Suffice to say I am still buzzing after Saturday’s magnificent win over the noisy neighbours from Middlesex. It was quite easily the team’s most comprehensive performance of the campaign to date, and after that 90 minutes it would be hard not to point to the return of a certain German defender as being pivotal.
It is the club and Wenger’s task in the modern era to build a squad capable of challenging for the top honours and in this it would be hard to argue they have succeeded. However, this was the first occasion this season when Wenger has been able to put out what most would consider his first-choice eleven. After messing around with the wingback roles to appease Chamberlain in August, he has had to deal with numerous injuries (as is customary at Arsenal) but Saturday saw all the star signings of the past 2 summers on the pitch — along with Alexis and Ozil.
We honestly do not know what is occurring with Alexis and Ozil and in recent weeks. I have almost lost interest, but the victory over Spurs reminded us all what both offer this team. It’s difficult to believe that the same two players who were poor — and in Alexis’case worse than poor — versus Man City could perform at such a different level against another ‘rival’. However, no matter how good the contract rebels were it was Shkodran Mustafi whose return to the centre of the back three was the difference to this team.
I am sure many fans have debated whether Wenger should continue with a back three. Cynics might have even suggested he was persevering with it purely to avoid Xhaka’s lack of pace being exposed. Saturday’s win and performance, however, may have shown us what is possible when Mustafi is at the centre of the three with Koscileny and Monreal on either side. Despite Holding’s undoubted talent, it meant Koscienly was utilised centrally; and as good as the Frenchman is, he is not dominant and vocal enough to play the role. When Mertesacker returned it was better with Koscielny back on the right, but the Club Captain is simply not able to play the role in the same way as his peer.
Mustafi seems to clearly understand the role in the centre. He knows when to attack the ball and when to allow his colleagues to step forward. Last season, when he was on the right of a two, we did not see the best of him. Too often he brought the ball out of defence himself and was left stranded up-field, or made rash challenges that were not required. He is clearly the best communicator and that is something Arsenal have clearly lacked. Koscielny is a world class player but he is not a talker and this system works best with a talker at the centre.
The win over Spurs saw the best of Arsenal’s attacking in the first half. What was more satisfying was the discipline, organisation, and shear resilience of the defending in the second half. How often has a 2 goal start not been enough for Arsenal to see out a game in recent years? The answer is far too often but with this back three staying fit, and with Mustafi at the core, better defensive times could be ahead.
Laurent Koscielny has long been Arsenal’s defensive lynch-pin, and Monreal has made the left central role his own, but the team needs Mustafi in between them. Chelsea had the same back three for virtually all the 2016/17 season once they switched formation after their heavy defeat at the Emirates. Their subsequent success was not a coincidence and the man who lost out was their long-time stalwart, John Terry. It seems that Mertesacker must suffer the same fate as Terry if Arsenal are to flourish in 2017/18.