Per Mertesacker was once a figure of fun at the heart of the Arsenal back four—a gawky ringmaster in a calamitous circus. However, he is now rightly being recognised as one of the Premier League’s most efficient centre-halves.
Mertesacker has long been the subject of prejudicial punditry. Upon arriving at Arsenal, he seemed to be judged more for his unusual appearance than his actual ability. Like Peter Crouch, the 6’7” Mertesacker doesn’t look like a natural footballer. His extraordinary height also makes him easy to spot—mistakes do not go unnoticed when you tower over every other player on the pitch.
There were certainly mistakes. Mertesacker was parachuted into an Arsenal defence that was in disarray. When he joined the Gunners, they had just conceded eight goals in a humiliating defeat at Old Trafford. After a prolonged, but ultimately doomed, pursuit of the rugged English centre-half Gary Cahill, Arsene Wenger opted to move for Mertesacker instead.
The transfer was completed in a flurry of activity. Arsenal sealed five transfers in the two days for the deadline. Consequently, Mertesacker was immediately viewed as something of a panic buy. Jittery early performances seemed to compound that theory.
That assessment looks preposterous now. Even if the decision to sign the German international was born out of panic, he has gone on to become integral.
His first season was inconsistent and ended by injury. However since the start of 2012-13, Mertesacker has been fantastic. It’s interesting that the advent of his best form at Arsenal coincided with the appointment of Steve Bould as assistant manager. One wonders if Bould sees something of himself in the imposing centre-half.
Mertesacker’s importance to the team was truly established in March of 2013. After a disappointing derby defeat to Tottenham Hotspur, captain Thomas Vermaelen was unceremoniously dropped from the side.
Mertesacker was retained and handed full responsibility as the chief organiser of the Arsenal back four. He has grown into the role, displaying superb positional and tactical awareness to keep opposition attacks at bay.
In the early days, Mertesacker would be mocked for his lack of pace. Now he is praised for his quick thinking.
It helps that he has struck up a superb understanding with Laurent Koscielny. In the wake of that painful Spurs match, Koscielny was drafted in to replace Vermaelen. In the very next game, he and Mertesacker were asked to keep a rampant Bayern Munich at bay in the Allianz Arena.
Remarkably, they managed it and set Arsenal on an unbeaten run that would last into the first game of the following season.
Mertesacker has been a cornerstone of Arsenal’s success in this calendar year. His absence in their recent defeat at Old Trafford was keenly felt. It was not just Mertesacker’s ability as a defender that was lacking—as a hugely experienced international, he’s also one of the leaders of this Arsenal squad.
With Mikel Arteta missing the first six weeks of the season through injury, Mertesacker was tasked with wearing the captain’s armband in his stead. It suited him.
If he continues his current trajectory, Mertesacker may one day cap his transformation from laughing stock to figurehead by becoming Arsenal’s full-time skipper.