Following our League Cup final defeat to Manchester City on the weekend, Shkodran Mustafi has come under huge criticism and deservedly so. Making an error as comical as that was on Sunday is inexcusable at that level where the stakes are so high, but this isn’t something new.
As Arsenal fans, we’ve been here before, in pretty much the exact same position seven years ago. In our League Cup final against Birmingham City in 2011 we saw a lapse in communication between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny gift Obafemi Martins the winning goal in that match.
Thankfully since then we’ve seen Koscielny respond well and the Frenchman has been one of our most consistent performers since then. Going on to show his value to us in various big games he has shown us great quality for the most part. However, he still has the ability to make a costly mistake as he has done more often this season.
When it comes to Mustafi, his first season and a half with Arsenal look to be a like repeat of Koscielny’s Arsenal career. For the most part, the German centre back has displayed how good he can be in our defence but like Koscielny, he has been prone to making costly mistakes, one of which creeping up in a cup final.
Rather than spent the rest of this piece pitting the two against each other, I’d like to focus on Mustafi and mostly how his second season with Arsenal has panned out so far (including Sunday’s mistake).
Coming into this season we continued to use the 3-4-2-1 formation which allowed us to put together that good run of form during the back end of last season. There was a slight tweak to this however, as Mustafi was moved into the centre of the three-man defence instead of being deployed on the right-hand side. Thanks to this tweak we saw the German have an impressive start to this campaign.
In my opinion this was mostly because the 25-year-old is our strongest centre back in the air but also needs support around him at times, therefore making him well suited to the central option at the back.
After returning to the side late with a Confederations Cup medal to add to his World Cup one this season, the German made a great start. After a forgettable first day back against Stoke, Mustafi put together a remarkable run of games in the Premier League.
This was most evident in September and was exemplified in his and the Arsenal team’s performance at Stamford Bridge. The game saw him contribute the most out of our defence, making eight clearances, two blocks and two tackles. Mustafi also nodded the ball into the back of the net that day but was unfortunately flagged offside.
Shortly after that display, Mustufi was side-lined for just over a month after a thigh strain picked up on international duty with Germany.
On his arrival back in the side it was almost as if he’d never been gone as he continued his great run of form against Tottenham. In the thick of the action, the German notched 14 clearances on the day as well as coming up trumps with another headed goal, this time he was adjudged to be onside.
After the best possible return to the side, Mustafi continued his good form but would begin to see the symptoms of his Mr. Hyde-self against Manchester United.
One negative to Mustafi’s game is that at times he can lose concentration when on the ball which will lead to misplaced or rushed passes. Jesse Lingard exposed this trait Mustafi shows time and again before linking up with Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial instantly to score United’s second while Mustafi was left on the edge of the box and subbed off at half-time courtesy of a knee problem which kept him out for another few weeks.
The centre back’s first game back showed even further how he can be a liability to the side at times. Liverpool at home, the six-goal thriller which saw Mustafi run ragged didn’t leave many encouraged with his performance.
The goal which shows that not just Mustafi’s but Arsenal’s suspect defending the most is Liverpool’s second. Due to a lack of communication, both Koscielny and Mustafi are sucked in to Roberto Firmino’s run towards the touchline which left dangerman Mohamed Salah free in the centre of the pitch. By the time Mustafi had made the ground up to get back into position it was too late, and he paid the price as his attempted block on the shot saw it fly past Petr Cech.
Since then, we have yet to see the Dr. Jekyll-Mustafi as for the most part we have seen questionable performances apart from in the odd thrashings of relegation-threatened teams.
With this pattern of dubious displays being carried onto the national, and very possibly world stage, of the Carabao Cup final on Sunday, and in such fashion, it’s hard to understand the difference in the two Mustafi’s we’ve seen over the course of this season.
One seems fearless in his challenges whether they’re on the carpet or in the air, while the other cries wolf after a slight touch from a player would probably end up on the floor if it came to a 50/50 shoulder barge between the two.
The one thing Sergio Aguero’s goal on Sunday did was reaffirm for the thousandth time that a new, world class defender is needed in the squad. Mustafi again showed his lack of concentration as he should have already picked up the Argentinian before Claudio Bravo had even taken his goal kick and that despite the fact he is a quality defender at times, he isn’t consistent enough.
So, while he continues to transform between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we’ll still be looking for a defender who is able to keep his silly individual mistakes to a minimum. Whether one will actually arrive at Arsenal over the next transfer windows though is a whole other thing in itself sadly.