12 February 2015

Danke schön, Poldi; Auf wiedersehen, Per?

How do you solve a problem like Mertesacker? On one hand, he's become one of the most likable, affable members of the squad. His pairing with Laurent Koscielny had built a firm foundation for the defense, with the pair reaching in early 2014 an unbeaten streak of 31 games (ending in the ignominious 5-1 loss at Anfield). On the other hand, his Achilles' Heel has been two-fold—his pairing with Koscielny is only as good as Koscielny's Achilles, and his own pace is his weakest spot. We've known this since he first joined the club in 2011; the problem has only worsened as he's aged. With his bestest buddy Poldi having been loaned out to Inter, could we soon be bidding auf wiedersehen to Per as well?

With Poldi, it had become abundantly clear that he just didn't fit into Arsenal's plans. Even more than other wingers, Poldi was a one-dimensional presence (albeit an occasionally devastating one). Without the ball at his feet, he was too often a desultory player, offering only the most-cursory defending and movement off the ball. Yes, he was a cut-up, and yes, he delivered some dramatic moments, but, on the whole, he offered more sizzle than substance, and so he was loaned out to Inter.

Like his German compatriot, Per had developed a penchant for scoring vital goals: the opening goal (and game-winner) against Hull in this season's FA Cup third round. Last season, a game-winner in a 3-1 win over Stoke. A late equaliser against Wigan in the FA Cup semifinal. In the 2012-13 campaign, he scored an emphatic equaliser in that pulsating 5-2 North London Derby victory, and he scored again in the reverse-fixture as we fell 2-1 at White Hart Lane. Later in that same season, but no-less significant, he scored the only goal in a 0-1 win at Craven Cottage as we surged forward to wrest control of North London from Tottenham.

However, there's always a "however."

Would we still be extolling the BFG if Fabianski hadn't turned in such a dramatic performance against Wigan in that FA Cup semifinal? After all, it was Mertesacker's desperate tackle that led to Gomez's spot-kick (which Fabianski very nearly saved). For Per to score that equaliser might have saved his hash, but it begs the question of why his hash needs saving in the first place. His dreadful lack of pace, all too apparent in 2011 when he first joined the club, has become a glaring weakness. We've only recently adapted our tactics, in some part to accomodate his weakness, adopting—at least at some level—his inability to cope with pacier forwards and wingers. Against the likes of Sturridge, Sterling, or Agüero,
Mertesacker is a liability. He can't, won't, and shouldn't come out to meet them. He lacks the physicality to contend with Costa or Touré and can't vie in the air with likes of Pellé, Crouch, or Carroll. Quibble if you will with the varying threat-levels each of the aforementioned poses, but you can't deny the bigger picture: Mertesacker, for all of his affability, stands out as one of the weaker links in the current squad.

Even as I write this, I feel guilty. I like and respect the man, despite (or maybe in spite of) his flaws. He seems like an honest bloke. If we were to compile a list of the Prem's ten-best centre-backs, would he make the cut? Unlikely. He's been a very serviceable centre-back, but how much has he benefitted from the performances of those around him? Kos, Sagna, Chambers, Debuchy, and Monreal have all played alongside him and delivered solid performances. On the flanks, Gibbs, Monreal, Sagna, and Debuchy have offered him cover; then again, Jenkinson, Chambers, and Bellerin have at times begged for support.

Poldi was made expendable at some levels by the glut of talent we had at his position, and he never really displayed or developed the skill-sets we needed to play him elsewhere. At a risk of sounding heretical, I'd suggest that Per has been made indispensable by a scarcity of talent at his position. We have at best two attacking centre-backs (Koscielny, understudied by Gabriel), and a starlet-to-be in Chambers. Per's contract extends until the summer of 2017, at which point he'll be 32 and that even slower than he is now.

There's no doubting Per's character or dedication. Unlike Poldi, he has comported himself with dedication and fervor, even to the point of excoriating teammates for their perceived lack of commitment or passion. However, everyone reaches a point at which their commitment outstrips their ability. As sad as it makes me feel to say so, we're fast approaching that point and will soon cross thath threshold. It's too soon to suggest that we should put Per out to pasture, but that day will come sooner than his contract comes to an end. With youngsters like Gabriel and Chambers chomping at the bit, we'd do well to develop them alongside Kos (no spring chicken himself) sooner rather than later...