When the team-sheets for the FA Cup final on Saturday were announced an hour before kick-off, not many people would have given Arsenal a chance against newly-crowned champions Chelsea.
David Ospina was preferred to the obdurate Petr Cech in goal, and varying suspensions and injuries meant that the Gunners’ back three was incredibly make-shift with Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal.
Perhaps the biggest risk of all, however, was starting veteran defender Per Mertesacker in the heart of the three-man defensive system after only playing 37 minutes of this Premier League season.
Ruled out for season through injury, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was left with no choice but to throw the 32-year-old in at the deep end, making him captain of the side for his first game in a year.
Mertesacker’s renowned lack of pace, plus lack of match fitness, allied with the rampant nature of Chelsea’s attacking trio this season just pointed in the direction of a long afternoon for the Gunners.
Yet contrary to pre-match belief, the German centre-back was absolutely magnificent throughout the 90 minutes at Wembley Stadium, truly putting in a gritty captain’s performance to help spear-head his side towards a record 13th FA Cup triumph – and their third win in the past four seasons.
What Mertesacker lacks in pace he more than makes up for with brute strength and intelligent positioning, nullifying Diego Costa’s threat all day and keeping his back-three tight and compact.
It’s easy to forget that the 32-year-old has been part of a World Cup-winning squad with Germany during his career, and this big-game experience is only something that Mertesacker now thrives on.
He’s undeniably a born leader at the Emirates, and in a back-three that were playing together for the first time he did extremely well at maintaining their focus – particularly as the Blues pushed late on.
His full-on commitment and passion for the club was also on display – and has perhaps been something the club have been missing this year – and this was summarised in no better way than his desperate sprint and diving lunge to block a goal-bound Costa effort from inside the 18-yard box.
He kept a careful eye on the runners of Pedro and Eden Hazard (and later Willian) and ensured that he never dived in to a challenge, holding them up on the edge of the area and crowding them out.
Not only this but Mertesacker’s ability to read the game, stepping out of his defensive line at opportune moments to intercept a Chelsea attack, was second-to-none and set a huge example.
As the old footballing cliché goes, the stats don’t lie, and the German managed a mammoth seven clearances, five recoveries and two key blocks to send Arsenal on their way to a deserved trophy.
Whilst Alexis Sanchez is most likely to take the plaudits for his work at the other end of the field, Arsenal are indebted to Per Mertesacker in some way for a truly warrior-like display for his team.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Tricia H Kuhn.