COMMENT: Played off the pitch at Everton. Bullied off the park at Manchester City. It’s looming as a dark, dark Christmas for Arsenal. But there is something – or someone – Gooners can grab onto going into the New Year.
There’s been one constant from this past, shambolic week. And no, we’re not talking about the lame, desperate excuses of Arsene Wenger. It’s the absence of Shkodran Mustafi.
The German’s hamstring setback can’t be underestimated. At the centre of Arsenal‘s back four, Mustafi has been a revelation. Not just with the quality of his defending, but also his leadership and never-say-die attitude. Everything that Arsenal have missed these past two games.
Last week, the question was floated in the media, was Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of Manchester United, or Chelsea‘s N’Golo Kante the best signing of the season? But on the past week’s evidence, no summer arrival has had a bigger influence on his new team than Mustafi.
He may only be months into his Gunners career, but Mustafi’s already a leader inside the locker room and an inspiration out on the pitch. He’s the most vocal player at Arsenal and offers a character and authority that has been so, so absent from Wenger’s recent teams.
It’s difficult to imagine Arsenal wilting, as they did on Sunday, with Mustafi getting in everyone’s ear, demanding they track back, chase down – and all at full speed. Sunday at the Etihad, just as it was at Goodison, was the Arsenal of old. Players sauntered back. Tackles weren’t made. And when it came to the crucial, defining moment of wrestling away City’s momentum… when real courage was needed… they melted.
But no-one went hiding a month ago at Old Trafford. Mustafi refused to leave the field, despite struggling with a groin strain in the second-half. And from the back, he kept driving his teammates on. Pushing them forward. Until Olivier Giroud popped up with that header to stun the home support. At the time, the United draw was regarded as a title winning result. Arsenal had actually dug in and fought to the end. The team that never grew up were actually maturing.
But as we saw Sunday, it was more about a hobbling, wincing Mustafi than any sudden change of character in his teammates.
Just a week ago, as Mustafi’s hamstring pull was confirmed, the Gunners were top of the league. Today? They’re fourth and trail Chelsea by nine points. Mustafi’s return can’t come soon enough.
They need wins, do Arsenal. The manager. The board. They need victories. To stay in the title race? Sure. But also to keep the spotlight away from the shambles of their contract negotiations.
The defeats sharpen the focus on what’s going wrong inside London Colney. Alexis Sanchez threw his issues back at the club last week.
“If they want to show confidence in me, I’m very happy. It depends on Arsenal,” he said when asked about entering the final 18 months of his current deal, before a hint of a warning: “I want to achieve more for them. I want to win the Premier League and the Champions League.”
Mesut Ozil remains in the same situation, while on Friday, Wenger had to come out and state he wanted Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to stick around. And then there’s the manager, himself. With no indication of what he plans to do beyond June, how does his hesitancy play in negotiations with not only his players, but those open to joining Arsenal next season – if not sooner in January?
As stated, a week ago, before Chelsea stepped out at West Brom, Arsenal were top of the table. Ozil declared they’d overcome “ArseNovember” and all the contract speculation – and the club’s problems in negotiations – was able to fobbed off. But two defeats on the bounce and now only a point away from tumbling out of the top four, the acid is again on the future of this team.
Its doomsday stuff, but also realistic: Arsenal fail to finish in the top four. Alexis quits for a bigger contract. Ozil too. Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain leave for a better run of games. And Wenger, with no Champions League football to plan for, decides to call it a day.
Ridiculous right? Well, a week ago such a scenario would never have been raised. But today? Mustafi’s return can’t come soon enough.