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Per Mertesacker and the Art of Defending

“I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art” – Arsène Wenger.

Any article opening with a Wenger quote is subject to almost immediate dismissal these days however let us look past the source of the quote and focus of the meaning of the words.

Football, at its purest is art. Players like Cruyff, Maradona, Pele, Bergkamp, Zidane, Pirlo, Best and many more have ensured the moniker of ‘The Beautiful Game’ is not an erroneous claim. That said, the ‘ugly’ side of the game is no less of an art and beautiful in its own way.

Quintessential Jose Mourinho teams and Graham sides of latter years were and are derided for their ‘negative’ tactics and love of ‘parking the bus’ however Graham’s 1993 side, Mourinho’s Chelsea class of 2005 and Diego Simeone’s current Atletico side showed the artistry in defending.

Defending is an art we are losing like a candle being burnt from at both ends. The players are a dying breed and the lack of appreciation for the ones left around is possibly dissuading the next generation from emulating them.

One only has to look at how Mertesacker is received by the majority of Arsenal supporters to know that as a collective we no longer appreciate the art of defending – which is ironic given how often we complain about defensive lapses.

Defending is no longer appreciated for its subtlety, it has become about pace and mild brutality. Crashing tackles, desperate 40 yard runs to snatch at the ball in the box, praying you don’t give a penalty away and throwing your body in front of shots.

We’re a box of contradictions at Arsenal. We berate the manager for not looking proactive in the transfer market or in tactical preparation yet place reactionary defending over proactive threat nullification.

Pace is a huge asset in the modern game but it is rarely required if you are versed in the art of real defending. Per Mertesacker lacks pace, let’s not be shy about that, but like all species overcoming a handicap he has evolved to compensate for that. His positioning and reading of the game is almost unrivalled in the Premier League. A few steps to the right here, a shimmy to the left there (sounds like the start of a great square dance routine)  is all it takes for Mertesacker to take up a position that snuffs out danger before it even kindles.

He still makes mistakes but what player doesn’t? We started this blog with a quote from a sage professor so allow me one more.

“I make mistakes like the next man. In fact, being–forgive me–rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.” – Albus Dumbledore.

Being rather cleverer and better at defending than most players Mertesacker’s mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger. That said, more often than not an objective look at the unfortunate situation as it unfolded shows that it was errant behaviour from Per’s team-mates that put him under unnecessary pressure. An exposed midfield, both full-back’s high up the pitch and a partner failing to properly execute an offside trap is the usual triumvirate of let downs that lead to a Mertesacker social medial roasting.

Gabriel’s recent inclusion served to highlight my thoughts from a few weeks back that Mertesacker needs replacing. It may seem like cognitive dissonance to say he is our best defender but needs replacing but I see it more as succession planning. Without Mertesacker our defence lacks a leader, organisation and a calming influence. In theory Cech makes up for that but as we often play with a high line we need an outfield player with those qualities and Koscielny and Gabriel are both found wanting.

The problem at Arsenal, across the field, is poor combinations. We have great players but also seem to lose the balancers to injury or circumstance. Not all of our players can play together and that’s perhaps why Xhaka is being courted – he could combined successfully with any midfielder we have. That gives us options.

We need another Mertesacker type to enable us to play more than one combination. My choice would be Dragovic but I’ll leave that for another day.

Until we replace him though, he remains our best defender and really should be starting every game. I think it is bizarre that a player of Mertesacker’s ability, experience and influence is such an easy target for erroneous complaints.

You don’t make over 100 appearances for the German national team if you are an average player let alone a poor one. Don’t be fooled by those who claim a ‘lack of options’ to explain why he got so many caps. He gained those caps over 10 years – are you going to believe that Germany, a country blessed with great players, had no centre-backs for a decade? This is Germany we are talking about, not England.

Mertesacker is a quality player in spite of his pace. Let us not forget that plenty of revered defenders had no pace or had lost it by the time they were of a similar age – Baresi, Maldini, Cannavaro, Moore, Adams and Bould to name a few. These giants of the game possessed minds so quick they could have played with one leg.

Perhaps it is no wonder we are forgetting what great defending is when pundits need to tear a player to shreds to remain relevant. These are the people who are supposed to be experts and whom we glean knowledge from. For example, Jamie Carragher often picks at Mertesacker for his pace yet his favourite defender of all time was Baresi – you’ll see in a moment why that is so ironic.

It’s not just Carragher though. Keown and Harry Redknapp also have gnawed at Mertesacker’s giant ankles in an attempt to bring him down. I’m sure in context their criticism was warranted but they sensationalised it. Here are some quotes from those three on defenders given in an interview in 2011.

Carragher stated: “He made a mockery of the idea you have to be big, strong and quick to be a great defender. He didn’t rely on his size – he was only 5ft 10in – or his power but he was a brilliant organiser and what he lacked for in pace, he made up for with organisational skills. The way he read a game would keep him one step ahead of the opposition. He was fantastic on the ball.”

Keown said on Maldini: “It was his anticipation which marked him as such a talented defender – he hardly ever had to go in with a robust challenge because he could intercept passes with ease. He was technically proficient in possession.”

Redknapp spoke of Bobby Moore: “If you had done a scouting report on him, it would have said: can’t run, poor warm-up, 5ft 11in and too small for a central defender. Then he would go and intercept a pass – my god, he could read a game.”

I would not be so foolish or arrogant to suggest Mertesacker is as good as these players but you could easily say these things about our giant German – except the height stuff.

He doesn’t rely on his frame, he relies on his ability to read the game. He is a brilliant organiser, he is proficient in possession and his anticipation is superb. What is appreciated in others is dismissed or ignored in Mertesacker and this is why we no longer appreciate the art of defending.

At six and a half feet he can seem ungainly but is actually quite graceful. There is an elegance in his perfectly timed challenges – most of which go unremembered in favour of exaggerating the times he has been exposed for pace. Even when a defensive brain-fart isn’t his fault, it’s his fault. When he is equally to blame he takes all the blame. Chelsea this season, Reading and Monaco in seasons past – there is a bounty of examples of Mertesacker being blamed for the errors of others.

I still believe that Per will outstay Laurent at Arsenal because he will fulfil the Keown role of elder, dependable statesman. Laurent will quickly be moved on when his position as starter is under threat as Toure was before him. Perhaps when that time comes and he is no longer protected by ‘Gooner vision’ people will see the errors he makes every game and appreciate how Mertesacker’s organisational skills and positioning saved Laurent a few eggy faces.

I’ve long accepted that Mertesacker will never been as universally appreciated as his talent should be but if you are unsure about him and possess an open mind I implore you to watch him carefully when he next plays or look back over some of our old matches. If you focus on him you will see the stuff the focus of the camera doesn’t pick up. You’ll see the clever positioning, the swift marshalling and perfect timing in his challenges.

If you watch Mertesacker you will see the art of defending. If you look at the art of defending you will see Mertesacker.

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