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Over the past several years, Arsenal have been labelled as a side that ‘lacks steel’.
For all the attacking flair that they possess, defensive naivety has been their achilles heel. It has possibly been the catalyst behind the disintegration of numerous title campaigns which were looking so promising.
Another major criticism of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal sides, since moving to the Emirates Stadium is the small amount of ‘leaders’ at their disposal.
The several collapses during the February/March period of a league season have become all too frequent for Arsenal fans. And around that time, when big players are needed to take their side over the line, Arsenal have been found wanting.
After yet another title challenge falling to pieces last year, it seemed like Wenger had enough. It was evident that his team needed a player who would fill a void left for so long and perhaps in doing so, fill the final piece of the Arsenal jigsaw.
So when news broke of an attempt to sign German international defender Shkodran Mustafi during the summer, Arsenal fans had every reason to be excited.
This was a man who, at the age of 24, had already won a World Cup and enjoyed a stellar campaign with his club Valencia.
Sky Sports’ La Liga commentator Rob Palmer noted Mustafi as ‘exceptional’ and a ‘standout defender in the division’. Stats such as Mustafi’s average interceptions per game of 4.4 – the third best in La Liga – did nothing but justify Palmer’s high praise.
What followed were weeks of negotiations with Valencia, with Arsenal refusing to agree with the Spanish club’s hefty £35 million valuation of the player.
As Arsenal’s season began with a damaging 3-4 defeat at home to Liverpool, a game which all three of the Gunners’ centre-halves missed, frustration at the lack of progress with the Mustafi deal was made loud and clear.
Then, just days before the transfer window shut, Wenger finally agreed to pay the £35 million and soon after, Arsenal secured the services of Mustafi. Doubts were then cast over whether or not the German could fit in with the physical demands of the Premier League.
After all, it was a big price to live up to.
Now, after just four league games and two Champions League outings, Mustafi has already convinced many that he is the real deal.
His partnership with Laurent Koscielny in the centre of defence is becoming formidable, with the pair conceding only two league goals since playing together for the first time against Southampton.
The impact that Mustafi is having on the pitch is a considerable one.
“Koscielny is the leader because he is captain but Mustafi looks like he is taking leadership as well as the back,” said boss Wenger. “What is surprising is how quickly he has integrated into the team at the back and how quickly they have formed a pair that works well together.”
Only two centre-backs average more tackles and interceptions per Premier League game than Mustafi this season (6.3) and what is impressing also is the composure he shows not only within the tackle but on the ball also.
The apogee his Arsenal career so far was during the recent 1-0 win at Burnley, a match where Arsenal needed to show strength in one of the most physical fixtures of the season. Mustafi obliged with a textbook defensive display.
The German made the most clearances (13) and won the most aerial duels (5) from on either side. Furthermore, he made six successful tackles, the most in a match by an Arsenal player this season, as well as having a passing accuracy of 81%.
Mustafi’s performance was perhaps symbolic of a new Arsenal emerging this season – solidity at the back that can match their attacking talent.
Arsenal fans will argue that it has been long overdue but with two excellent full-backs in Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal beside them, the new centre-back partnership of Mustafi and Koscielny is adding much-needed stability in an area of the field that has let the club down for so many years.
Yet it is not only on the field where Mustafi is having an impact. The German’s leadership qualities have also been a hit with the fans and his team-mates.
“Mustafi gets people up for games,” Theo Walcott revealed. “If you’re not doing something right he tells you. And that’s great. He’s a German international and that’s the way it is. He’s at a completely different level at this time.”
In a team that has supposedly lacked leaders over recent times, Mustafi is bringing those much-needed qualities, as well as his winning experience, to the Emirates.
The 24-year-old also provides composure to the team, something that has been missing badly, especially last season when Arsenal were hectic in defence when their title challenge demanded the opposite. It perhaps cost them the league.
Defensive signings have not necessarily been Arsene Wenger’s forte since moving to the Emirates. Additions such as Philippe Senderos, Sebastian Squillaci and Johan Djourou have served up more nightmares for Arsenal fans than positive memories.
Even the more recent signings of Per Mertesacker and Gabriel who, despite showing glimpses of potential, have failed to convince with their lack of consistency and liability to the odd calamitous moment.
This time, it seems Wenger has finally got one right. Indeed, it is early days, yet Mustafi already seems like a man who has the qualities, both mentally and physically, to succeed at Arsenal.
The Gunners will need both him and Koscielny to stay fit throughout the season, something that is now imperative to the club.
In what could be Wenger’s final year, it seems like, in adding Mustafi, he may well have solved the final piece of the Arsenal title puzzle.
Written by Sean Wilson
Follow Sean on Twitter @WilsonFC2012
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