The Emirates Stadium erupted in familiar boos of frustration on the opening day of the season, when Arsène Wenger’s patched up defence conceded 4 at home to Liverpool after a less than active transfer window. Arsenal were forced to field a centre back pairing of Calum Chambers and Rob Holding. The latter was a £2 million summer signing from Bolton without any Premier League experience, against a Liverpool attack that have continued to score goals for fun under Jürgen Klopp this season.
The progression of France at Euro 2016 meant Laurent Koscielny was not fit for the season opener. With Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista also sidelined through injury, Arsenal were left without any senior defensive options. Much to the fury of Gunners fans, Wenger failed to add experience and solidarity to his defensive line. Despite numerous links to top players throughout the summer, his team were left playing catch up with their rivals after just one game.
The toughest Premier League season to date?
The early arrival of Granit Xhaka for £30 million gave Arsenal fans hope that their club would be competing for the top players in the transfer market, and were not afraid to spend big to keep up with their rivals. The manager merry-go-round in the Premier League meant José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte would join the likes of Jürgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman in what promised to be the most hotly contended Premier League season to date. With so much managerial talent plying their trade in England’s top league, Arsenal fans were left sweating that their team would be left behind without adding to the squad that fell short of the league summit once again last campaign.
Shkodran Mustafi’s arrival on deadline day brought with it far more optimism and relief than any recent Arsenal signing under Wenger’s reign. Arsenal have been crying out for a centre back to partner Laurent Koscielny and plug an area in the squad that has been starved of quality since the days of Sol Campbell, Kolo Touré and Martin Keown during The Invincibles era. Although at the top of his game mentally and able to read the game well, Per Mertesacker has always seemed to lack the pace required in the Premier League, with teams often looking to get men behind the ball and hit Arsenal on the break. Gabriel Paulista has also failed to establish himself since his arrival from Spain, the Brazilian often hindered by injuries during his short Arsenal career.
Despite still only 24 years old, Mustafi brings with him a World Cup winners medal and the experience of playing in Italy and Spain for Sampdoria and Valencia, coming up against some of the world’s best attacking talent for his clubs and for the German national team. Since his switch, Mustafi’s partnership with Koscielny has blossomed and the two have gelled quicker than Arsenal fans could have dreamed of. The pairing have conceded just 4 goals in 8 games since the end of August, receiving plaudits for their performances and keeping 5 clean sheets in the process. Mustafi’s pace and reading of the game, as well as his relaxed demeanour and ability to play out from the back with the ball at his feet, has complimented Koscielny’s game. This has bolstered an Arsenal defence that have been steadily improving as the season has progressed.
In his opening match at home to Southampton, Mustafi fitted in to the Arsenal eleven seamlessly. He recorded more touches (94) and more passes (86) than any other player on the pitch. The German showed confidence in his own ability and the composure to step into the opposition half to start attacks, a trait that is widely expected of the modern-day centre half. His performances have gone from strength to strength since his debut, with particularly standout displays against Diego Costa at home to Chelsea and in a tough victory away to Burnley.
Arsenal’s best defence since the Invincibles?
Arsenal legend Martin Keown had his say on Arsenal’s latest defensive acquisition, believing he has the quality to compete at the highest level. “I like the way Mustafi organises himself. He is very good at slowing down his opponent, quick to get into position and reacts quickly to danger. He has spring and athleticism, attributes that create a better, all-round centre back”. Speaking about Koscielny and Mustafi’s prospering partnership, Keown played down early hype likening them to some of Arsenal’s best. “It’s far too early to say if they are the best since The Invincibles, but it looks like a very good, promising partnership”.
Although it remains early days in Mustafi’s Arsenal career, his promising start coupled with their impressive attacking form this term have created fresh hope for the Gunners to end their 12 year wait for the Premier League trophy.