On 90 minutes against West Ham United, Arsenal, who were leading 2-1 then, found themselves sliced open via a counterattack. The Gunners fans must have expected their side to give away points as they’d often done in the seasons prior. Summer signings Sokratis Papastathopoulos, however, bucked the trend when he committed a smart foul, ensuring the Hammers didn’t get back into the game. The Arsenal attackers duly doubled the lead a couple of minutes from then, ending the game 3-1 to give the club their first win of the season.
Players’ reluctance to commit tactical fouls was one of the biggest complaints Arsenal fans had about Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. The new-look Arsenal, though, are ready to be pragmatic to get results. “We are experienced players, and we have to be more clever,” he said, after the win. “When we have to make fouls, we should make fouls. [The Hammers game] was like a final. When you start badly, in the third game you have to win. Now we are a little calmer” Calmer were Arsenal not in the following 3-2 win against Cardiff City, but the win against Manuel Pellegrini’s side did ease the pressure of a then-winless Arsenal to a great extent, especially with that game marking the first time they locked horns with a side outside Big Six.
The former Borussia Dortmund’s role in the two wins has been criminally understated, with the fans and pundits busy singing the praises of Alexandre Lacazette up front and Petr Cech at the back. Unlike Hector Bellerin or Mesut Ozil, he wasn’t chastised either, as he’s gone rather unnoticed so far. His receiving little attention isn’t a new phenomenon, though, as not many were excited about his £14.40 million arrival as well, with the fans then only holding out for Lucas Torreira announcement.
One of the reasons why he received an underwhelming reception — in spite of Arsenal media team’s stellar work — was his lack of celebrity. Bigger reasons were his having a mediocre season for Die Schwarzgelben and perceived senescence. The fans essentially wrote him off even before he’d had kicked a ball in an Arsenal shirt.
In the four games he’s played, though, he’s not just proved a decent defender, for he’s also proven he’s one of the consistent performers in the Arsenal starting eleven. His stats, as has often been in his career, is stellar, with his averaging five clearances per game while completing 87% of his passes. It’s not just numbers that he brings to the table, though.
Aged 30, despite the Arsenal supporters’ notion, he’s in his prime years. His wealth of top-level Bundesliga, Serie A and international experience has definitely taught him smart aggression, no nonsense defending and the art of playing out from the back, which are areas the new Arsenal manager seemingly wants his defenders to excel at. His speed, size and height are just icing on the cake.
That said, he hasn’t been impeccable, either. He was to blame for the Manchester City goals and Alvaro Morata’s goal in the 3-2 loss to Chelsea. Blaming his dodgy moments solely on him would be rather harsh, though, as he and the rest of the backline has been receiving only little support from the midfield this season. With Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi often leaving the defense out to dry, he’s made a few panic decisions that has either cost the club or nearly cost the club goals.
Additionally, he often looks exhausted in the final moments of the game; however, with the club finding themselves playing a game that has seen them concede two goals per game, it’s only natural that he, a centreback, is weary toward the end.
With Arsenal’s next five games against lesser teams — perhaps, with the exception of Javi Gracia’s Watford — one can figure out if he can cut it at the highest level for all 90 minutes in the fast and physical Premier League. Plus, with the manager still figuring out his best midfield combination, it’s only normal that the defense has busy days.
The defender and the team will learn in the coming weeks. The defender himself said, after the Chelsea defeat: “Of course. It’s difficult because we’ve changed a lot of things. We need to improve our work, how we defend, how we attack.”
The Greek international defender was never going to be the best defender in the Premier League at just £14.40 million, but he’s certain to be a Nacho Monreal-esque player at the club until the club finds an upgrade in the coming transfer windows.
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