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Emery’s defense of Mustafi is noble but ignores reality

The centerback is beleaguered for a reason; he’s bad.

Arsenal FC v Crystal Palace - Premier League
We are asking the same question, Shkodran
Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images

It’s a safe assumption that Sunday’s game against Crystal Palace was Shkodran Mustafi’s worst of the season. Directly involved in two of Palace’s goals for all the wrong reasons, and part of an ineffectual defense on the third, there was little to point at as to why he belonged on the pitch, and probably even questions about why he even should be on the bench. More effort went into appealing for offside or a call of some sort than defending. It was inexcusable.

Were it an outlier, that’d be one thing. But since arriving at Arsenal in 2016, for an impressive fee of £35 million, the German International has been plagued by mishaps, inconsistency and some of the more boneheaded defensive decision making in the Red and White. It makes you yearn for Pascal Cygan at times.

But that’s not how Unai Emery sees it. Yesterday, the Arsenal boss launched a lengthy defense of Mustafi and his spot in the team. Here’s some of the hits:

“I want to protect the players. Mustafi is a very good player, a very good centre-back, he has the habit – usually he is doing the tackle and going to ground, using anticipation against the opposition.

”He can win one, win two, win three, win four – but if he loses one he is the picture and if he concede a goal he is the big picture. For example, Sunday was the same and happened with him.

This isn’t wholly unfair, and there’s a reason Emery is doing this. Since Sunday, Mustafi has been inundated with both criticism from the media and abuse from the fans. He’s been targeted for things the entire team and manager also should be wearing. Protecting a player’s confidence is Emery’s job here, and trying to keep Mustafi’s head in the game is important. A defense is warranted because he is, at the end of the day, an Arsenal player.

But there comes a time where constantly being in the spotlight is your fault. Mustafi has a host of glaring errors just this season that don’t support Emery’s assertion that there is a top quality player in there. In the previous meeting with Crystal Palace, he both gave up a penalty and hung Granit Xhaka out to dry for a second. He gave up an unnecessary penalty against Spurs in March. Against Everton he botched communication with Elneny on Everton’s goal and probably should have been sent off for poor challenges.

And this. THIS!!!

I get the need to protect players, but Mustafi makes any effort at protecting him disingenuous at best. He doesn’t deserve universal scorn, but there’s not much here to praise either.

”I have spoken to him: ‘You are young, you can improve and you need also to work hard because you have a big quality for a centre-back.’ For example, at Watford, he was the best of all the players, he won all of the balls in the air with his head, that is a very good statistic for him. On Sunday against Benteke it’s more difficult to win every ball in the air but it was 50-50.

Emery begins to lose me here. Young? 27 year old players are many things, but young is most definitely not one of them. It’s nice to think that under a new manager a player can find new life, but at Mustafi’s age, he is what he is. It’s not going to get better. (It’s also difficult to win a ball against Benteke if you don’t even mark him.) But hey, maybe it’s tactics:

“When we use three centre backs, we protect them more. You can anticipate, and you can lose one [tackle] but we have two who are covering.

”When we have only two, if you lose the anticipation, there is only one behind. That is happening a lot with Mustafi, but I want him not every time to do the tackle on the ground.

”Sometimes you need to stop, sometimes you need to stay with the player because sometimes we concede a penalty because you want to anticipate. You have to be clever in your mind about what is the moment to go (to ground) and what is not the moment, but that is part of the process.

All of this is great advice and I would be encouraged if he was saying this about Mavropanos or Guendouzi or any other young player who needs to hone their game. But again, Mustafi is more or less a finished product. You might be able to redefine his role in a system but you’re not turning back the clock.

More to the point, look at the advice Emery gives. It is exactly what Mustafi didn’t do. “Stay with the player”? Not on the first or second goals. He didn’t tackle them either. He didn’t really do anything and it suggests that you can tell him all the options as much as you like, his decision making is not at the level of the top end of the Premier League, and asking him to cover two centerbacks, when he’s the one who needs covering, is not a winning strategy.

“He needs to improve things tactically, decision-making, but he has good quality and needs confidence. Now, maybe he has lost a bit of confidence. But my work is to help him.

Again, this is Emery’s job and I get it. Mustafi without confidence is an even bigger problem for a struggling and fairly thin Arsenal defense. For better or worse, they need him to close out the season and help Arsenal push for Top Four and the Europa League. But painting oranges red and calling them apples doesn’t make it so. Mustafi isn’t a reclamation project. He’s a £35 million flop and one Arsenal should move on from, not try to unearth as an actually good player.

Mustafi doesn’t deserve endless abuse for his play, as poor as it has been, and Emery is noble in his defense of the player for team confidence sake. But it’s not in touch with reality that the best place for Mustafi to find his confidence is at another club.