In the aftermath of Arsenal’s disastrous defeat to Monaco, there was something unusual about Arsene Wenger’s post-match press conference. Typically, Wenger is highly protective of his players. However, in this instance he did not shy away from criticising individuals. First he admitted that Olivier Giroud “missed easy chances”, before turning his fire on Per Mertesacker.
Unlike with Giroud, Wenger’s condemnation of Mertesacker was entirey unprompted. Asked about the lack of protection on the back four, he instead moved swiftly to cast aspersions on the giant German’s contribution:
“The ball deflected off Per [Mertesacker]. He turned a little bit and that's when you are most in danger with deflections - if you don't face the ball.”
It’s extremely rare for Wenger to question a player so openly. His words are particularly surprising given that he must be aware of the media discourse that has surrounded Mertesacker’s performances this season, with Sky’s Jamie Carragher particularly critical of his tendency to turn his back on the play.
Wenger’s startling friendly fire might be an indicator that Mertesacker’s place in the Arsenal team is now at risk. For most of this season, he’s been an automatic choice -- with Laurent Koscielny struggling with an achilles problem, he’s been the only fit senior centre-half in the squad for long periods.
However, after the arrival of Gabriel Paulista from Villarreal, Wenger now has options. With the recent relegation of Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Flamini, the Arsenal manager has demonstrated a ruthless streak. After Mertesacker’s disappointing outing against Monaco, he may find himself relegated to the substitutes bench for the weekend’s game with Everton.
It’s been a difficult season for Mertesacker. At the outset of the campaign, he spoke about the difficulty of finding motivation off the back of a World Cup win. However, the greatest impediment to his quest for form has been the absence of his preferred partner. Since Koscielny’s return, Mertesacker has looked significantly steadier.
Until last night, that is. With Arsenal forced to chase the game, Mertesacker’s chronic lack of pace was badly exposed by Monaco’s counter-attacking game. When the sloth-like Dimitar Berbatov is leaving you for dust, something is badly wrong.
Mertesacker is an immensely popular figure among the Arsenal fans. He’s clearly a very dedicated professional and a very likeable guy, and he’s a good defender too -- the weaknesses in his game are frequently exaggerated. However, doubts persist over whether or not he is good enough to see Arsenal achieve their supposed goals of winning the domestic title and Champions League. It’s telling that when it came to the crunch period of Germany’s World Cup campaign, Mertesacker was dropped in favour of a partnership of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng.
Gabriel remains something of an unknown quantity in the Premier League, but Wenger may now consider his introduction a gamble worth taking. The Brazilian will have to accelerate his adaption sooner or later, and Gabriel and Koscielny paired effectively against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup.
For Mertesacker, a spell on the sidelines could prove beneficial. Not only would it provide him with some much-needed rest, but the increased competition could inspire him to produce better form. Based on his calamitous display against Monaco, improvement is certainly required.
READ: What Arsenal Fans Can Expect From New Signing Gabriel Paulista