Shkodran Mustafi has endured a difficult couple of seasons at the Emirates (Getty Images)‘He is at the right age. He has good experience. He is a very focused player who can play with the ball as well. We have taken a great player but have prepared well for the future.’
Arsene Wenger clearly had high hopes for Shkodran Mustafi after snapping him up from Valencia for £35m towards the end of the 2016 summer transfer window and with good reason considering his status as a World Cup winner with Germany two years before.
On paper, it appeared to be a no-brainer. Arsenal’s issues at centre back had been documented for some time and with Per Mertesacker’s career winding down, signing a player primed to replace him in the German national team appeared a savvy move.
Three years on, though, and Mustafi is still yet to convince anyone that he is the answer to Arsenal’s defensive problems, with a series of high-profile errors undermining his time at the club. A disaster of a performance during Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat to Crystal Palace last month laid bare Mustafi’s shortcomings as he was at fault for all three goals.
Shkodran Mustafi celebrating with teammates after winning the World Cup in 2014 (Getty Images)After that horror show, Jamie Carragher declared that Mustafi has been a ‘mess’ since he joined the club while Martin Keown dissected each of his errors for the goals in detail, accusing him of losing the runs of Christian Benteke and James McArthur for the first and third goals while making a poor decision for Wilfried Zaha’s strike in between.
According to the Telegraph, several members of Arsenal’s squad have been left ‘baffled’ at Unai Emery’s persistence with Mustafi considering his error-strewn displays this season but the Spaniard launched an impassioned defence of Mustafi after the Palace debacle, insisting that he had been ‘consistent’.
That doesn’t appear to be a widely-shared view with many Arsenal supporters imploring the club to cut their ties with the Germany international. Regardless of his public backing of Mustafi, Emery has a big decision to make over the defender’s future in the summer.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, Mustafi’s performance against Palace was symptomatic of his displays over the past three seasons rather than a one-off outlier. Wenger’s comments on his focus upon his unveiling as an Arsenal player have proven to be way off the mark, with his lapses in concentration occurring all too frequently.
Mustafi’s man-marking has often left plenty to be desired as he has lost opposition players far too easily, usually resulting in disastrous consequences for his side. Against Spurs at Wembley, for instance, Mustafi failed to track Harry Kane’s run from a free-kick, bundled him over and conceded a penalty.
Shkodran Mustafi conceded a penalty during the north London derby in March (Getty Images)Gary Neville, who worked alongside Mustafi for four months at Valencia, admitted that Mustafi has a tendency to act impulsively, saying: ‘He does like to wander into midfield. If you think about a back four staying in shape, spaces together, making sure you don’t become disconnected, he likes to run into midfield.
‘What that then does for someone like his partner or the full-backs, they suddenly have to adjust their positions quickly, you almost quicken up the attack and then give spaces for the attackers to run into and it’s a real problem.’
AC Milan Paolo Maldini famously quipped: ‘If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake,’ after he was successfully converted from a left-sided defender into a centre back during the latter years of his career.
Maldini’s comments play up to the stereotype that Italian’s value defending as an art form like no other, yet while his words are a touch exaggerated, they are certainly correct: if your centre back is regularly launching himself into desperate challenges, you’ve probably got a problem.
Shkodran Mustafi has committed more fouls than any other central defender in the Premier League this season (Getty Images)It is interesting to note, therefore, that of all the central defenders in the Premier League this season, Mustafi ranks top for fouls committed with 38 in total, working out at 1.4 per game. Fulham’s Denis Odoi, Mustafi’s defensive partner Sokratis Papastathopolous and Cardiff’s Sol Bamba, are the only other centre backs to feature in the top 50.
Comparing Mustafi to the best central defender in the Premier League may seem slightly harsh but it is rather telling that he has committed over three times as many fouls as Virgil Van Dijk (12 fouls) has this season in 766 fewer minutes.
A further example of Mustafi’s tendency to make rash tackles is that he has been cautioned eight times this season – only four other central defenders in the division have received more yellow cards, including his partner Sokratis.
Lack of leadership
Although Mustafi certainly doesn’t help himself, he is far from the sole reason behind Arsenal’s defensive struggles this season. Of the current top-six clubs, only Manchester United (51) have conceded more goals than Arsenal’s 49 – a total 29 more than Liverpool have let in.
Collectively, Arsenal haven’t defended well enough this season and Emery has struggled to rectify failings from the Wenger era in that regard. Compared to their rivals, Arsenal’s pressing system remains incoherent, while their midfield is often too easily bypassed, putting pressure on their backline. Bernd Leno, who admittedly has been excellent recently, has committed the most errors leading to goals (five) in the league this season, meanwhile.
Neville also believes that they have lacked leadership at the back this term, another criticism frequently levelled at Arsenal in recent years. The former Manchester United defender believes that the lack of a natural leader in defence has played a part in Mustafi’s haphazard performances.
Gary Neville believes that Nicolas Otamendi had a positive effect on Mustafi while the pair were at Valencia (Getty Images)Citing Mustafi’s time at Valencia, Neville said: ‘I think at the moment he doesn’t have a strong partner alongside him. He had [Nicolas] Otamendi at Valencia the year before I got there who did really well with him. The year after obviously Otamendi went to City he then had a different partner and it became really difficult for him.
‘Arsenal signed him and if they are going to play Mustafi they need a really strong partner alongside him.’
What comes next?
On the one hand, Emery’s steadfast defence of Mustafi in the wake of mounting criticism from his own supporters is to be commended. On the other, his decision to continue picking him is genuinely putting Arsenal at risk of achieving their goals this season.
When the transfer window re-opens, Emery’s true estimations of the player may become apparent should Arsenal decide to cut their losses and send Mustafi on his way. According to reports, he is one of as many as seven players available for transfer this summer as Emery attempts some financial gymnastics to increase his transfer kitty.
Unai Emery is planning a summer clearout at Arsenal (Getty Images)The issue that Arsenal face, though, is recouping anywhere near the £35m they paid for him three years ago. At 27, Mustafi should be entering the prime of his career, yet his failure thus far to learn from his mistakes won’t have done much to convince other clubs to take a punt.
Mustafi’s wages, reported to be between £80,000 and £90,000 per week, could also prove to be a stumbling block when it comes to trying to move him on. A loan with an optional buyout clause could be the club’s main option to offload Mustafi while freeing up some room in their budget.
Alternatively, with two years remaining on his contract, Arsenal may decide to give him one more season to prove himself. What happens next largely depends on his manager.
More: Arsenal FC