Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday October 3 2012
Aside from the aberration against Chelsea, September was a good month for Arsenal with wins over Liverpool, Southampton, Montpellier, Coventry City and a creditable draw at Manchester City. As such there are a few contenders for September`s Player of the Month award. Much of the praise bestowed upon Arsenal this season has revolved around their defence, so it`s probably not much surprise that most of the contenders are those that preside over the dark arts of the game.
That`s not to say the performances have been exclusively defensive. Gervinho bagged 4 goals in September, Lukas Podolski three, whilst Santi Cazorla has settled very quickly in England. After an austere August in front of goal, the Gunners have hit their two weakest opponents for six this month. But consideration for the award, in my opinion, comes down to a three horse battle. Mikel Arteta has moved into a deeper role following the sale of Alex Song. If your eyes aren`t able to see what he brings (and I think most Arsenal fans see it in Technicolor), he is our best, cleanest and most persistent tackler, as well as our most frequent and accurate passer. No player in England has touched the ball more times than Arteta this year and no midfielder has wasted it less.
But it`s not just defensively that the Spaniard`s wiliness is so invaluable. He is the springboard for our attacks. Arsenal are a team that likes to build from the back and Arteta is always on hand to take the ball off the centre halves and recycle it effectively. In turn, this also means the centre halves don`t have to push up so high and risk being caught too high up the pitch if an attack breaks down. Arteta is Arsenal`s umbilical cord. For all the talk of Cazorla being man marked by Ramires on Saturday, I think the most effective thing Chelsea did to stint our attacks was to put Oscar and Hazard on Arteta.
Arteta is a reasonably grizzled pro continuing last season`s good work. Carl Jenkinson however, is a little wetter behind the ears. But he`s not shown that this season. This time last year Jenkinson was plunged head first from League One into the defence of the Premiership`s crisis club. He was by no means alone in looking out of his depth, but it was certainly a baptism of fire. Twelve months on and as Bacary Sagna nears full fitness we find ourselves asking whether Bac should be on the bench. Arsene Wenger spoke this week about Jenkinson now being reassured that he belongs at this level and has therefore begun to express himself as a result. Arsenal`s attacking bias tends to be left sided, leaving Jenkinson with a more defensive role than Gibbs. But that hasn`t stopped Carl blossoming in both the defensive and attacking sides of his game.
Though Arteta and Jenks come close to September Player of the Month, they are both pipped at the post by the Big F*****g German. It hasn`t taken long for the conversation about Arsenal`s centre halves to shift around the axis of "who partners Per?" He brings an organisational reassurance and calmness to the Gunners back line. The typically 1 dimensional way in which football is covered by tired old newspaper hacks saw Per written off last season rather routinely.
This of course because he can`t sprint 200m in 15 seconds. The modern game is obsessed with pace, so the observation went that slow = lumbering. Never mind the fact that the likes of Baresi, Adams, Maldini, Cannavaro and other great proponents of the art weren`t exactly lightning quick, Mertesacker was, bafflingly, considered not fit for purpose. But Per knows his body and he knows his physique well. Almost like a good striker, he defends on the half turn. Take a look at his stance the next time you get the opportunity. He allows his hips a degree of rotation which both allows him to get a head start in case the ball does get behind him. But it also allows him to thrust out a leg in pretty much any direction to make an interception. At Eastlands, he made a dizzying seven interceptions. All in the last 30 yards of Arsenal`s half. If the ball never makes its way behind you, you don`t find yourself in a foot race too often.
In many ways it was the game that he didn`t play that emphasised his importance the most. Arsene Wenger said he would rotate his centre halves according to his opposition and for that reason; he reintroduced Koscielny alongside Vermaelen for the visit of Chelsea. In hindsight, it was an error- even if many of us, me included, saw and approved of the rationale before the game. Mertesacker seems to bring an élan out in the back four that Vermaelen and Koscielny don`t transmit to one another. Both look much calmer with Per next to them. Yet against Chelsea, Vermaelen made rash and costly fouls leading to both goals and Koscielny hardly covered himself in glory defending the subsequent free kicks.
Mertesacker seems to enjoy a good relationship with other squad members too. I watched him warm up at half time against Chelsea. He would have had every right to have worn a hangdog expression given his form. But he was still beaming from ear to ear, joking with his teammates and, crucially, taking his warm up seriously. He seems to be well liked. It`s not the most important thing granted. Emmanuel Eboue seemed like a lovely guy off the pitch, but if you`re a liability on it, that`s not much use. But I genuinely think Per brings a good mixture of professionalism and camaraderie on and off the pitch. That, together with his calm, authoritative style, might go some way to explaining why his colleagues seem to calm the f**k down in his presence. LD.
Date:Wednesday October 3 2012
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