Why We Watch: Per Mertesacker, Being There

Arsenal isn't just a soccer team, it's a philosophy in action. But Per Mertesacker, their best player, does things his own way.
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There are only two places defenders can be in soccer: the right place and the wrong place. The right place is variable, elusive and hugely important: it’s where the ball is going, and the wrong place is everywhere else. This makes the defender’s task an amalgam of psychology, physics, practical economics, and biomechanics. The decision-making processes involved could occupy a significant portion of game theory literature, although it’s all incalculably more fun to watch than it would be to read about or parse or quantify. To enumerate the defender’s calculation of the “right” and the “wrong” places is to make a complicated thing infinitely more complicated, and a good deal less exciting and urgent. As observers, all we can do is have faith in the incomprehensible, or at least unpredictable. The ball will be where it will be; we can only hope that our defender of choice will be there when it arrives.

Faith has been a constant theme around Arsenal the past half-decade. This is true with the defense, and the sans-Van Persie offense, and Wenger (“In Arsène We Trust”); in all these cases, faith is the mantra of demise.  Two things Arsenal supporters have not recently enjoyed are stability and faith rewarded. Per Mertesacker, against all logic, expectation, thought and reason has brought a little bit of each to a club in desperate need of severe helpings of both. Per Mertesacker is not a savior by any stretch of the imagination; there’s nothing transcendent about his game, or anything really inspiring about it beyond its constancy. He is simply a defender who defends. Somehow, however, and pretty much always. It’s more impressive than it sounds.

***

The Gentle German, known mostly for non-aggressive tackles and being tall/German (hence the nickname), is 6-6, lanky, impossibly coordinated for his aforementioned height and gangliness, and is unlucky enough to be the central defender for a team that cannot score goals. The most coordinated act I have ever witnessed Per Mertesacker commit was this dancing move. Which isn’t to say he shouldn’t be infinitely proud of that bear-like arm gesture while maintaining tight control over his water bottle, but is more to say that he doesn’t so much play soccer well as much as he plays soccer at all.

Mertesacker is anathema to everything Wenger believes soccer to be, at least on a conceptual level. Wenger considers the ultimate prizes of soccer to be class, skill and beauty, which, while not the worst words I would use to describe the lurking German, certainly aren’t the first that come to mind. Of course, the number of players on the current Arsenal roster that embody those qualities is limited to one elfish Spaniard and... no one else, actually.

But of course, this is the point and the beauty and class and so on of Per. In a time in which Arsenal is in metaphorical and intermittently literal turmoil and Wenger’s just-got-sacked articles are being edited for immediate distribution should the news break, the Gentle German is perhaps the team’s most consistent performer. That statement, again, has something of a doom-harbinger vibe about it. But it’s not as bad as it looks.

Per has stopped attacks with unsettling certitude, his entire body moving towards the point of conflict, each individual motion seemingly a product of laborious thought, calculation and effort to ensure his hulking frame doesn’t collapse under the pressure of gravity. Then, at the very final possible instant, a giant seesaw of a leg flies out from the bodily contraption to—again, somehow—make contact with the ball and only the ball. He has made dozens of these important tackles—and has only one yellow card to his name—in 18 appearances for the Gunners this year. Each well-timed tackle is a phenomenon of nature, a manifestation of all the ideal calculations mentioned above to put Per Mertesacker’s leg in the Right Place. It’s also nothing much more than the sport played properly, by someone who does not necessarily look cut out to play the sport.

This is Per’s style, the accidental phenomenon that is somehow the most reliable aspect of the entire team. save for the metaphysical certainty that Gervinho will fake left, go right, fall down, lose possession, and sadly fail to disappear into another dimension. When Per first joined the squad, some wondered how his lack of pace, simplistic passing (think tapping the A button in FIFA) and general lack of dazzling talent—especially when juxtaposed with the Premier League’s immense competition—would be incorporated on a team made famous by and for its fluidity, creativity and athletic brilliance.  Oh, how naïve we were. For in the end, it is Per who has retained his style, while the rest of the squad has withered into incompetent dribbling, heavy first touches, and range befitting of the less mobile of the Presidents Roosevelt.

At what point does Per Mertesacker’s style become Arsenal’s dominant one? How much clumsiness in the final third do we have to witness before Mertesacker’s gentle genius becomes the definitive style for the rest of the team, the method they try and emulate? When will Arsenal shake off Wenger’s noble and unfulfilled truths and become fully Per’s?

Eh, it won’t. Per Mert’s style is as conscious as Gervinho’s head is stylish. It’s not an ethos or even a choice; it’s the only way he can get by in the most arduous soccer league in the world, where he must square up against some of the most skilled attackers the world has ever known. By Per’s own admission, he needed time to adjust to the EPL’s demands; he is still adjusting.

Even still, every tackle Mert makes is in pure desperation, but a calculated one at that. Regardless of how it looks, he’s just trying to be in the right place, which is after all his job. So perhaps, in that, there is something for Arsenal—and Wenger in particular—to learn from Per Mert; namely, that the Premier League is no longer a place for style points. If anything, it’s that at Arsenal, Per Mert has found the right place. So until Gervinho’s head can be used to actually score goals instead of avoid them, or until the ghosts of Van Persie are featured and expelled on a particularly morbid episode of Ghost Hunters, In Per We Trust.  Arsenal fans have no choice, really. But, through his steady insistence on being his big old self in exactly the spot he’s supposed to be, Per has given us no reason not to trust in him.


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