Arsenal are a different side with Mustafi in the team. They have not lost a single game with him playing, and have a real chance of winning the title.
Arsenal Can Win The Title, But Only With A Healthy Mustaf
Had you talked to Arsenal fans after their team’s victory against Stoke on December 10, pretty much all of them would have had great confidence. They would have told you that this could be the first Arsenal team to win the league since Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Co. did so by going the entire season undefeated in 2003/04.
Henry’s brilliant solo effort vs Spurs during the last season Arsenal won the title.
After back-to-back recent losses in the league it seems that Arsenal’s season has started to slip somewhat, as it has every year in the last decade. This downturn comes as the direct result of center back Shkodran Mustafi getting injured. Now that Mustafi has returned, though, Arsenal will not quietly whimper out of this title race.
History Repeating Itself?
Arsenal’s performance against Everton and Manchester City suggests this team is no different than the Arsenal of the recent past. Over the past decade, Arsenal have played wonderful soccer, yet lose when it really counts.
In both matches, Arsenal had a one-nil lead that they could not hang on to. The game against Everton really could have gone either way, but a late Ashley Williams header and an Arsenal opportunity scrambled off the line ensured Toffee victory.
Against Manchester City, Arsenal started with a glorious counter attack to give them the lead, but were eventually broken down after not being able to manufacture any other shots on goal. With City having the majority of possession and chances, it was only a matter of time before Arsenal would concede, even if there were questionable offside no-calls on both goals.
Though it was close, Sane was offside.
Had Mustafi been in the game, the Sane goal would not have happened. He would have likely moved Arsenal’s back four up more quickly so it would have been more obvious that Sane was offside.
This looks very reminiscent of Arsenal last year. After beating Leicester for the second time that season on an amazing last second header by Danny Welbeck, it looked like Arsenal would storm the title. Arsenal, though, choked in two winnable games, one against a very youthful Manchester United and the other against a struggling Swansea.
Welbeck’s last second header versus eventual champions Leicester.
Importance of Mustafi’s key contribution to the Arsenal defense is how he brings organization to the back four. His French teammate Laurent Koscielny is arguably the best center back in the Premier League, but the German does get the positioning of the rest of his backline right nearly 100% of the time. Mustafi is constantly yelling and ordering people around, making sure that people are in the right position. Without him, Arsenal’s back line looks a shell of the tight defense that was rock solid at the beginning of the season.
Mustafi’s organization and incisive passing have given Arsenal a new element.
At 1:02 in the video above, you can see Koscielny scrambling back to beat the speedy Barrow to the ball. Mustafi is perfectly positioned to deal with his teammate’s shaky clearance.
Without Mustafi, Arsenal are the same team they were in the past, prone to making costly defensive errors due to a lack of cohesion at the back. Everton and Manchester City had not been playing well, just like Manchester United and Swansea last season, yet they managed to get the win. Arsenal played down to their level without Mustafi whipping them into shape.
The German defender, brought in on £35 million transfer fee this summer from Valencia, has been vital. To show his importance, Arsenal have yet to lose any of the 20 games Mustafi has featured in this year.
Compared to the other center backs the top teams have brought in this season, Mustafi is arguably the best of them all.
A Squawka Comparison Matrix of some of the center backs for title contending teams.
Out of this new crop of new Premier League defenders, Mustafi leads or is tied for the lead in some of the most vital categories. To start with, he has yet to make a mistake costly enough to directly lead to a goal.
Traditionally defenders are judged on how well they can win the ball back for their team. Mustafi leads the group in interceptions (43), showing how well he reads the game and is able to cut out passes. He also is tied for the lead in tackles won (19), showing his ability to get stuck in and win the ball back. Nowadays, defenders who can use their feet to retain the ball are becoming more valuable. John Stones’ £50 million transfer fee shows how coveted ball-playing center backs are.
Some of the other center backs have completed more total passes, but many of those are side-to-side or back to the keeper. Mustafi again leads in the vital category of forward passes. The German’s vision and ability to find a man in attacking positions has helped Arsenal transition to offense far quicker than other teams or in years past. His 3 chances created are only second to David Luiz, a notoriously attacking center back.
Title Hopes Still Alive
The season can go in two directions now. If Arsenal go on another long undefeated streak, the Everton and City match will look like a blot on an otherwise good season. To do this, Arsenal need to keep defending as unit.
With Mustafi back in the first team, Arsenal have still not lost while he has been on the field. While shipping three goals against Bournemouth is catastrophic, their ability to come back and tie the game shows incredible resiliency. Late goals by Olivier Giroud have become a habit of late.
Oliver Giroud with the scorpion kick finish.— Wolexis.com (@wolexis) January 1, 2017
Probably the best goal of 2017 already! pic.twitter.com/FI6pqnGl3L
Giroud’s Unbelievable Scorpion Kick
Chelsea’s unprecedented run of 13 games won on the trot was finally stopped by Arsenal’s archrivals Spurs. Though it is not likely that Chelsea will win every game for the rest of the season, Arsenal will need some major help from other clubs and/or key injuries to Chelsea if they are to mount a serious title challenge. With Mustafi leading from the back, they do have that chance.
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