Arsenal’s presumed centre-back pairing for this season is the duo of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. While the Gunners have depth at the back, these two have the most experience, making them the most likely to anchor the defence.
However, both are coming off of relatively poor seasons. This begs the question, what can fans expect of them this coming campaign?
Mustafi and Sokratis: the New Koscielny and Mertesacker?
Even casual fans know that under Arsène Wenger Arsenal loved to attack. Year after year the Gunners would tear opponents’ defences to pieces, often at the expense of goals allowed at the other end.
However, this was not the case for two seasons, 2014/15 and 2015/16. In each of these two campaigns, Arsenal shipped 36 goals, the third-fewest in the Premier League in each season.
How did they accomplish this feat? Through their two central defensive rocks, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. The Frenchman and the German formed one of the sturdiest pairings in the league at that time thanks to the perfect balance between them.
The hulking Mertesacker would sit deep and rely on his excellent tactical awareness, tackling ability and aerial prowess to thwart opponent attacks. That left the industrious Koscielny free to intervene higher up the pitch in the knowledge that his partner would protect him.
Unfortunately, this well-balanced partnership was dissolved via injury in 2016, when Mertesacker suffered a leg break. That same summer saw Mustafi join the club.
Why the Mustafi-Koscielny Pairing Didn’t Work
The next two seasons, 2016/17 and 2017/18, were marred by defensive errors from Arsenal. The club shipped 44 and 51 goals respectively and finished in fifth and sixth in the league.
While the team as a whole must be held accountable for this, the Mustafi-Koscielny partnership did not help matters. As discussed above, Arsenal got the best out of the Frenchman when he had the defensive safety net of Per Mertesacker alongside him.
However, Shkodran Mustafi offers no such protection. He is a player who excels at challenging attackers for the ball and is far less adept at dropping deep to give cover for his teammates than his countryman. Similarly, Koscielny could not evolve into the deep-lying defender that Mertesacker was.
Simply put, the two defenders did not compliment each other in the way that Koscielny and Mertesacker did, resulting in poor defensive performances from the Gunners.
Here are some numbers to illustrate the change in Arsenal’s defence. Statistics courtesy of Whoscored.com.
The statistics show that in the 2015/16 season, Koscielny was Arsenal’s ‘active’ defender. He averaged more tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks than Mertesacker. Correspondingly, he also gave away more fouls and was dribbled past more often.
However, fans should not discount the safety net that Mertesacker provided his teammate. While the German was certainly the ‘passive’ defender, the results speak for themselves.
The numbers from last season, while similar, show why the defence was so leaky. Mustafi, playing the role of the active defender, did provide more tackles and clearances than Koscielny, who was to be more passive.
Meanwhile, the German could not outpace the Frenchman in terms of interceptions or blocks. This shows that neither were really adept at the passive role which allowed the Arsenal defence to succeed with Mertesacker and Koscielny.
When a comparison is made between Arsenal’s presumed centre-back duo, last season’s statistics bode well for the Mustafi and Sokratis pairing.
The German averaged more tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocks than the Greek. Meanwhile, Sokratis was more difficult to dribble past and caught opponents offsides more often. It is clear that Mustafi is more of an active defender than the former Borussia Dortmund man.
Overall, there is a similar complimentary nature to Mustafi and Sokratis as with the Koscielny and Mertesacker partnership that found success in north London.
A brief physical examination also yields the fact that Papastathopoulos is taller and stronger than Mustafi. A similar contrast exists in the body types of Mertesacker and Koscielny.
The Last Word
Nothing is certain in life, save for death and taxes. The same is true in football. However, going by the numbers there is no reason to believe the Mustafi and Sokratis partnership in the heart of defence will not work.
Instead, there is the potential to see the strongest central defence at the Emirates since both Koscielny and Mertesacker were in their prime. Only time will tell how successful this pairing might be in the Premier League.
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