Shkodran Mustafi was set to join the Arsenal summer exodus, mutiny was bound and the crew were ready to flee Arsene Wenger’s sinking ship.
Alex Oxlade Chamberlain had said his goodbyes and booked his ticket for Liverpool. Alexis Sanchez was desperately planning an exit of his own, while Wojciech Szczesny, Gabriel Paulista and Kieran Gibbs had all been shepherded onto lifeboats.
A £34million arrival from Valencia last summer, Germany international Mustafi wasn’t even part of the defensive crew for a good portion of Wenger’s voyages into despair and began the season seemingly even further behind in the pecking order, even after a switch to a back-three.
The locals had seen enough, and so had Mustafi. Inter were looking, and so was he. But the transfer window came and went and he remained on deck in north London.
And so the 25-year-old was an unlikely hero on Saturday as Tottenham sailed into the Emirates seemingly ready to remind us all once again that the balance of power had shifted between the two.
Even on the back of 10 straight Premier League home wins, the Gunners’ recent resurgence was all set to sink without a trace.
But then came Mustafi. He may have been offside, and it may not have been a free-kick in the first place – but cometh the hour, cometh the unlikely man, as Mustafi produced an unstoppable header that reduced Hugo Lloris to a spectator.
“That’s what you guys were thinking,” he said. “As always, Arsenal is dead, Arsenal is not coming back.” But it was Spurs who were not coming back – and thanks in no small part to the standout performer of the afternoon.
Not only did Mustafi open the scoring, he closed the gates at the other end, racking up 14 clearances – no player managed more in the Premier League this past weekend, and no defender topped his Sure Pressure Index score of 89.
“We always are alive, we always believe in ourselves but we all know that if you win the big games but lose the small games you’re not going to finish top of the league or even in the top four,” sounded his war cry on Saturday afternoon. “If you win today and lose next weekend you are back where you were.”
Mustafi appears unlikely to finish up back where he was. “I think he’s a winner,” said Wenger. “He’s similar to Per [Mertesacker] on a mental front, but of course he’s 10 years younger, and he’s a leader, he’s a motivator. He has a strong focus, and he’s strong in the challenge.”
Arsenal have never finished lower than fourth at the end of every Premier League season in which they’ve beaten Spurs at home.
And the Gunners have now won 11 home Premier League games in a row, their best run since winning 13 consecutively at Highbury between February and November 2005.
Up to sixth, and just one point behind fourth-placed Spurs, Mustafi has them heading in the right direction. Arsenal and are alive and kicking.