By Clark Whitney | German football editor
Given the rather exorbitant fees that have come to characterise the English transfer market in recent years, to sign a 26-year-old centre-back for a mere €9 million would at first seem a steal. This goes even more for a player who has also been a regular international starter for seven years, amassing 76 caps. Indeed, on paper, new Arsenal signing Per Mertesacker has all the right qualities that the Gunners need. But while on international duty on Tuesday, he showed precisely why he is no messiah for Arsene Wenger’s ailing defence.
In his first international match since March, Mertesacker was found woefully lacking as Germany drew 2-2 with Poland. He was indecisive and often caught out of position, his lack of pace was exposed, and he even made a few careless passes. While it is true that the former Werder Bremen man is still somewhat short of match practice, his night to forget was all too foreseeable.
|MERTESACKER HORROR SHOW
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|14'||"Reviewing Peszko's chance, it was a very well-weighted through ball that sent him through, but Mertesacker was caught between two minds in defending, and failed to track the winger as he continued his run into the box."|
| PLAYER RATING
|4.5||The Arsenal man had a horrible game as he was caught in no man's land three times, but luckily for him Peszko failed to finish past Wiese. His lack of pace was exposed as he struggled to contain Poland's speedy attackers.
Whenever he has been successful, Mertesacker has played under a coach who emphasises defensive work from all his midfielders, alongside a very particular type of partner, and in a team that leaves minimal space between the defensive midfield and centre-backs. In other situations, he struggles.
Case in point: Tuesday’s draw with Poland. As of late, Joachim Low has employed a 4-1-4-1 formation, opting to remove a defensive midfielder from his previous 4-2-3-1 in favour of having an even spread of five defensive outfielders, and five attackers. With Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber at the back, Germany had little trouble dealing with counter-attacks in wins against Brazil and Austria. But with Mertesacker and Jerome Boateng in the interior of defence against Poland, they were ripped apart. In addition to their two goals, the hosts saw half a dozen clear chances go begging. Moreover, it was the Arsenal man (as well as right-back Christian Trasch) who was most often the culprit in the German defence.
Mertesacker needed another holding midfielder ahead of him, and certainly one more effective than Simon Rolfes. What’s more, he required a more aggressive partner than Jerome Boateng to track Robert Lewandowski and engage the striker as the 'first' defender. Mertesacker had such a midfield in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, and the right partner in Arne Friedrich at the 2010 World Cup, and his quality shone forth: Germany conceded just three times before being knocked out by Spain in the semi-finals.
Just months later, at Bremen, Mertesacker was part of one of the worst defences in the Bundesliga. The reason? His partner, Naldo, missed the vast majority of the season, and the rapidly declining Torsten Frings was no longer able to provide cover in defensive midfield.
Werder were the
|BREMEN DEFENSIVE RECORD
|*Naldo missed season
The sad truth for Arsenal is that they have signed a player who needs conditions they cannot offer. He is not the kind of player around whom they can build their defence, and in their current state, none of his needs are met. Arsene Wenger has not been renowned as a coach who drills his defences as diligently as his attacks, and his central midfield has been fragile since the departure of the indomitable Patrick Vieira back in 2005. What’s more, the only player capable of properly partnering Mertesacker is Thomas Vermaelen, who has barely played in the last year and is set to miss six more weeks as he undergoes ankle surgery.
In all likelihood, Mertesacker will have trouble adapting to life in north London. And now, after his horror show against Poland, he faces a steep uphill climb if he is ever to become a key player in Low’s plans for Euro 2012.
Every player, especially one with Mertesacker’s experience, deserves a chance to prove himself, and it would be unfair to write him off just yet. But Arsenal fans be warned: Mertesacker is more likely to be a Senderos, Stepanovs or Cygan than he is a Keown, Adams or Kolo Toure.
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