Arsenal: Is Mertesacker Becoming The New Pascal Cygan?

At fault for all four goals against Blackburn, showing a worrying lack pace and seemingly unequipped to marshall his teammates, Mertesacker has suffered a baptism of fire and brimstone. Can he recover or will he follow Cygan and Senderos into the long-list of poor central defenders?
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At fault for all four goals against Blackburn, showing a worrying lack pace and seemingly unequipped to marshall his teammates, Mertesacker has suffered a baptism of fire and brimstone. Can he recover or will he follow Cygan and Senderos into the long-list of poor central defenders?

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A few weeks ago I posited that Arsenal’s new German defender Per Mertesacker would have problems adapting to the pace of the Premier League. After Saturday’s defeat to Blackburn, that now looks like an understatement.

It’s possible to argue that Mertesacker was culpable for all four of Blackburn’s goals on Saturday. For the first he was not in line with the rest of his back four, and his long, gangly legs weren’t long or gangly enough to stop the through ball to Yakubu, who was past him before he knew it. Alex Song’s own goal wasn’t directly his fault, but the way Arsenal defended a very weak set-piece displayed a marked lack of organisation and decisiveness throughout. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect Mertesacker to have addressed that after only three weeks with his new team-mates, but neither is it expecting too much to see an experienced international defender like him at least organise his defence at set-pieces. The same could be said for Yakubu’s second goal. And for Koscielny’s own goal, Mertesacker was so far up the pitch that he was helpless anyway, the speed of Blackburn’s counter-attack again having left him behind. Incidentally, at the other end he didn’t win himself many admirers either, when he missed a late header that would have given Arsenal a point.

It seems that if Mertesacker plays, and Thomas Vermaelen isn’t playing with him, Arsenal need to play a very deep defensive line to prevent him being caught out for pace in behind

He was, undoubtedly, a respected and successful player in the Bundesliga, and still is for Germany. He had a superb World Cup in 2006, earning him a move to Werder Bremen, and it was constantly rumoured that Bayern Munich would sign him to extend their monopoly on the German national team. But despite being visibly imposing, standing at 6”6, he was never the most vocal. He did captain Bremen occasionally, but that role was traditionally performed by Torsten Frings or Frank Baumann, while for Germany, characters such as Michael Ballack or Bastian Schweinsteiger were the ones who rallied the troops. Arsenal have lacked a leader at the back ever since Sol Campbell left the club in 2006. And, judging from their defending at set-pieces on Saturday, when the entire defence looked like a team of strangers, Per Mertesacker won’t be the one to fill that void. He doesn’t look like someone who will berate his team-mates loudly or consistently enough to whip them into shape, and help rectify Arsenal’s “Goals Against” column (14, the worst in the division). That isn’t just because of the obvious language barrier either.

A few weeks ago a respected journalist remarked that he’d imagined a mental footrace between Pascal Cygan and Per Mertesacker, and couldn’t pick a winner. Indeed, many people worried how long it would take him to adapt to the pace of the Premier League. Swansea at home didn’t present too much of a problem. But at Blackburn he looked utterly at seas at times against the pace of Yakubu, Junior Hoilett and Martin Olsson. It seems that if Mertesacker plays, and Thomas Vermaelen isn’t playing with him, Arsenal need to play a very deep defensive line to prevent him being caught out for pace in behind. I’d also worry any time he comes up against a speedy forward. He is good in the tackle and anticipates forwards’ movements well, but if he gets turned, I’d fancy even Peter Crouch might give him a run for his money.

Arsenal Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis remarked today that the club has no intention of sacking manager Arsene Wenger. Far from being a vote of confidence, however, what would worry me as an Arsenal supporter is the fact that the word ‘sack’ is even being uttered at the Emirates, regardless of the context. Robin van Persie also used the club website to air his frustration that the team haven’t been able to put consecutive victories together, and are continuing to make mistakes in games. He didn’t specify which area of the pitch these mistakes were being made. Indeed, Arsenal missed a hatful of opportunities in the first half at Ewood Park, so it’s not just the defence that is falling short of their required standards. But these are worrying times for Arsenal. And it could be an eventful debut season for Per Mertesacker in the Premier League.

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