Life at Arsenal couldn’t have started any better for Shkodran Mustafi when he arrived from Valencia for a fee in the region of £35 million last summer. An unbeaten run of 19 games, plaudits for slotting into a defence which more often than not has come unstuck over the years and statistics emphasising his defensive qualities only justified his price tag further.
It’s fair to say that it was only a matter of time before critics would pounce on any weakness the 24-year-old would show, and an unfortunate hamstring injury during the crucial festive fixtures hampered Mustafi’s campaign from there on.
Mustafi missed games against Manchester City, Everton and West Brom over the space of 21 days with that trio of matches providing the start of a drastic change of fortunes for Arsenal in the second half of the season. The former Everton man eventually did make his return to the team but results worsened and a thigh injury in April curtailed a season that started so well.
His aggression, speed to the ball and passing ability were all lauded at times last season and it's taken two games in the new season to remind supporters that Mustafi is a defender who means business. Arsenal have conceded one goal in their last seven Premier League games with the centre half in defence, compared to 15 conceded when he isn't in the backline.
|With Mustafi||PL 2017-18||Without Mustafi|
When Goal sat down with Mustafi this time last year, he revealed that Arsenal’s style of play demands every single player on the pitch to be able to maintain and distribute possession – including the goalkeeper. Mustafi's own awareness of different systems and ability to learn quickly makes him one of the Premier League’s most impressive and burgeoning defenders.
"Especially playing for Arsenal, you have to play because the game today demands you to play. Even the right-back, left-back and goalkeepers are now asked to play from the back. Big teams want goalkeepers who are not only good on the line but good with their feet as well.
"If you want to keep playing you have to have the quality to play out from the back. It gives the team so much quality because if you just tell the striker, 'You have to get the ball from the goalkeeper and you have to make everything on your own', he’s going to say, 'OK, I can do that for one or two games, but 40 games?'
"It’s going to be difficult. You have to give them a hand and we want them to give us a hand as well in defending because if everyone is running at the back four, you can stop a few attacks but at the end it’s going to be too much."
Mustafi’s slide tackling has appeared more rational this season and he appears to have learnt from his fellow central defender Laurent Koscielny, a player who was in a similar mould to the German when he arrived in north London seven years ago. The 0-0 against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge where Mustafi had a goal ruled out for offside was an example of how things can change so quickly in football, yet it was the goal against Tottenham two weeks ago which really got people talking about him once again.
"I understand the English mentality and they are so strong mentally. Even if you are winning three or four-nil, the teams are not dead - they just score one and they become alive. This is something I really like about English football, that they just go on until the last minute.”
Defenders will always court criticism because mistakes and goals are inevitably laid at their door. Mustafi is a grounded, intelligent person off the pitch and it certainly shows when he's in the Arsenal back four. His communication skills are second to none and passion to play at the highest level cannot be questioned either - and when you see the way he conducts himself, he's exactly the kind of defender Arsenal fans have been crying out for.
“That’s you guys thinking it,” he told reporters after the recent north London derby win. “As always – Arsenal is dead. Arsenal is not coming back. It’s always the same. It’s about what the team is thinking and feeling. We keep saying it that we are always alive, we always believe in ourselves, we always try to give everything on the pitch."
With backroom additions and players like Mustafi living up to the expectations set of them, Arsenal are certainly not dead. If the World Cup winner can continue to build up a run of games alongside Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal in the three-man defence then the future certainly looks bright for both club and player.