The centre of Arsenal’s defence has been the topic of many discussions this season amongst fans and experts alike. Arsenal, in recent seasons, have been accused of having a soft centre, and that theme has continued this season with Arsenal conceding a massive nine goals in their seven Premier League games so far.
New signing Sokratis Papastathapolous has joined the club and immediately added a bit of steel into the defence, winning headers and going into challenges that Arsenal may have otherwise been accused of not going into due to being “too soft” in seasons gone by. Whilst Sokratis has looked good, the same cannot be said for Shkodran Mustafi next to him. The experience, World Cup winning German has looked more than shaky in almost every Arsenal game he has played so far this season. On the other hand, Rob Holding has put in assured performances this season, after somewhat losing his way last season due to his lack of experience.
In this piece I will look in-depth at Mustafi’s poor showing at the beginning of this season, and why Rob Holding is pushing him for his starting position.
Being an Arsenal Season Ticket holder, I have the misfortune of watching Mustafi defend for Arsenal at every home game, and as you can imagine, it is not a pretty sight. Whilst the German has some great attributes he is most definitely one of the most brain-dead defenders I have watched for Arsenal in recent times.
One attribute he brings to the team is his rash challenges and sometimes-poor reading of the game, which ultimately ends up in himself committing needless fouls. Mustafi is prone to committing rash fouls by committing himself too quickly to balls he may not win. Sometimes, they pay off, and other times, he commits fouls and gives away free-kicks in key areas. In the game against Watford this past weekend, Mustafi committed four fouls, with some coming within crossing/shooting distance from Arsenal’s own goal. Below, I will illustrate the poor reading of the given situations and despite them not costing Arsenal, they will need to look into the issue.
Mustafi fouls Troy Deeney, despite knowing he would not win the header, committing a foul within reasonable crossing distance for Watford.
The above illustrations are just depictions from the weekend’s game against Watford with many more examples yet to analyse. All four images illustrated that Mustafi knowingly committed fouls in situations he knew he would not win the ball.
Committing fouls via poor reading of the game only represents one weak aspect of Mustafi’s game, with many more yet to be discussed. The most staggering of statistics from the German’s defensive game is the amount of defensive duels he has won all season. In eight games, across all competitions, this season, Mustafi hasn’t won more than 56% of his defensive duels. His lowest percentage of the season came against Brentford in the Carabao Cup, where Mustafi won a staggering one of his 14 defensive duels. For illustrative purposes, a defensive duel is when a defender goes in to challenge the man on the ball, usually in a one-on-one defending situation.
However, as mentioned above, being committed to winning the ball back does have its positives for Mustafi. This is shown in Mustafi’s ability to intercept passes and win the ball back during crucial stages of opposition attacks. During the seven games of Arsenal’s Premier League campaign so far, Mustafi has intercepted 43 passes during opposition attacks. This is a real strong point of Mustafi’s game, and with Arsenal’s newly-found passing and high press style of play, could prove to be crucial in stopping Arsenal being counter-attacked throughout games this season.
With Mustafi constantly putting in shaky performances this season. the door will be blown wide open for Holding, who could make the second centre-back position his own if the German fails to impress Unai Emery. The injury to Sokratis at the weekend against Watford opened the door for Holding, who more than took his opportunity, being names Arsenal’s man of the match, as voted for by Arsenal fans on Arsenal official Twitter account.
The young Englishman was given a harsh reality check last season after a tough opening fixture against Leicester City at home on the opening day saw Holding hooked off on just 67 minutes into the new season. The youngster’s confidence was clearly shot as he very rarely recovered from that fixture, during a forgettable campaign for Holding. However, strong displays in Arsenal’s last three games in the last week has seen Holding go up in Emery’s book. With Calum Chambers sacrificed by being sent out on loan to Fulham, and Dinos Mavropanos and Laurent Koscielny injured, Holding finds himself as Arsenal’s third-choice center-back.
Holding has impressed where Mustafi has seemingly failed to in the last three games, for he has played alongside the German. In tough Premier League games against strong Watford and Everton attacks and midfield, Holding committed zero fouls, showing better reading of the game and composure well beyond his tender and inexperienced age. Continuing on from this, Holding has also lost the ball fewer times then Mustafi across the two Premier League games the two have played together, displaying better passing ability than Mustafi. In all, Holding has lost the just eight times over the last two Premier League games against Watford and Everton, with Mustafi losing the ball a whopping 19 times during the same games.
Holding also appears to be less rash in attempts to winning the ball, displaying a considerably cooler head than Mustafi. This is shown in Holding’s lack of engagement in defensive duels, when compared to Mustafi. As stated above, Mustafi is considerably rash when attempting to confront attackers on the ball, often losing the duel. However, Holding holds back considerably more when being confronted by attackers, engaging in only 15 duels across his four games in all competitions this season. This is in stark contrast to Mustafi, who attempted ten duels alone in the weekends game against Watford. Displaying a cool head also means that Holding refuses to match Mustafi’s will to win the ball, which makes the German a more front-foot defender.
With Mustafi losing more defensive battles than he wins, and Holding displaying a cool and calm head beyond his years, the Englishman is seemingly the perfect choice alongside Sokratis. The experienced Greek international’s steel in defence and want for a tackle could make up for Holding’s lack of desire to win the ball, making them the ideal combination. Holding’s composure and reading of the game in defence makes him a better choice than Mustafi, who is much more prone to error, both on and off the ball in Arsenal’s defensive third.