Every great team needs a spine.
For years, Arsenal have been criticised by pundits across the nation for a perceived lack of backbone. However, that particular assessment no longer seems appropriate. In Petr Cech and Per Mertesacker, the Gunners have an experienced and influential axis to lead the team.
Although Mikel Arteta is the official club captain, the Spaniard is no longer a regular starter. Having suffered from persistent calf and ankle problems throughout last season, he has lost his place to the feisty Francis Coquelin. With the Frenchman now an integral part of the first XI, it’s difficult to envisage Arteta reclaiming his place.
That means that Mertesacker tends to wear the armband on the field. He is emblematic of Arsenal’s new resolve, having fought back from a difficult first season in English football to establish himself as a vital member of the team. For almost a decade, the Gunners suffered from the absence of a vocal organiser at the heart of the back four — supporters still have nightmares about the time when William Gallas was the defence’s supposed leader.
Gallas was a fine centre-half, but he was a lieutenant, not a general. It’s no surprise that his best football was played with a commanding co-ordinator like John Terry alongside him. Pairing him with the equally introverted Kolo Toure was a recipe for defensive disaster.
Mertesacker is the antithesis of Gallas. What he lacks in athleticism for makes up for in authority — and in Cech, it seems he has found a kindred spirit.
It was telling that immediately after the full-time whistle that marked Arsenal’s victory in the Community Shield, Cech and Mertesacker were the first Gunners to embrace. This was, in many respects, their victory.
It was always bound to be a special occasion for Cech, who kept a clean sheet against the club where he became a Premier League icon. However, it was his partnership with Mertesacker that allowed Arsenal to grind out the win. As Chelsea cranked up the pressure in their search for an equaliser, Arsenal did something unfamiliar yet effective: they sat back and soaked it up. The once frail Gunners now have a fortitude capable of withstanding an onslaught from the country’s champions.
Mertesacker and Cech are a huge part of that. These are players who understand and adore the art of defending; who are prepared to put the team before themselves. With Coquelin providing a steely screen in front of them, this Arsenal XI has a more solid look than many before it.
There is one crucial difference between the Czech and the German: the former knows what it is to lift the Premier League. After two consecutive FA Cup wins, this season is all about maintaining the consistency to compete over the marathon league campaign. Arsenal want to escape the label of being merely a cup team.
Cech’s experience could be a huge boost to Arsenal, who have relatively few players with knowledge of what is needed to go the distance in English football.
Mertesacker has shown himself to be a capable leader, but with Cech behind him he may have the support required to drive Arsenal over the finishing line.
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