In the early 2010s, Arsenal desperately needed a new centre back.
Gone were the days of the likes of Sol Campbell and Tony Adams, and even the recently departed Kolo Toure was looking like an irreplaceable asset.
There were hushed voices of the likes of Cahill, Jagielka, which grew louder and louder, especially with every Silvestre, Squillaci, and Djourou that made their sorry way through the first team.
Wenger being Wenger, none of this was acted upon, until one of the darkest recent memories for Arsenal fans, Old Trafford in 11/12, not so much a reminder of the gaps in squad depth between United and Arsenal at that point, but an eight goal hammer blow.
What followed was about as close as Wenger has ever got to panic buying (the fact that Andre Santos and Park Chu Young were among those signings does seem to prove that taking your time may be a better approach!), and finally, a well recognised centre-back, at peak age, was added, in the considerably tall and gangly shape of Per Mertesacker.
Despite a fairly moderate debut season, many Arsenal fans would regard the BFG to be a positive signing thus far. He finally stopped the feeling of dread that most Gooners experienced at opposition set pieces (one of the preceding seasons before his arrival was when Arsenal had the most free kicks conceded in the whole league), and formed an effective partnership with Laurent Koscielny.
Yet right now, with the title race so close, Arsenal’s injury problems not withstanding, there are many questions being asked of the German, here are some of the main reasons why Wenger might look for a new option come January.
One of my personal criticisms against Per Mertesacker, is that he appears to lack any form of leadership.
With Arteta hardly ever featuring in the side, Mertesacker often takes on the captains armband by default, and whilst the BFG moniker that I referenced above may not be in reference to a Roald Dahl classic, the same does seem to ring true with Mertesacker on the pitch, namely, he’s too nice!
This is not an angry, shouty man, in the form of Terry/Keane. I would even go as far as saying that people don’t listen to him, or take him as seriously as they should. Remember how Mesut Ozil effectively turned his back, whilst on the receiving end of the closest thing there has ever been to a Per Mertesacker rollocking.
In between the legions of ads on TalkSport, I heard Ray Parlour talking about how his best mate, Tony Adams, would scream his lungs out at him if he ever stepped out of line, or simply made a mistake. I really cannot see Mertesacker doing that, not because he lacks the ability to be shouty, but because I don’t see people listening.
Bit of a harsh one to pick him up on, and it kind of links back to the above, but when you think of players putting their body on the line, Mertesacker will seldom gain a mention.
I say it’s harsh because Mertesacker has never been that sort of player. Well regarded in Germany for his discipline, positioning, and tidyness, Mertesacker has always been a player who has used his brain to counteract his lack of pace (trust me, more on that later!).
Yet never has he ever exuded a “thou shall not pass” appearance in matches.
Contrast, I watched Youness Kaboul, a pretty rubbish defender, playing for a pretty rubbish Sunderland team, act as a proverbial dam, holding back wave after wave of Crystal Palace attacks last week.
Do you think he would have ducked out of the way of a last minute Liverpool corner at Anfield, with the score at 2-1 in your favour?
The go to criticism.
Per Mertesacker turns slower than milk is my favourite of the jokes, but there are many others. Pace is never a huge requirement for centre backs, but certainly, there have times where this his become an issue.
Arsenal like to play a high line.
While this brings up other issues (see Koschielny’s appealing offside trap vs Spurs), exposing Per Mertesacker is one of the main ones.
Often, nippy strikers will look to target the big centre back in a one-on-one leg race, and for all the tidy footwork, and good positioning, sometimes, a moment of panic will set in.
No better is this demonstrated by the final minute of the rollercoaster 13/14 FA Cup final, where an inability to trace Sone Aluko of Hull, almost led to calamitous final second equaliser.
Perhaps the biggest question is if not Per, who?
With four squad centre backs plus Nacho Monreal (a centre back in Arsene’s mind alone), major additions in January look unlikely.
Thus the natural question, is whether the next man in line, Gabrieal Paulista, is an adequate, or preferably, better replacement.
Gabriel is certainly more aggressive, a better ball player, and faster, yet also raw and naïve.
Diego Costa wound him up a treat, and, with a well publicised lack of English skills, he has been blooded into the Arsenal first team on a gradual basis, a prospect, rather than a full on replacement.
Moreover, despite a promising debut against City in the Community Shield, there are very few who will regard Callum Chambers as being ready to take a first team mantle.
So at present, simply dropping a player that has been the mainstay of the Arsenal backline for the last 5 years, appears a hasty decision.
Certainly, Mr Wenger should be looking to phase in a new option, yet despite the points raised above, I see it as unlikely, that Arsenal will dispose of Mertesacker’s first team services, for at least the next season.
We are yet to see whether this will be a wise decision.
Featured image: all rights reserved by Ronnie McDonald.