At 6’6", Per Mertesacker inevitably looms high above his fellow footballers. However, after a quite incredible 12 months, the giant German stands taller than ever. The past year has seen him lift the FA Cup twice, the feat neatly sandwiching the career highlight of winning the World Cup. In claiming those three medals, Mertesacker has delivered a quite stunning riposte to his critics.
They had plenty of ammunition back in the autumn. When Mertesacker returned from the World Cup, he struggled for form, fitness and most crucially focus. Having achieved his dream of lifting the most famous trophy in football with Germany, it was difficult for him to readjust to the day to day grind of domestic football. Speaking to the Daily Mail, Mertesacker admitted:
“The first few months, in particular, were quite difficult to come down and forget that feeling of being a World Cup champion.
I didn’t play at my best. That was because I hadn’t experienced this feeling before. We had a kind of post-World Cup trauma for half a year.”
He wasn't helped by the absence of his preferred defensive partner, Laurent Koscielny. Koscielny is a perfect foil for Mertesacker; the yin to his yang. He makes up for the major weaknesses in the German’s game, and vice-versa. Mertesacker is short of pace, but Koscielny is lightning quick. Koscielny can be prone to panic; Mertesacker is consistently calm. The two dovetail brilliantly, but are sometimes exposed when isolated. The perfect balance of their union calls to mind the Arsenal motto: Victoria Concordia Crescit - Victory through harmony.
Koscielny’s return seemed to coincide with Mertesacker mentally attuning to the challenges of Premier league football. Since the turn of the year, he has largely been his reliable self. That was particularly evident in the FA Cup final. Many felt that Christian Benteke’s pace and power would be too much for the gangly centre half. However, Mertesacker managed the Belgian brilliantly throughout the 90 minutes. This was a towering performance from the number four, and confirmation that he has ascended once again to the peak of his powers.
When Gabriel Paulista arrived from Villarreal in January, many pundits anticipated that he would replace Mertesacker at the heart of the Arsenal defence. Nevertheless, Mertesacker has resisted the challenge and retained his place. He was written off in his first campaign in English football, and fought back from the precipice. He has done the same this season, and will likely do so again.
That's a testament to the quality of his character. Although Mikel Arteta is the official Arsenal captain, and joined Mertesacker to lift the trophy, the reality is that for the majority of the season it has been the German who has led the side on the field. As one of the more experienced members of the team, his contribution to Arsenal’s growing ability to manage their way through games and navigate high-stakes encounters is essential.
Arsene Wenger’s lieutenant on the field is unlikely to be going anywhere soon. As a player with no pace to lose, Mertesacker could yet improve: his positional sense and leadership qualities grow with each passing season.
Mertesacker has now lifted two FA Cups. More than that, he’s raised two fingers to the critics who suggested he was finished at Arsenal.