How Mertesacker is flourishing: 5 things from Arsenal 2-1 Man City
1. Captain stood up to City's cross examining
When Arsenal signed Gabriel from Villarreal for £11.3m in January, there was a suspicion that Per Mertesacker's days in the Gunners line-up could be numbered. Fortunately for the German, Gabriel didn't speak a word of English and instructions to "definitely under no circumstances flick your foot out at Diego Costa when we play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, even in a really harmless way that might only graze his toe" got a little lost in translation.
Things didn't go well for Mertesacker last season, when the man himself admitted that he was struggling for motivation following his country's World Cup triumph. At Christmas last season, six teams in the Premier League had a better defensive record than Arsenal – helping to explain why they sat sixth in the table, 15 points behind leaders Chelsea and 12 points behind Manchester City.
No team has a better defensive record than the Gunners, who have conceded only 14 goals in 17 league games and are just two points behind surprise leaders Leicester
Now no team has a better defensive record than the Gunners, who have conceded only 14 goals in 17 league games and are just two points behind surprise leaders Leicester – making them the bookmakers' favourites for the title following last night's victory over Manchester City.
All the headlines went to assist king Mesut Ozil as well as goalscorers Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud, but captain Mertesacker played a similarly important role against City. Perhaps helped a little by Gabriel's indiscretions at Chelsea and subsequent one-match ban, the 31-year-old has fended off challenges to his place in the team and enjoyed a revival in form. Against City, he completed nine clearances – five more than any other Arsenal player.
Five were with his head, as he dealt with the visitors' threat from out wide. City constantly got into good positions on the flanks and were able to attempt 32 crosses during the match, but were successful with only six of them. Mertesacker also won all three of his aerial duels, was successful with 29 of 32 passes, and provided an experienced head in the Arsenal defence. Every title-challenging team needs a man at the back to lead by example. If the 31-year-old continues to play like this, the Gunners will have a real chance.
2. A settled defence makes a difference
Arsenal have lost a variety of midfield and attacking stars to injury at various stages of the campaign, and went into the Manchester City game without star Alexis Sanchez.
But crucially they have had very few injury problems in defence. Their first-choice back four and goalkeeper have all been available for some time, so they have been able to name an unchanged backline for the past five league matches – a luxury they haven't always had in recent seasons.
Their first-choice back four and goalkeeper have all been available for some time, so they have been able to name an unchanged backline for the past five league matches
The continuity is paying dividends – as is the calming presence of Petr Cech in goal – and Arsenal defended well as a unit to repel City's advances. The visitors had 63% possession and completed almost twice as many passes as Arsenal, 570 to the Gunners' 300. Not many sides do that at the Emirates.
But Manchester City couldn't break through until the 82nd minute, with a Yaya Toure shot from outside the area when the game was virtually gone, and they didn't produce anywhere near the amount of clear-cut chances you'd expect with that volume of possession.
The Gunners blocked an impressive six shots, City none. Laurent Koscielny made seven interceptions, more than anyone.
3. Arsenal outworked City
Arsene Wenger cited "good organisation, strong solidarity and high work rate" as key ingredients of the win over City. In truth, they've not always been the attributes that have immediately sprung to mind when Arsenal have been discussed in recent years. No one has ever doubted their ability to pass the ball, but did they have the grit and the determination to stop the opposition too?
Aaron Ramsey made an impressive 13 ball recoveries, while Theo Walcott was next with 10 in a creditably industrious display
Wenger was right, though: Arsenal worked ferociously hard here – and they had to, given the manner in which the visiting team dominated possession. Aaron Ramsey made an impressive 13 ball recoveries, while Theo Walcott was next with 10 in a creditably industrious display that wasn't lost on his manager.
As well as praising Walcott's goal, Wenger noted: "Theo had a strong fighting performance, defensively." Walcott was also successful with three tackles, a figure only surpassed by Mesut Ozil (four).
4. Otamendi needs Kompany
There were moments in last night's game when, despite City's dominance of possession, Arsenal were able to cut the visitors' defence open at will. One such incisive attack led to Olivier Giroud netting the Gunners' second goal.
It's hard to believe now that this is the same City who didn't concede a single goal in their opening five games of the Premier League season. They picked up the maximum 15 points from those games to go five clear, and people were saying the title race was already over.
City have conceded just one goal in the eight league games that Kompany has played this season, and 18 in the nine matches that he's missed
But that was with Vincent Kompany and Eliaquim Mangala at the heart of the defence – and things have gone horribly wrong since then. Kompany has been hampered by injury problems and, despite costing £28.5m, Nicolas Otamendi just hasn't been able to provide the same assurance at the back. City have conceded just one goal in the eight league games that Kompany has played this season, and 18 in the nine matches that he's missed – at an alarming two goals per game.
Otamendi and Kompany played three games together, conceding once in those fixtures. Without Kompany, Otamendi has played eight games and Manchester City have shipped 14 goals.
The Argentine lost both of his aerial duels at the Emirates, picked up a yellow card and generally found life tough against the Gunners' movement.
"We hope that Vincent will return soon," Manuel Pellegrini said after the match. He didn't actually cross his fingers and throw salt over his left shoulder while he was saying it, but he was probably already wondering where he could get hold of a rabbit's foot and a four-leaved clover. It's either that or pick Martin Demichelis, so the clover's definitely worth a try.
5. Will Ozil be Premier League's player of year?
Jamie Vardy is currently the bookmakers' favourite for PFA Player of the Year, just ahead of Ozil. But if Arsenal overtake Leicester in the title race, as many are now tipping them to do, it could be Ozil who jumps to the front of the queue for any individual awards at the end of the season.
He weighed in with two more assists against City to take his tally to the season to 15 – eight more than any other player in the Premier League
The German's consistency this term has been stunning and he weighed in with two more assists against City to take his tally to the season to 15 – eight more than any other player in the Premier League. Everton's Gerard Deulofeu is next with seven.
It's been a fine season indeed for the 27-year-old, who is also rumoured to have secretly assisted all 10 Real Madrid goals against Rayo Vallecano, despite leaving two years ago, as well as providing the pass that set up Andy Murray's match-winning lob in the Davis Cup final.
A grand total of nine players on the field against Manchester City actually completed more passes than Ozil. Toure completed 83 to his 33. But it was Ozil who delivered the two passes that decided the match, for Walcott and Giroud.