Arsenal fans still struggling to get on board with Mustafi

When Shkodran Mustafi joined Arsenal, they went 19 games undefeated when he was in the starting XI.

Arsenal fans still struggling to get on board with Mustafi

When Shkodran Mustafi joined Arsenal, they went 19 games undefeated when he was in the starting XI.

A £35m German international World Cup-winning defender with an ability to score crucial headed goals seemed to be the answer to the club’s defensive problems.

A career that started at Hamburg, followed by a few educational years at Everton before impressing at Sampdoria and Valencia was finally being fulfilled.

Only two seasons on, and the 27-year-old’s error-prone style makes him a figure of frustration to Arsenal fans: supporters largely loathe, fear, or pity him.

Fickle? Football fans? Or does Mustafi have a case to answer?

The reaction to his proud Twitter post of him boarding Arsenal’s weekend flight to Baku for Wednesday’s Europa League final against Chelsea was largely comments such as ‘go home’ or ‘please don’t do anything stupid’.

The modern day footballer has to be thick-skinned to survive the social media era.

But if it is a true reflection of how supporters think, he will have been heartened by some of yesterday morning’s responses which included: “Mate, you have had highs and lows this season. You have been criticised by fans and pundits.

But you also have been lauded when put in a shift and have always had the coach’s backing. Forget the rest put in a great performance in the final and you can forever be an Arsenal legend!

That is what coach Unai Emery will be hoping for when he names his side to face Chelsea, with an argument to be made that Mustafi could be better suited to the task of sticking to Chelsea’s potential match-winner Eden Hazard than the more appealing Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

That, however, is also a potential match-up that will horrify some.

An Emery starting line-up is always hard to predict. Mustafi began the first leg of their impressive semi-final win over Valencia, and was used only as a ‘closer’ substitute for the final 20 minutes of the decisive away tie.

That selection came after he lost his starting role amid widespread criticism following a calamitous appearance in the costly 3-2 home defeat by Crystal Palace which ultimately deprived Arsenal of Champions League qualification via the Premier League.

Another choice tweet after the Palace match read: ‘Shkodran Mustafi is the worst CB I’ve ever seen play for Arsenal and I’ve seen Pascal Cygan, Sebastian Squillaci, and Igor Stepanovs.’

Luckily, for @Rwhipp16, they are too young to remember Jeff Blockley.

Perhaps those players were more able to be covered for by previous Arsenal defences of greater quality and organisation.

The Mustafi hysteria is also a reflection of the lack of confidence in many/any current Arsenal defenders.

The statistics support an argument that Emery’s greatest task in beating Chelsea will be to organise a defence that somehow finished two places below their London rivals in the Premier League table despite scoring 10 more goals.

Mustafi is wholehearted, works hard, liked by his team-mates — no more than Mesut Ozil — and often first out on the training pitch.

He is strong in the air, but as Gary Neville, his coach at Valencia pointed out, has a habit of deserting his post and leaving his defensive team-mates in the lurch.

The proud Mustafi, however, feels the criticism is misplaced, pointing out ”that [the defence] is the easiest thing [for critics] to attack.”

Unfortunately, for Mustafi, most of Arsenal’s rivals have found that to be the case in recent years too.

But he staunchly refuted the suggestion the Arsenal backline had cost them a good finish in the league.

He said: “You have to analyse every game that you played so it is difficult. We are a team who in a lot of games want to press up high and that gives teams opportunities to score goals against us.

"When we try to play out of the back, people say, ‘Why are they doing this? Why aren’t they just kicking it out from the back?’ But that is not our game.

“If you make one mistake and they score, even if in five minutes you save something on the line, people still won’t talk about it. You get to live with it because it is part of our job. It (the criticism) doesn’t get to me.”

Mustafi argues Emery and his players are committed to playing to a system, an identity. It is one not easily identified from the press area, but he explained: “We want to finish the game knowing we did this, this, this and that is why we won the game.

Rather that saying, ‘How the hell did we win that, because we were bad.’ That will not bring you consistency. You are not going to get away with just playing and hoping you win.

“You are not going to win without an identity and that is how we want to play. We want to press high and score goals. But it is a football game — other teams want to score as well.

"We didn’t reach the position we wanted to reach in the league, but we still have the opportunity in the Europa League to reach the goal we wanted — and a trophy.”

Only time will tell whether or not Mustafi returns from Baku as a member of Arsenal’s first European trophy-winning squad since the still celebrated 1994 heroes of Copenhagen, but it is undeniably the club’s most important match of the season.

For Mustafi, and many of his team-mates, victory would be a first club success.

A member of Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning and squad and Confederations Cup winners three years later, the closest he has come to glory is a humbling defeat in last year’s League Cup Final.

Starter, sub, or figure of love and hate, Mustafi intends to create history.

With the air of an upbeat sports teacher, he concluded: “I don’t know if you studied well but I think in our team not a lot of players played in a club level final like this, so for us it is huge.

"I believe in my team and every single player I have in the squad and I believe we are good enough to beat them.”

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