One Man, One Game: Per Mertesacker (Arsenal vs Barcelona, 23 February 2016)

If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a lot you can tell about a player from a single game of football (crucially, if you know what you’re looking for, you also know what you *haven’t* learned about a player from a single game as well). In the hopefully regular ‘One man, One game’ feature, I do just that. If you enjoy this, please consider backing my Patreon to enable more of this work to be made.

 Per Mertesacker has a lot of fans. Partly it’s for things like this.

Partly it’s because he might – and here the narrative voice slightly trails off into the higher pitch of uncertainty – be Arsenal’s best central defender. I’ve liked Koscielny for a while and they’re different types of centre-backs, so it’s neither an easy nor obvious comparison. Possibly more relevant to Arsenal is the fact that the alternatives to Mertesacker during the BFG’s injury are all more naturally aggressive players, so the Koscielny-Mertesacker balance is harder to replicate without him.

Anyway, this isn’t about that, this isn’t about Arsenal. This is about Mr Mertesacker. A match against Barcelona is always a good test for centre-backs, and therefore a good match to get a read on them. Per passed the test.

Speaking of passing, though, it was fairly clear that he’s not a natural – a few first touches which, while functional, did little to put the ball into a good spot for his next action. This isn’t to say that he’s bad on the ball – he put in a couple of nice passes under pressure which were only executed because of his good awareness of his surroundings.

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His general awareness was good for most of the game, which is so crucial against Barcelona where their forwards, spectres of nightmares, continually materialise just over your shoulder. Mertesacker checked around him and over his shoulder regularly, at good moments, with a nice sense of the rhythm of the game and when he could afford to take his eyes away from the ball. Maybe more importantly – and probably harder to teach – he actually seemed to be fully absorbing this information, whereas some players have their heads on a turntable but never seem to see anything.

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It flagged towards the end of the game, whether through fatigue or because Barcelona were turning the danger notch up on counter-attacks as Arsenal were chasing the game. In the below clip, Mertesacker’s positioning isn’t ideal to either cut off or react to the pass which is made (and which is obviously on), a lapse in usually good positioning driven by a lack in awareness at where exactly the Barcelona forward was. Indecision or poor decision in his footwork then completes the task of taking him out of the game with the pass, although Barca slow down enough to let him recover.

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The phrase “good feet for a big man” is usually applied to forwards built like Andy Carroll, but it’s equally applicable to off-the-ball footwork too, and in particular Per Mertesacker, who would be likened physically to a giraffe if it weren’t for the fact that giraffes hold the promise, though largely unfulfilled, of achieving gracefulness.

Mertesacker’s footwork – light, usually very fluid – is probably a major part in why Arsenal fans roll their eyes when people say “Arsenal are playing Mertesacker against [insert speedy forward’s name here] – lol, this’ll be a bloodbath”. If Arsenal Twitter is to be believed, Per does not often get shown up for being slow, and certainly not as often as his lack of pace is commented on.

This is probably partly because he, and Arsenal, drop into a deep block fairly quickly after their high-line is bypassed. It may also be because he is actually not as slow as the picture his reputation paints. But it’s also likely because his footwork allows him to change direction and accelerate at a rate on a par with the majority of players.

It should be mentioned that he was partially to blame for Barcelona’s penalty and second goal, trying to take a touch to control an incoming cross, but the ball bouncing away loose and into the “Mathieu Flamini danger area”.

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Yeah, so Per Mertesacker has good positional and awareness sense. It seems highly likely that if this is evident against Barcelona – for the majority of the match at least – then it would be evident throughout. His passing is perfectly functional, and his awareness helped him under pressure a bit, but it’s clear he’s no ball-playing natural – the kind of player who’d probably be largely fine being pressed as he knows where his out-balls are, but whose touch might put him in a more difficult situation once in a while.

There was a little bit of indecision on a couple of occasions when he had the opportunity to go for a 50/50-type ball and it’s easy to see why – with that and Mertesacker’s size – you’d imagine that he’d struggle playing in a high line, but you’d want to watch him play in a high line to judge that. Understandably, this was not a game in which Arsenal’s line was high very often.

News to no-one, but Mertesacker is good.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, please consider backing my Patreon to enable more of this work to be made. If you’re a pro-player or coach and think I’ve got some things wrong, don’t hesitate to get in touch markthompsonr[at]gmail[dot]com

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