In Defence of Shkodran Mustafi
“Being a centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession.” Gerard Pique, November 2015
Shkodran Mustafi – say the name and it sends shudders down large sections of the Arsenal supporter universe. And as is a very Arsenal custom, he has become the scapegoat for all of Arsenal’s defensive issues.
He’s been tarred and feather as either our worst signing ever or the worst defender we ‘ve ever had or currently have. A lot of the increase in vitriol, is based off a series of video clips put out this week by twitter account @ThierryyHenry.
Shkodran Mustafi defending, a thread;
— #14 (@ThierryyHenry) February 4, 2019
The problem I have with his analysis by clip is as follows – it highlights a single moment; a few seconds of action and It ignores everything else that led to that moment.
When you take a coaching course, be it, FA, UEFA, and USSF, one of the things they ask you to do is look at everything going on around any one event – goal, mistake etc. (paraphrasing here) and not just that single moment.
As I watch those clips, I could argue that there are other break downs in front of Mustafi that may force him into situations that aren’t playing to his strengths in 1v1 situations.
The fact is, you could take a series of video clips of the worst person to ever play the game and make them look like they are an absolute world beater. It’s all about how you frame those clips.
Let’s be clear, Mustafi isn’t devoid of issues and we’ll discuss those, but the video clips make him out to be a pantomime villain, a distinction I am not sure he deserves.
We want to look at whether or not Shkodran Mustafi really is our worst defender or if its just another case of looking for someone to put the blame on – which is the right of every fan.
We will look at Mustafi from a few different angles:
- How the modern CB role has changed
- His strengths and weaknesses
- His partnerships
The Role of the Modern CB
To many, the Centre Back is the blood, guts and personality of a team. They are supposed to be full of grit and are great at locking down the area in front of the goal and to help preserve clean sheets. Who can every forget 1-0 to the Arsenal under George Graham? It was an era of defensive specialists.
Fast forward to today and in walks one man, Josep Guardiola Sala. Pep’s introduction to the game as a coach saw the transformation of what a central defender really was. We all know what Pep is famous for – the flowing, thoughtful attacking play that has resulted in a 73.5 per cent win percentage for the Catalan manager
What many may not equate to Pep is that his sides are some of the best defensive sides in Europe. In fact, in every league he has played in, his teams have had the best defensive record in that league.
Instead of relying on grit and clean sheets to win, Guardiola saw the role of the defender differently. His system of play views the defenders as a means to support the attack as well as deny the opposition opportunities.
Guardiola’s sides, especially Barcelona, relied on zonal marking and an aggressive press as its main defensive weapon. With the team pressing higher up the pitch and winning the ball quickly, pressure on the CBs to be the dogged defenders of yesterday is alleviated. Now, centre defenders had to combine thoughtful defensive skills with excellent skills on the ball in order to function as part of a system.
As more and more coaches/managers started adopting Pep’s philosophy with frantic pressing and playing out of the back, the role of centre back evolved so that now they needed to be good on the ball with a good range of passing in their tool kit.
When Mustafi was first linked with Arsenal, Andrew Gaffney, the La Liga writer for Yahoo Sports UK sad this about him:
“He’s comfortable on the ball but isn’t likely to go charging up the pitch, dribbling past everyone in his way. Instead he’ll prefer to push forward but then look for a long ball up to the main striker, or over the top for someone to run on to”
Mustafi would join Arsenal in 2016 and the Gunners wouldn’t lose their first game of the season until he went off injured in a win vs. Stoke. The following match Arsenal lost 2-1 to Everton, the biggest change – no Mustafi. That run saw them keep 3 clean sheets and included a win versus Chelsea, and draws to United and Spurs.
With Wenger’s desire to play expansive attacking football, having a CB like Mustafi who was solid on the ball and showed excellent intelligence and awareness was essential to the success Arsenal had early in that season.
Mustafi’s Strengths and Weaknesses
When trying to evaluate Mustafi’s strengths and weaknesses, it helps to also have an idea of the key attributes that make up a good centre back. For that we’ll use the 7 attributes as identified in this article by SportsSkeeda.
- Communication along the backline
- On the ball ability
- Upper body strength
- Aerial ability
Mustafi is a player bred through the development of multiple leagues. At 17 years old he arrived in the Premier League at Everton but after 2 years of trying, he couldn’t get regular playing time.
From Everton, he went to Italy, where he spent two years in Serie A with Sampdoria. His tenure at the Italian club was the catalyst that gained him an invite to the 2014 World Cup Training Camp. After Germany won the World Cup, he would move on to playing for Valencia.
During his time with Los Che he was widely regarded as one of Spain’s most impressive defenders – which kept him in the national team picture. It also resulted in him capturing the eye of Arsenal and a trip back to England.
When he came to Arsenal in 2016 at the age of 24 he featured on matchday 4 and helped Arsenal to an impressive run of 19 matches without a loss when he featured in the squad. That run consisted of 12 league games.
Mustafi is a strong player and defensively he likes to hunt the ball and work his positioning so he in the way of any incoming shots. He is imposing in the air and wins more aerial duels than you’d expect him to do. He tops all this off with energy to spare.
One of the most underrated aspects of his play may be that with the ball at his feet he shows a level of comfort you’d expect from a midfielder and he has an array of short and long passes to complement his ease on the ball.
Be it defending or attacking set pieces, Mustafi possesses a deceptively strong ability to time his leaping and win many of the aerial duels he faces.
Where Mustafi has issues is overcommitting in 1v1 situations and allowing himself to get caught out in certain situations. Additionally, when he gets caught out, he sometimes has been known to go to ground too early in an attempt to win the ball
As he has matured, he’s tried to get rid of the nervous moments you’d expect from a lesser-experienced CB, but they do creep back and sometimes and as we’ve all seen, they happen at the most inopportune moments.
When you get beat in 1v1 situations, the expectation is that the central defender will have enough speed to recover and get back to delaying the attack. Unfortunately for Mustafi, he isn’t blessed with pace and when he gets beat he’s often struggled to get back.
Pace isn’t something that can be fixed, and I think it’s why he was more comfortable making the passes to the midfielder and then dropping back. It was under Wenger that we saw him push further up with the ball at his feet – which as we know can leave him overexposed.
Still, at 26 years old he’s young enough to learn from proper coaching and a system that benefits his style. One of his intangible strength’s is his overall mentality. He approaches everything with calmness and doesn’t let things affect him too much:
“At the end of it all, I’m a person like any other who is on the Earth to strive for paradise. That’s my task and if I play a crap game today, it’s not the end of the world.”
When Mustafi came to Arsenal in the 2016 season he was immediately paired with “elder” statesman Laurent Koscielny. At the time the club felt Mustafi was the perfect new partner for Koscielny as Mertesacker slowly drifted into retirement.
For the first 12 games of that season the two were paired together and carried Arsenal off to an impressive run that halted until he got injured in the 25th minute to Stoke.
Fast Forward to this season and Mustafi became the primary centre back in Arsenal’s set up partnering both Sokratis and Holding up until the 16th match of the season when he himself went off injured.
This season though, Arsenal have had 11 different Center Back pairings featuring 6 different players that include Xhaka, Lichtsteiner and Monreal actings as CB during that time frame. The only player to play as a centre back the longest this season is our man Mustafi.
Great CB pairings are the things of lore especially in the glorious yesteryears of 1-0 wins. Now, with stats and everything available to select players, teams are looking to create pairs that complement each other.
Rather than solely focus on left footed vs right footed or dogged defenders, teams want CBs that can offer multiple skill sets while supporting the play of their defensive partner.
This could be one of the biggest issues Arsenal has with its pairings. All of the defenders on their own possess excellent qualities but none of them are the defensive leader needed to organize and lead a back line and the on-the-field general a team needs.
Nowadays, back lines are built this way. Look across the league, Lovren//Gomes alongside Van Dijk, Otamendi/Stones with Kompany. In isolation, certain members of these back lines would look worse off than when they are paired with the linchpin partner.
During the 2012/2013 season, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny formed a formidable, yet unorthodox pairing for Arsenal. Koscielny was growing in strength on the ball and passing effective, sometimes going forward while Per was marshalling the back line and using his game reading skills to position himself to win the ball when called on.
With Szczesny in goal, the defensive set up for Arsenal turned in 16 clean sheets tying them with Chelsea that season and resulted in the young Pole sharing the Golden Glove with his eventual replacement, Petr Cech.
As much as Mustafi may be at fault for his individual errors, whom he’s paired with may result in the larger defensive issues he experiences as well. We simply don’t have the player to play alongside him or any of central defenders that can be the leader we need.
Statistically the Best
“If you dwell on statistics, you get shortsighted. If you aim for consistency, the numbers will be there at the end.” – Tom Seaver
Today one of the most debated topics in football is the use of statistics to tell how good a player or a team is. There are those who are vociferously against it and those who defend its application as the path forward.
Part of the problem with statistical content is that reliable metrics fluctuate and what some outlets use as stats are different and subjective versus what other outlets use – e.g. defensive errors. Our friends over at the Rangers Report put it best – that stats can be used as an entry point to evaluate play, recruit players and even identify trends in opponents.
We know that stats aren’t everything and that is why we left it late to bring them up. Especially because in some context no one has really come up with a reliable defensive rating system for centre-backs.
Squawka and WhoScored have their reports and we will highlight them but we are going to start with a flashback in time to 2016/2017 and Mustafi’s first season at Arsenal. At the time, the CBs in the squad were him, Koscielny, Gabriel, Holding and the oft-injured Mertesacker.
Again, turning to our friends at Rangers Report, they developed what we believe to be an effective way to look at defenders using data from both WhoScored and FourFourTwo’s Stats Zone.
Their data evolved into what they called Relative Scoring Chance Suppression Rates (RelSCS%) simply put, how many scoring chances does a defender give up relative to the rest of the league.
Using this metric from Rangers Report and applied to Mustafi’s first season at Arsenal, he rated as the top defender in the league
According to Rangers Report Analysis during the 2016/2017 season:
In his nearly 2,200 minutes, Mustafi only allowed eleven scoring chances from his side of the pitch. There were 28 scoring chances coming from his partner’s side. That equates to 72% of the scoring chances coming from his partner’s side – the league average for players on the left (where Mustafi’s partners played) was 55%…that translates to a RelSCSS% of 0.17.
In their team by team analysis for the same season. They found:
The fact is that 55% of the shots & 63% of the scoring chances occurred on Koscielny’s side of the pitch last season. When he played as a left sided center back, 69% of the scoring chances came against him, which is a RelSC% of -0.14. In the same role, 70% of the goals came from his primary zone of influence (the league average is 62% of goals coming from the attacking team’s right side of the pitch).
Mustafi had the highest RelSCS% in the league last season.
We’ve asked Rangers Report if they could update the data to this year and if we get it we’ll publish as a follow up.
So. what about this year? Well, without the RelSCS% metric we are left to using the more widely known Squawka and WhoScored. First using Squawka and their defensive stats, out of all four of Arsenal’s defenders, the only metrics Mustafi isn’t leading in are Def Error (No Goal) and Total Blocks.
The other stats all support a player who is strong positionally, good in the air and a strong tackler.
When we turn to the WhoScored.com comparison matrix, again it is the most-hated defender who leads in most categories as well as the overall rating matrix. In fact, the player most fans compare him to, Sokratis, comes out worse than all of Arsenal’s central defenders.
Still we’ll off up this disclaimer from Rangers Report:
Disclaimer: creating stats for defensive play is difficult & this certainly has not ‘cracked the code.’ Football is a fluid sport with so many moving pieces. Shots allowed are not always the fault of the center back – sometimes they’re out of position because they have to cover for a teammate or they are left exposed because their full back partner is either absent or a poor defender.
Again, statistics aren’t the be all and end all of this debate. However, our friend @YankeeGunner opined on twitter the other day, that by the end of the season, the stats tend to bare out the truth of the matter.
Taking that into consideration the trends certainly show that when its all said and done, and when we’re into May, it will be the German Shkodran Mustafi who is statistically our best defender.
This whole article was born from a faulty image (below) and a series of clips that lacked any context to the events that led up to the errors by Mustafi. The fact that many of his errors look comical, compound the ridicule he gets.
However, from his time at Sampdoria, los Che, the DFB National Team and with Arsenal he has shown himself to be the prototypical model of a central defender for today. Good with the ball, positionally aware, strong and resolute in the air, Mustafi isn’t the problem with Arsenal defending. A symptom of other, bigger issues? Quite possibly, but that’s for another time
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