Mustafi Absence No Excuse For Arsenal’s Recent Decline In Form
Category : News
For Arsenal and their fans, the past week or so has been nothing short of a disaster. On Dec. 10, the Gunners came from behind to beat Stoke and reach the summit of the Premier League. In the space of eight days, they suffered two defeats — to Everton and Man City — and dropped to fourth place in the table, nine points off leaders Chelsea. The credibility of their title challenge has crumbled incredibly quickly.
It’s tempting to ascribe their problems to the absence of centre-back Shkodran Mustafi. Since arriving in the summer, Mustafi proven himself to be a very intelligent acquisition. He was plunged in at the deep end and coped admirably with Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista both sidelined when he joined the club.
Although Mustafi had previously played for Everton, he had no real experience of Premier League football. Nevertheless, he quickly established a cohesive partnership with Laurent Koscielny at the heart of the Arsenal defence.
His athleticism and intelligence makes him an effective defender in one-on-one situations, but there’s more to Mustafi than that. He’s also an excellent passer, with the ability to fizz the ball into Arsenal’s attacking players from deep positions. The Gunners paid an awful lot of money for the German international, but so far he looks worth his sizeable fee.
With Mustafi in the team, Arsenal still have not lost a Premier League game. However, he picked up a hamstring injury at Stoke and was forcibly withdrawn. Gabriel has since stepped in alongside Koscielny, and Arsenal have subsequently endured back-to-back defeats.
The causality appears clear. However, Arsenal’s defensive problems go deeper than simply missing Mustafi. The fact is that they’re now being punished for flaws that have been present all season long. It’s not as if Arsenal’s defence was water-tight when Mustafi and Koscielny were in tandem — Arsene Wenger’s team have not kept a clean sheet in any of their last 12 games. Their last shut-out in the Premier League came at home to Middlesbrough on Oct. 22.
Perhaps the main issue is that there is no coherent defensive strategy for the team. In every game it appears that Alexis Sanchez is calling for his teammates to help him press from the front, while the rest of the side sit off and wait for the opposition to come to them. One can only assume the disparity is caused by a lack of clarity in the manager’s instructions. Either Alexis is going against the plan or, more disturbingly, there is no real plan.
Santi Cazorla’s unavailability is also clearly a factor. Arsenal’s previous victory against Manchester City came in January 2015, and the Spaniard was absolutely outstanding on that day. His ability to pick his way through the opposition midfield via nimble dribbling and slick passing is unparalleled. With both Cazorla and Mustafi out, Arsenal struggle to get their passing game going. It’s unclear how long Cazorla’s Achilles problem will keep him out, but it’s unrealistic to suggest Arsenal should expect to replace him in the winter market. You simply don’t find players of Cazorla’s quality available midway through a season.
Then there’s the psychological element to consider. Against Everton and City, Arsenal’s mental frailty came sharply back into focus. That issue is endemic and can’t be solved by the availability of one player.
None of this is intended to play down Mustafi’s importance to the team — his performances this season mean that, once fit, he’ll be an automatic starter immediately. However, to suggest his injury is what’s directly precipitated this downturn in form is inaccurate. The comfort is it’s also true that Arsenal can easily garner positive results without their German defender. If Wenger can sort some of the other issues in the Arsenal team, their next six league fixtures look eminently winnable — with or without Mustafi.
Credits: James McNicholas, one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.