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30th Jul 2019

Waving goodbye to Shkodran Mustafi

Kyle Picknell

With Monaco reportedly close to signing the German defender for £27 million, it’s only fitting Arsenal fans give him the send-off he deserves

All these things about Shkodran Mustafi are, somehow, simultaneously true: He is a World Cup winner with Germany, starting one match and coming on twice as a substitute during the 2014 tournament and was, by all accounts, a very good centre-back at Valencia, playing alongside Nico Otamendi and under Wolves’ current manager Nuno in 2014/15, finishing fourth in La Liga.

He is also, however, one of the most fundamentally unsound defenders to have ever graced the Premier League, a player so porous and floppy that SpongeBob’s theme tune might as well be about him.

And now, remarkably, he looks as though he might be moving on, leaving behind the harrowing, ceaseless crises of Arsenal Twitter and AFTV, ‘banter’ accounts simply too volatile for Mustafi’s uniquely laissez-faire style of tackling, sort of just patting forwards on the back as they go past him, wishing them a lifetime of happiness and prosperity, and leaving behind the rugged, tenacious strikers of the Premier League (registered trademark), players too physical for Mustafi’s uniquely impoverished style of man-marking, kinda just existing near the player he is supposed to be tight to like he’s queueing for a urinal and doesn’t want to encroach on anyone’s personal space whilst they have their genitals out.

Monaco probably think there’s still a player in there, somewhere, one whose confidence has simply been eroded under the focused laser-glare of the Premier League’s heat lamp, of the weekly MOTD analysis showing him spinning around in circles and crashing into things like a housefly trapped inside a cupboard.

It’s likely not all to do with Mustafi. Arsenal will have to take some of the blame. Central defenders struggling there has been a tale as old as time, or at least as old as Emile Smith-Rowe. It doesn’t matter your reputation when you join the club, whether World Cup winner or Pascal Cygan, whether you’re not Igors Stepanov or actually Igors Stepanov, being a commanding defender at Arsenal is no easy task (which goes some way to explaining why the entire fan base collectively marvelled at the realisation that they did, in fact, have a quite genuinely hard player in the form of Sead Kolašinac).

At the very least, it’s hard not to sympathise with Mustafi’s situation. Both Sokratis Papastathopoulos alongside him and Granit Xhaka screening in front are as reckless and frenzied as their names are good Scrabble scores, whilst Nacho Monreal is a 33-year-old who was never exactly blessed with pace and Laurent Koscielny returned last season after a lengthy period out with an Achilles injury and spent most of it looking forward to eventually leaving the club. And nobody knows who or where Konstantinos Mavropanos is, let alone whether he actually exists or not.

What I’m getting at is that Arsenal rarely have the right dressing room climate, leadership structure, playing style or balance of personnel to make a centre-back’s transition into the team particularly comfortable. You fear if, by some miracle, Aymeric Laporte or Virgil van Dijk had joined the Gunners they would have immediately shrunk four inches and developed a deep, crippling fear of spherical objects. In that regard, Mustafi has my sympathies.

But then again, there was the 3-2 defeat to Crystal Palace at home last season, where the German international spent the match defending with all the mental fortitude, awareness and positional sense of a short-sighted daddy long legs staggering in from the pub, effectively granting both Wilfred Zaha and Christian Benteke – a player who hadn’t scored in almost a year prior to the game – the freedom of the Emirates.

There was the time against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final when beneath a bouncing ball and with Sergio Agüero, one of the most prolific strikers in league history, behind him, Mustafi felt a slight nudge on his back and decided not to jump the couple of inches required to head the ball away. You don’t need me to remind you what happened after that.

And there was that other time that immediately springs to mind, when a cross was aimed directly at him at the near post and instead of clearing it Mustafi just stood there with his arms apart, like he was ushering a friendly Shiba Inu towards him, only for Shane Long to get in front and jab the ball past Cech.

There are of course many, many more Mustafi howlers, an endless showreel of: easy square passes straight to the full-back smashed out of play, passes straight into the feet of the opposition in dangerous positions, slips and tumbles, off-balance attempted tackles like a rare kind of interpretative dance, or a man falling down some stairs, or a man attempting interpretative dance whilst falling down some stairs, even more slips and tumbles. There was always a frequent, ridiculous kind of chaos with him, moments possessed by the singular unifying theme of calamity; a Wile E. Coyote inspired defender, the first ACME-sponsored centre half.

In fairness, there were times when it did come together and he looked like a reasonably solid defender, if one that always struck you as a little bit too short and not ever completely sure whether he had left the over on at home or not. But it appears he is on his way now, very lightly jogging off to that casino and yachts riddled city-state on the Mediterranean to play in front of some princes and princesses in a half-empty stadium (good, nowhere near as much pressure as playing in front of 60,000 DTs) and occasionally get bashed in his L’Equipe rating after any match against PSG (bad, but a very, very exciting prospect for everyone else).

As the entire Arsenal fanbase offers to drive him to the airport themselves and wave him goodbye onto the private jet, I can’t help but wonder how Mustafi will feel. Grateful, bitter, excited, nervous? All of the above? And I do wonder whether he will turn and wave to them back, the masses that have ridiculed him for so long. The beauty is, if he does, we’ll probably ever know if it was actually a wave.

He might just be playing a hysterically misjudged high line and appealing for an offside he’ll never get, one. last. time.