how he may play going forward. It’s not quite like the days of old where players can shut themselves away with training and the club for a week before they put things right, they are constantly subjected to the joys and pitfalls of social media. We can affect them in and out of the ground and those little difference can now make or break a players career at a big club.
He has all the ingredients to be a great central defender; he is great in the air, he’s strong, he’s quick but he does have the tendency to jump in to situations too early rather than passively holding up play. But he has a chance. Fingers crossed he takes it.
Follow me on Twitter @MiteshLakhani.