Is Shkodran Mustafi really that bad? A defence of a much maligned player

I watched the Crystal Palace game with a friend, and before we saw Zaha’s goal, he received a message. It just said: “Mustafi”… We proceeded to watch in horror as the German centre-back attempted to shield the ball back to the goalkeeper – failing badly and allowing the Palace player to put them back into the lead. Since then, he has received death threats and a cursory search of his name on Google will bring up page after page of articles lamenting how poor the £35 million signing is, or how often he makes mistakes. In truth, I have to disagree.

Let’s set the record straight, Shkodran Mustafi is not a good enough player for Arsenal Football Club. I do not believe he has the qualities to play elite Premier League football. But he was good enough for Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning squad, and Arsene Wenger was convinced to spend that much money bringing him over from Spain.

His defensive abilities are best noted in aerial duels. People are quick to point out that he conceded the penalty away at Tottenham, but forget that we all agreed it should never have been given. People remember Arsenal collapsing at Southampton to lose 3-2, conceding three sloppy goals and eventually conceding to a header after Leno came for a ball and missed it. They forget Mustafi didn’t play that day and his absence was felt.

Much like the maligned Granit Xhaka, people seem quick to ascribe full blame to the German centre-back. I have read several reviews of the game which excoriate Mustafi and blame him for all three of Palace’s goals. What nonsense! Jenkinson plays Benteke onside for the opener – Mustafi’s line is good and would have caught the Belgian offside. For the third, it is shambolic defending from a corner – from all defenders. Mustafi is as much to blame as everyone else in that penalty area for letting the play develop as it did.

To prove the futility of the exercise, it can be proven quite easily with stats that Mustafi has had a better season than Virgil Van Dijk. No one seriously believes this to be the case, and yet in seven fewer games the German has a better tackle completion rate, number of tackles and number of interceptions. They’ve scored two headers apiece. Yet their value is miles apart and rightly so.

So, if his statistics are impressive, what is his problem? It doesn’t take an experienced manager to see that Mustafi seems to have a lapse of concentration every single game. When Arsenal’s midfield and other defenders apply too much pressure too often, Mustafi will make a mistake more frequently than any other defender Arsenal have. With cover in front of him and some coaching he can become the competent centre-back his statistics indicate he could be. Yet, as we saw with the goal in question, two players attempt to head the ball with Benteke, leaving Mustafi one on one with Zaha. If Koscielny is across from him, Mustafi likely doesn’t make that mistake. Could Leno have come for the ball? Very much so but it’s not Leno’s fault.

So is Mustafi a bad player? Not at all.

Is he good enough for Arsenal? No – and he isn’t the only one.

Should Arsenal sell him? Not unless they can replace him. He’s not the best we could have, but if we can’t find a replacement he isn’t the worst we have. Maybe playing alongside Koscielny until the Frenchman retires and alongside Sokratis and Holding could help Mustafi become a better player. I don’t think anyone’s condoning the death threats but the serious reality is that Mustafi is what we have. He wasn’t even the worst defender on the pitch against Palace, nor even the worst centre-back! Mavropanos was far worse, yet rightly we can chalk that up to inexperience. Jenkinson was comfortably worse than Mustafi. So keeping him whilst we have no better is logical. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater and selling him, however, is not.