With Arsenal floundering below West Ham and Southampton in the Premier League table, Arsene Wenger isn’t the only one taking the brunt of the abuse.
Arsene Wenger has been forced to play a number of youngsters due to injuries or poor form, and former England defender Jamie Carragher pointed a finger in the direction of Arsenal’s most trustworthy defender Per Mertesacker for not helping lead the way.
Mertesacker has started the most games of any Gunner over the past two seasons, and as vice captain he has worn the armband in Mikel Arteta’s absence. But according to Carragher, he’s left 19-year-olds Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin too much to their own devices.
“If you look at the back four and the goalkeeper – Mertesacker’s experience, the games he’s played and the caps he’s won, stands out,” Carragher said after the 3-2 loss to Stoke this past weekend. “There are two teenagers there. I’ve been a young player and you need help but I’ve also been the older player, the experienced player trying to help young players.
“When you go into games like that, you know before the game you’ve got to play your own game on auto-pilot but you’ve got to play half their game for them. They’re young lads. They’re coming into the team at a difficult place in the Premier League away at Stoke. You have to help them but he didn’t. You can see it throughout the goals on Saturday.”
Carragher then blasted Mertesacker for suggesting he’s gone too much his own way.
“When someone’s shooting, you try to make yourself as big as possible,” he said. “He’s making himself as little as possible by turning his back. That is not acceptable for a player of his quality and experience. This is your captain on the day and you talk about leadership, you talk about the character that Wenger always goes on about after the game. He’s abandoned ship. He’s left the young players on their own and abandoned ship. It’s just not acceptable.”
Those are harsh words, but they’re hardly unwarranted. It’s difficult for us on the outside to critique his abilities as captain, but his play on the field has not reflected the heights he’s reached.
Mertesacker’s form has been dropped sharply this season, after proving to be one of the world’s best at his position over the past few seasons and even into the World Cup.
However, as Germany continued its march through Brazil, Mertesacker’s dip was noticeable, and he was benched by manager Joachim Low. He was an unused substitute in the quarterfinal win over France, came on at halftime in the historic 7-1 demolition of hosts Brazil, and only appeared in the final minute of the extra-time win over Argentina in the final.
Since then, he’s done more ball-watching than defending, especially on set-pieces, where he previously made his mark as a towering man-marker. His manager has done him no favors, insisting on a zonal marking strategy on set-pieces, and it’s clear Mertesacker is lacking in the ability to execute such a tactic.
Just look to the third Stoke City goal from this weekend which saw a corner kick fall to Jonathan Walters at the back post for him to blast home. Mertesacker, initially in front of the ball’s projected landing point, blindly threw it in reverse and tracked the flight of the ball instead of either marking a man or protecting a zone. As a result, he backed up into a cluster of four teammates, eventually becoming one of five Gunners surrounding just two Stoke attackers and leaving Walters – among others – completely free.
What’s troubling is these are mistakes consistent with young defenders learning the top-flight game, not an experienced player having a temporary dip in form, which nearly all go through at some point. In this way, Carragher is expressing his disappointment that Mertesacker is unable to guide his 19-year-old teammates in their transition because his mistakes are so elementary.
We’ve seen Mertesacker perform his duties as captain before, calling out teammates when they fail to live up to the team mentality and encouraging them when things look to be falling their way. Last season had plenty of examples. But this year, with the club mired in a slump much earlier than usually dogs this team, Mertesacker must be one of the first to take responsibility for the recent disappointments.