When Per Mertesacker, the towering German international, first made his appearance for Arsenal in 2011 after what many called – and rightly so – a panic buy defensive reinforcement off the back of the 8-2 hammering by Manchester United, who would have imagined in their wildest dreams that the spring-legged defender would today be a pillar for the Gunners upon which a potential league battle would be launched?
He came after Arsenal’s sloppy performance the previous year when they just scraped into the UEFA Champions. If truth be told, he had no stature of a combative defender suitable for the physical Premier League. He looked wobbly in his step, hesitant in his approach and, frankly, annoyingly too slow for the liking of any fan.
A look at Arsenal’s defence the previous season had clear signs of a squad that lacked aerial prowess. It leaked all over the place. The club was conceding many set pieces for lack of interceptors. What the squad needed was an anti-ballistic tower to block, cancel out and break attacks, not a mere tower.
In his first appearance, he indeed looked clumsy and awkward in the centre of the defence. Questions were being raised of Wenger’s market intelligence.
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Fast forward to the 2013/14 season; Arsenal have what simply and justly is the Premier League’s meanest defense and at the heart of it is no other than the Germany international. His partnership with Frenchman Laurent Koscielny which has resulted in the relegation of crown captain Vermaleen to the bench, has become the launching pad of Arsenal’s assault toward the Premier League title.
Self professed pundits who have been questioning Arsenal’s credentials to win the silverware have stopped justifying their atrocious doubts on the caliber of the defence. No longer do they say: “Their back for is sloppy, it is not as good as Manchester City.”
Statistics are clear that while Manchester City have muscle builder shielding their keeper, they are not the greatest armour in the league. Arsenal are and they are doing it so tactfully; reading the game and making smart interceptions. That is the hidden talent the towering defender has brought to the Emirates.
The Arsenal front line has not been the most productive of the season so far if compared to Liverpool and City. Yet, they have passionately guarded their first position. How does one explain this if not by a look at the defence. Lack of goals is being subdued by the consistency of the defence, proving one big point – the league is not won only by a sharp front line but a brazen defense as well. Arsenal are proving that to be true, winning by a goal but retaining the top spot.
Not that Per is the only one deserving the plaudits. The whole back four does only that the German is the one marshaling discipline this side. Arsene Wenger knows this and it explains why he prefers throwing the arm band at him when Mikel Arteta and Vermaleen are not on call. He is appalled for his defence to concede a goal and you could see anger etch gullies of pain all over his face when the Gunners let Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke head into the net on Monday.
Now the German is talking and is talking tough. He says Arsenal can handle the top tier pressure and go on to win the title!
Save for a few doubting Thomas’ [there were millions but are falling down the sidewalk], there is an aura of optimism at the Emirates and the defence is credited for that. Interesting how Metersacker has grown to become Arsenal’s cornerstone! Remember when he openly criticized countryman Mesut Ozil for not appreciating the fans after a 6-3 thumping at Man City?
Said the defender after the Villa win that reinstated the club at the perch:
It is really tight at the top. There is no chance to drop any points, so we have to show the other teams that we can feel the pressure but we can respond. We look at ourselves and think we are good enough to respond to any challenge they give us.
Now, that is what I call a player thirsty for success!
Hopefully, his spirit is infectious and that the squad will rise to the occasion and shame the self-professed pundits who see nothing in the Gunners. The six-foot and seven-inch kingpin of German make has sounded the warning. Bring on your best, and Wenger’s boys will beat the beast out of them!