Friday 28 July 2017

Mertesacker masterclass shows pace isn't everything

Arsenal's German defender Per Mertesacker. Photo: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images
Arsenal's German defender Per Mertesacker. Photo: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty Images
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It's almost certain that Per Mertesacker has heard all of the jokes. 'His speed is deceptive - he's slower than he looks'; 'Is he running on grass or a treadmill?'; 'He turns slower than the QE2'; 'He makes a beeping noise when he runs backwards.'

For some unknown reason, this column has always had a soft spot for the German's lumbering style of defending and an intrigue as to how somebody with an extraordinary lack of pace can win 104 caps for Germany, a World Cup and have an outstanding club career by any normal yardstick, yet still be regarded to many as a disaster waiting to happen.

There's also the fact that the man affectionately known by Arsenal supporters as the Big F****** German (BFG), seems an all-round decent bloke, with his idiosyncratic dancing, sharp one-liners and a year spent working in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager. "I found I could help people who were not able to live without help," was his eloquent take on that experience.

There are certain players who have the ability to become invisible when they make an error so that it takes a while for the penny to drop. Mertesacker's former team-mate Thomas Vermaelen was one of those who made a catalogue of mistakes but looked decent while he was doing it.

In contrast, at 6'6" there's no place for Mertesacker to hide when he's exposed in a sprint against any outfield player in the Premier League - and probably most of the goalkeepers . However, it's a testament to his ability that such an obvious weakness is so rarely exploited. On Saturday, anybody who ever wondered why he's been around for so long got their answer.

Even if he hadn't just played 37 minutes of football all season, his performance would have been described as superb. Even if it hadn't been 392 days since he last started a match for Arsenal, it would have been a defensive masterclass.

That both of these factors were against him, in a game against a team who had bludgeoned their way to a Premier League title, made his display one of the great FA Cup final performances by a captain.

There were tackles, blocks and headers, but one moment just after half-time summed up just how much the brain can do even when the body probably isn't able.

Eden Hazard picked the ball up midway inside Arsenal's half in space and drove at the defence. As he always does, he looked for Diego Costa to be his point-player, the one who can develop the move to create a goalscoring opportunity.

Hazard played the pass and Costa reached backwards with his arm looking for Mertesacker, so that he could pin the defender into place and return the ball to Hazard, who would then be through on goal.

Instead, Costa stretched to feel a defender who wasn't there and played the pass anyway. It went straight to Mertesacker, who was filling the space from which Hazard would probably have scored.

Unlike some of his dramatic tackles, which blocked potentially goal-bound shots, there was nothing spectacular about the moment, but it summed up a player who, as any slow centre-back loves to be told, knows he's not the quickest from A to B, but doesn't usually start at A.

There were other moments, like the 15th minute when Hazard ran at the Arsenal defence in a similar fashion to how he scored Chelsea's second goal in the thumping of Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.

This time, however, he was met by Mertesacker's telescopic leg, which often doesn't look like it means to tackle but just happens to be in the way. He followed that up by throwing himself at the rebound when the ball broke to Diego Costa.

Ten minutes later there was another challenge on Costa when he recognised the danger, while Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin appealed for offside, completely oblivious to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being two yards behind their defensive line.

Mertesacker might have accelerated with all the speed of a car trying to start in third gear, but it never matters how quickly a defender gets there, just so long as they do.

On the ball, too, Mertesacker's awareness is often underrated and although he'll never produce a raking David Luiz-style through-ball, the five-yard pass he played from inside his own box to start the move from which Danny Welbeck almost scored was another example of the calmness he brings to the Arsenal defence.

"Probably the biggest reason I played at the top level is because I understood it," said Jamie Carragher in an interview with this column earlier in the season.

In Mertesacker's display against Chelsea, Carragher would have seen a kindred, albeit much taller, spirit and a player who faces off against more physically gifted opponents but regularly comes out on top.

Excelled

Mertesacker admitted last week that he had never played as part of a back-three, but at 32 and alongside a converted left-back on one side and a 21-year-old who was part of the Bolton team finishing bottom of the Championship last season on the other, he excelled because, as Carragher said, he understands the game.

The constant chatter to Monreal and Rob Holding either side of him was indicative of the reasons why Arsene Wenger wanted Mertesacker to be club captain, despite his long-term injury.

As the often charming, often infuriating French manager put it, in perfect stereotype: "When a German communicates, you listen."

It's a stretch to argue that Mertesacker's presence would have made Arsenal into title challengers this season, but on Saturday his presence, poise and personality at least ensured a season of struggle for both club and captain ended with a trophy.

Without the BFG, there certainly wouldn't have been a happy ending.

Irish Independent

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