Per Mertesacker: Adventures in England

Long, tall Per Mertesacker has been a fixture in German football for almost a decade. The 27 year-old Hannover native began his youth career with his hometown 96ers, where his father was one of the youth coaches.  He made his debut for the senior squad in November, 2003 against FC Köln before heading to Werder Bremen in 2006 on a 5 million Euro transfer, and earned his first national team cap in 2004 along the road to earning 79 caps for the German national team.

His time in the Bundesliga came to an end when he left Werder for Arsenal on the last day of this summer’s transfer window to play for the venerable Arsene Wegner and the English team he has admittedly admired since childhood.  Summoned by the Frenchman to Arsenal for a 10 million euro transfer fee after the Gunners were shockingly drubbed 8-2 by Manchester United in August, Mertesacker was given the #4 shirt worn by recently departed Gunners’ star Cesc Fabregas.

Mertesacker in his debut against Swansea

The German international made his EPL debut ten days after arriving against Swansea City, uniting on Arsenal’s backline with Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs and Laurent Koscielny in a match that earned Arsenal a clean sheet and their first EPL win of the season.  After their dismal record of two losses and a draw in their first three EPL matches of the year, Arsenal have won seven league games and lost but two, hoisting them from their worrisome beginnings to be tied on 22 points with Chelsea and Liverpool behind Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham and the surprising Newcastle United.  Wegner’s men have rebounded from a -8 goal differential after their first three EPL matches to a +3.  So all has been smooth sailing for Mertesacker in London, right?

Well, not exactly.  The German international, who most likely will be in the Arsenal starting XI in Wednesday’s Champions League contest with Borussia Dortmund, hasn’t had it easy in England.  He was at fault for failing to make a play against Norwich City this past weekend that resulted in Steve Morison putting the Canaries ahead of the Gunners against the run of play, though Arsenal recovered to win the match 2-1.  Moreover, Mertesacker’s relative lack of pace has garnered criticism from fans of the high-octane league, and his abilities in the air aren’t what Arsenal fans expect from a player listed between 6’4″ to 6’7″ in height.

Another criticism of Mertesacker has been his lack of physical toughness.  Dubbed “Mr. Clean” by the German press, Mertesacker played his first 31 consecutive games in the Bundesliga without a booking, and only was booked twice in three seasons at Hannover.  His final two years at Werder Bremen saw only two bookings, while he was among club leaders in completing 82% of his passes during the 2010-2011 season.  Though tall in stature, Mertesacker has a very tangible “finesse” side to his game and an impressive tackling rate in close range, and has spent little time sidelined by injury throughout his career.

Despite the criticism of fans and media members, and even his own admission that he’s had to adjust to the more physical nature of the Premier League,  Mertesacker has the total backing of Wegner.  In a Mirror football article by John Cross, Wenger was solid in his support of his German star.

“I am very happy with Per.  The criticism in the papers has been very harsh, but when you play for a big team, you have to accept that. I also think it will take him some time. He came here not completely fit. Now he is getting stronger and stronger,” said the Frenchman.

“I felt on Saturday he had not recovered from the Holland game [in midweek] and looked tired. But he has recovered now and will play against Dortmund.”  Wenger chewed on Mertesacker for his mistake against Norwich City at intermission, but likes what he has seen of the German international so far.

“Of course he is under pressure and scrutiny. But you don’t feel sorry for a situation like that because that’s what happens at a big club, ” Wenger added.  And he addressed critics of Mertesacker’s performance.  “People look at his size. At the moment you say our defenders are too tall, because you’re not used to it. Because of his size I think people have a preconception of him.  But he is intelligent and he will adapt quickly. He is very responsible as well, he didn’t complain about the free-kick because he was pulled down. He just said he should have cleared it earlier. So he is very responsible.”

Mertesacker (r) was recently up against old Bundesliga opponents Dortmund in the Champions League.

Mertesacker has played in eight league games and four Champions League matches since arriving at Arsenal, including playing the entire 90 in Arsenal’s back to back CL shutouts of Marseille on October 19 and November 1 and, though it’s a precarious lead, the Gunners top Group F with two matches remaining.   The Gunners are unbeaten in their last eight matches in all competitions since their loss to their big rivals Tottenham on October 5, and Mertesacker has been a major contributor to that streak.

Wenger is not the only coach confident of Mertesacker’s abilities.  German National Team Coach Jogi Löw thought enough of the defender to play him every minute of Germany’s seven games in the 2010 World Cup and has continued to garner the benefit of the doubt from his coach throughout qualifying.  Mertesacker will always be the type of defender that will occasionally be beaten by pace, but he will also always be the type of defender that will make good passes and not give up unnecessary fouls in the penalty area that loses a match for his club.  As Mertesacker acclimates to the English style of play, his keen sense of positioning, durability and cool-headed demeanor, along with his ability to knock in an occasional goal on a setpiece, should make his English adventure at the Emirates a rewarding enterprise both for himself and the Arsenal faithful.

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Gerry Wittmann

Gerry is the founder of the Bundesliga Fanatic. Besides loving German football, he also enjoys the NBA, collecting jerseys and LPs, his pets and wishes he had more time for fishing, bicycling and learning the bass guitar.

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