Only a few weeks into the new year, people are already buzzing about the prospects of the EPL’s second half.
And one team that defined the tumultuous and roller coaster first half of this campaign is none other than Arsenal FC.
From deadline day summer transfers to the thrashing at Old Trafford to a sudden resurgence, Arsene Wenger’s side—and his heart rate—fluctuated so much during the first few months that fans wondered where this club ultimately wanted to go.
Arsenal FC entered the second half of the year with hopes of clawing their way into the top four. Two of their most heated London rivals, Chelsea FC and Tottenham Hotspur, both sit above them in the table and the remaining schedule will surely entertain to the very end.
Injuries, misfortune and immaturity have plighted the club for the most part and some players have taken it upon themselves to rise up and carry this team.
One person in particular, Robin Van Persie, has done just about everything in his individual power to secure some consistency for Arsenal, and his well-documented calendar year is nothing short of historic.
While he has taken the headlines and plaudits with stride—he will never solely take credit for his exploits, often dispersing praise to his teammates—it is hard to argue against the fact that RVP was Arsenal’s most valuable player during the first half of the season. He constantly bailed out his side during monster clashes (i.e. his hat trick against Chelsea, his game-winner against Everton) and made many forget about the paltry performances that plagued them initially.
The Dutchman’s importance to the Gunners remains critical heading into the second half, but someone else is going to be counted on, relied on and most of all scrutinized the most:
That man is Per Mertesacker.
The giant German was brought to the Emirates just as the transfer window was closing in August, and with him came a wealth of knowledge, experience and leadership during a time where this young and struggling team desperately needed to shore up their defense.
Having amassed over 300 appearances for club and country before signing for Wenger, he was immediately thrown into the fold and the expectations for Per were insanely pressurized. The former Werder man was supposed to come in and instantly fix the problems Arsenal were having with their back line single-handedly.
The rigors and upgraded pace/strength of the English game definitely caught the 27-year-old by surprise, as he duly admitted. The first few outings were indeed a bit shaky, and that is to be expected.
Yet this did not hinder unwarranted and premature criticism, as many so-called “pundits” were ready to write him off as a trial-and-error defender who could not handle the demands of the EPL.
Such theories were quickly dispelled, as Mertesacker quickly established himself as a reliable starter under Wenger and put in some very impressive shifts as he got acclimated to England. Not only was he able to swiftly adjust his style of play, he was doing so without his ideal partner in the center of defense, Thomas Vermaelen.
Vermaelen’s absence in my opinion can be credited with the German’s failure to get comfortable right off the bat. If the Belgian stays out of the treatment room and is able to form a working tandem, as so many expected, then familiarity becomes less of an issue.
Also, so many were quick to point out the lack of pace and dexterity of Mertesacker, citing that this was the reason he would never succeed in this league. But what the big man lacks in pace he makes up for with intelligence, power, positioning, durability and discipline.
Mertesacker is rarely injured and even more shockingly, he is hardly ever booked. That is astounding for a center back that has played so many matches against some of the world’s greatest attackers.
The month of December proved to be a coming-out party to not only his teammates, fans and coaching staff, but for the stacks of detractors that still questioned his quality. Terrific shifts against Wigan, Everton and in the Champions League quieted a lot of doubts.
The pairing of Vermaelen and Mertesacker looked sharp heading into the new year, but the Belgian has his history when it comes to spells on the sidelines. That is why the German is going to be Arsenal’s most important figure during the second half.
With the decimated roster and thin selection of backs at Wenger’s disposal, Mertesacker must continue to progress and most importantly, stay on the pitch. He has the ability to lead this back line efficiently. Players like Laurent Koscielny and Ignasi Miquel have been able to develop with the demands of the game with the German in the mix.
Fans of Arsenal will be the first to put their faith in Wenger’s moves, and this is a move that looks to pan out for the better. Tony Adams recently came out and spoke highly of Mertesacker, describing the unison he and Vermaelen can eventually come to.
If “Mr. Arsenal” stamps approval on the German, then surely others should follow suit.
I have always said that the fate of Arsenal finishing in the top four will depend on how well they can defend, because RVP is going to get them goals when they need it.
Mertesacker is so important for this second-half charge, and come crunch time, Arsenal’s position in the standings will fall directly onto the 27-year-old's broad shoulders.