The curious case of Arsenal’s worst defender who turns out to be second best in the league

By Tony Attwood

It is fashionable these days to pick on a player, describe him as useless and then say the manager is an idiot for playing him.  When TV, blogs, radio and newspaper columnists all join in, the opinion becomes the truth, and it can take quite a bit of individual analysis and determination to go against the norm and say, “hang on, that guy performs a valuable task.”

Fortunately I am so used to being laughed at and called things far worse than an idiot, it doesn’t worry me too much these days so I can occasionally go against the grain, as I wish to do here.

Thus, in end of year summaries Mustafi has come in for a lot of criticism and is often listed as one of the players who needs to be moved on – indeed a player that any manager other than Wenger would have moved on years ago.  Well, one year ago.

That argument is circular – Wenger is an idiot and idiots don’t see reality, so anyone Wenger picked was a dolt.  Take the case of defenders who can pass.  It is, you might agree, rather a helpful technique.  Not a traditional English technique – in the PW (pre-Wenger) era when most managers were of the Allerdyce persuasion and told their centre halves (as we used to call them) to lump it up the pitch, passing was considered to be a sign of moral decadence.

Now everyone has to try and pass.  But who can pass?

In the table below PS% is pass success percentage and the figures come from WhoScored – showing our top ten, excluding players who made under 10 starts.  So that means I am including Alexis who fitted into that category but has obviously gone onto his new role as a non-goalscoring goalscorer.  Asts means assists, MotM is man of the match.

R Player Apps Goals Asts Yel PS% Aerials MotM Rating
1 Shkodran Mustafi 25(2) 3 1 6 86.2 4.5 3 7.38
2 Henrikh Mkhitaryan 9(2) 2 4 77.7 0.9 2 7.35
3 Alexis Sánchez 17(2) 7 3 4 72.4 0.8 3 7.33
4 Pierre Aubameyang 12(1) 10 4 69.4 0.6 2 7.33
5 Aaron Ramsey 21(3) 7 8 84.9 0.4 1 7.27
6 Mesut Özil 24(2) 4 8 4 86.5 2 7.25
7 Nacho Monreal 26(2) 5 2 3 89.5 2.2 2 7.13
8 Alexandre Lacazette  26(6) 14 4 1 76.7 0.9 1 7.09
9 Laurent Koscielny 25 2 4 89 3.2 1 7.08
10 Granit Xhaka 37(1) 1 7 10 86.9 1.3 7.02

Aerials in this regard mean aerial contests won per game on average.   What is interesting to me (and as always this might just be me pondering stuff that is of no interest to the rest of humanity) is just how high Mustafi scores in pass success percentage (PS%) – not the highest but still fairly good.  Also he has got three man of the match awards.

And yet in an article in the Guardian (to which I note no author will dare put his or her name) which discusses the flops of the season there is the comment that “Any number of Arsenal players might have appeared here – Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka have been largely terrible.”

So I am not trying to argue that Mustafi was brilliant at this moment, but rather I am wanting to understand how a detailed set of statistics and analyses could suggest that he is the player with the highest ranking in WhoScored and also “largely terrible” in an unsigned Guardian article.  (He actually turns out to have the second highest ranking of central defenders in the whole of the Who Scored listings).

As I pointed out in a post yesterday, Arsenal let in one goal more than Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea every three games, which when measured on that basis does not represent a terrible position, and certainly suggests that a greater focus or more astute tackling could have resolved that issue.

But there was of course another major issue in relation to our season, the terrible away form.

Self-evidently the form of the team in general was not terrible since we had the second best home record in the league – which is quite amazing considering the hostile atmosphere that surrounded the team at the Emirates in a number of games – even though it was always a minority of people providing that atmosphere.

The most obvious explanation for that was simply the notion of the “run” – the psychological feeling that people get when acitivities fall into patterns.  The person who drives all over the country but gets the feeling that he always has an accident in Cumbria is of course more likely to have an accident in Cumbria because he is more tense and less likely to drive in his normal manner.

Hopefully our next manager will not be one who says “you can prove anything with statistics” and so follows the newspaper advice to get rid of Mustafi as the first thing he does.

And also, isn’t it funny how these commentators who know so much about football that they can earn a living writing comments, don’t actually go and manage a team – especially when it pays so much more than mere journalism.  Indeed just to prove his worth such a commentator could take on a lower league team (there are thousands of such adverts appearing every month) just to show that he really does know.

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24 Replies to “The curious case of Arsenal’s worst defender who turns out to be second best in the league”

  1. A very agreeable post Tony.
    It just goes to emphasise that many supporters must have a scapegoat for the team’s poor performance.
    And invariably get it wrong! 😉

  2. I agree with Tony’s general point about lazy journalism. But while the criticism of Mustafi has been exaggerated, he has made some poor decisions which led to opposition goals e.g. Man U at home, Man City at Wembley, Newcastle away.

  3. Let’s face it unfortunately Arsenal have some sheep fans who following anything the press say. When we went 9 seasons without a trophy the press whipped them up in to anti-Wenger morons. Then when we win the cup the press then whip them up because it wasn’t a league title. Like blind idiotic sheep they followed. Plastic fans the lot of them!!!!!

  4. Tony

    A few more stats:

    -Arsenal have made more individual errors leading to goals than any other team in the league (15); second-worst offenders are Bournemouth with 11,

    -Petr Čech is the worst offender in the league with 6 errors leading to goals,

    -Granit Xhaka is the worst offender in the league among midfielders and joint worst among the outfield players with 3 errors leading to goals,

    -Shkodran Mustafi is joint third worst offender in the league among defenders with 2 errors leading to goals (with a note that he has missed 11 games),

    -Arsenal have conceded only five goals fewer than two of three relegated sides Swansea and WBA have,

    -Arsenal have won just one of ten league games against the rest of Top Six.

    Now, after presenting the facts, here is my opinion.

    I still stand by my claim that Mustafi and Xhaka are two players that are mostly responsible for the fact Arsene is no longer at helm at Arsenal.

    While Mikey Arteta might teach Xhaka how to protect back four properly, I reckon Mustafi has too many brain-farts for my taste.

  5. I still believe that we can do better than Mustafi. He’s a bit too short and a bit too inconsistent for a defender playing for a club like Arsenal. There are times when a defender will have to defend other than pass the ball. Those were the moments he was found wanting these past seasons. We can do better than Mustafi.

  6. Josif
    If you add in ref error stats and contact injury stats into the mix, I’m sure you would get a clearer picture.

  7. Gunz
    Are you saying the refs are the cause of individual errors leading to goals?
    The article is flawed in the sense that Mustafa is a defender and not a midfielder where passing accuracy is a string point. You look at the goals conceded, clearances made, duels won as well as errors by that player.
    He’s been below average this season let’s be honest

  8. Gunz every team can use referees error stats but the fact remains that xhaka and mustafi arent good enough to take us to the next level.Them 2 with the addition of cechs mistakes are the main reason why we finished in 6th place, some 37pts off the champions.We cant blame being that far off city on the fans and referees.Unless your called Menace!!

  9. @Gunz

    People who follow Untold are aware of the fact that English referees are far behind their mates in other countries. That makes the decision not to include VAR from the next season even more baffling.

    The problem is, we don’t have official data about that. No official initiative against PGMO has been started. No official statistics of the referees mistakes. All we have is a hard enthusiastic analitical work of the Untolders Usama, Walter and Andrew.

    Refereeing error stats (which don’t exist) and contact injury stats (ditto) don’t change the fact Arsenal had the worst defending season in the Premier League era. Čech, Xhaka and Mustafi were supposed to be our spine but instead they were weak links – 11 goals out of 51 goals conceded was caused by a mistake of one of those three players. 15 out of 51 means that roughly every third goal we conceded was a goal after our player made a mistake. Whilst I respect Tony’s attempt to see things from a different perspective, using euphemisms like “Arsenal have conceded just one goal every third game more than Liverpool” doesn’t help.

  10. Roland there is no honesty in just stating an opinion saying “He’s been below avwerage this season let’s be honest.” It is an opinion and because no evidence is provided there is no chance of honesty.

  11. Jim of course every team can use referee error stats but as far as I know no one else has ever undertaken the monumental task for reviewing 160 games and providing video evidence to look at the referee decisions across all PL clubs for their opening games. Likewise no one has ever undertaken the work that Referees Decisions undertook. Only those two huge works of analysis stand to reveal what happens with referees. If you know of something that is that big and that detailed let us all know so we can all look.

  12. “I still believe that we can do better than Mustafi. He’s a bit too short and a bit too inconsistent for a defender playing for a club like Arsenal”

    “the fact remains that xhaka and mustafi arent good enough to take us to the next level.Them [sic] 2 with the addition of cechs mistakes are the main reason why we finished in 6th place”

    I do love statements like these. Packed with evidence; extremely well thought out; and superbly debated. One can only assume people with this level of footballing knowledge have already sent AFC their applications to take over from AW………………….

  13. I think a partial explanation for our appalling away form this year is the fact that in most of the games, AW rested major players for upcoming games.

    During that period did we play with a settled back 4?

    I think not.

    Perhaps the more statistically minded of our friends can analyse the data and let us know.

    I saw most of those games and it was clear that we were not outplayed, it is just we made too many mistakes.

  14. lets just get a good coach. Our problems have been poor selections from the coach. what on earth will make a coach keep a potent striker like lacazette on the bench and play wellbeck? we need to form a dangerous trio of Auba,Lac and Miky upfront and keep ozil and Ramsey behind to supply passes.
    if we keep attacking, our opponent wont have the chance to mess mustafi up because they will be on their back heels defending.
    Lets hope for a coach that understands the dynamics of modern day football and not the old man that believes in passing the ball around and not shooting. we need to take those chances next season.

  15. There are a bunch of articles in the medja, about the Irish U17 goalkeeper who was shown a second yellow and dismissed in a penalty shootout. Apparently the senior Irish manager (O’Neill) stormed the field to protest this, and there seems to be no end of pudnits and other assorted ex-spurts complaining about this.

    The first article I read on this issue looks to the laws, and shows that what the referee did was the action that was supposed to happen. It was the result of changes from the iFAB a couple of years ago.

    It just goes to show that people in a position to know and should know, do _NOT_ keep up with changes.

  16. Can we not agree that the team finished 6th – Mustafi and Xhaka being members of the team. The team will strive to improve.

    I have been around this game long enough to know that if you want to make a teammate look slow, just pass the ball right at his feet instead of in front of him or if you want to make a defender look bad be indecisive with your coverage coming back and he will be indecisive, too.

    I expect a new manager will change how the team is set up and the roles of the various players. He will be able to see whether the forwards and midfielders or the system are making the defenders look bad or whether they need to be replaced. Likewise with our attackers. Are they really so limited or are they getting poor service from the midfield and the advanced defenders?

  17. Mustafi is a player with a mistake in him every game that it seems to lead to a goal somewhere along the line. But I wonder if this mistake or mistakes are down to having Kos who apparently doesn’t train next to him, is the a lack of communication between them or is he so worried about covering for Kos because of his injury issues that he is not concentrating on his own game.

    I’m taking a wild stab in the dark as I’m no coach or manager, but I think if he had a younger Per beside him a lot of those errors we see would not happen

  18. @Tony

    I gave my own opinion about Mustafi being below average based on his former all through the season I watched,not some statistics. Could see you deliberately avoided giving insight on the amount of goal Mustafi led to, clearances made, chances given to the opposition to score , as well as duels won in comparison to other defenders in the top 6.
    That’s the statistics we should be talking about, not passing accuracy for a defender

  19. Joachim Löw left Mustafi out of the provisional German squad for World Cup. Antonio Rüdiger of Chelsea is, however, in the squad.

    Even Mustafi himself has admitted he didn’t expect to be in the squad. If he really thought he was the second best defender in the league, he’d have different expectations.

  20. I enjoy the conjecture in the article. But statistically there are factors in relation to what happens during 90+ mins.

    Mustarfi has a tendency to go wondering, in search of the game and action. He wind a lot of aerials, because he steps out of the back line into midfield (where the holding or defensive midfielder should be Granit). He does this so often when we employ a system which utilises the full backs in attack (as it should do, flanking is tactically the best move, combined with a pincer manoeuvre and spear attack).

    The problem is of our experienced CB’s he is the fastest and isn’t playing as part of the unit. Especially on the right where Bellerin is given the greater license because of his pace, but also the least experience.

    He simply isn’t identifying danger, I do not think it is because he cannot but because he returned to England, started inoeripusly, with a team on the front foot, which suited his style of defending, in the back foot it exposes his weaknesses. He needs a sure fire ahead of him and possession game.

    This similarly happened when we played with Per last out, positionally astute, he was being isolated and doubled up on. This is where United, Liverpool, City, Spurs and Chelsea all began to play with s wide bias.

    Son, Sterling, Salah, Hazard, Rashford/Martial.

    It duiyrd mid table teams who congested the midfield and stifled our play and looked for a single weak link, isolated the area and focused attacks.

    Stats assist here, the number of goals from individual error, or from passages of dominant play from Arsenal, free kicks, incorrect stoppages by officials, both for and against Arsenal. And most pointedly the one shot, one goal phenomena.

    Football has evolved in England to be about anti football as the managers try and keep their jobs, owners aim to extract finances or clean them.

    I will city something recently said by a potential target according to sky, he absolutely wants to play for Barcelona so take from that what you will. But here is what the quote said.

    Seri is a versatile midfielder who’s dedicated, hard working, humble and always willing to learn. “I listen to criticism rather than praise, because that’s the way to improve. You can’t make progress if you only focus on the things you do right,” he told Sportif 225 in his homeland.

    A man after my own heart. It tests the true mettle of an individual. I actually perform better under pressure, sometimes artificially manufacturing it to get better out of myself.

    Xhaka has been slow to acknowledge and respond to his critics, but he seems the late bloomer, a childish attitude, he actually plays like he’s on the park. In the last few games it sank in, too late, but better late than never.

    Mustarfi has shown regression in contrast. I do feel the injury and being rushed back was costly and he lost his flow. But more noticeably, he plays like he would rather be elsewhere, and I feel genuinely he fancied Valencia. I got a girl, she probably prefers Valencia. He’s been distracted. Hence the lack of concentration and the lack of desire. If you are enjoying a task, you invariably perform better at it.

    People talk about money for the players, but they sacrifice a lot too. I would rather train in warm weather and play at night, so Spain it would be. But I could not line up against Arsenal and play well, never happening. Remember that injury aware gentle tackle by Pores on Vieira. Let’s say little else.

    Mustarfi is incredibly guilty of playing hot potato with the ball and makes simple passes to his partner, I’ve seen him put Hector and Kos both in trouble. Kos has been conservative, Callum actually has excellent distribution for a Cab, oh how he’d benefit from Mo or an actual DM.

    What is missing is interception and this epitomizes defensive astuteness, Granit is good here, Aaron, Koscielny and Hector. Mustarfi tends to clatter his man.

    On his day he’s excellent, but CB is about consistency, VVD proves that point, £75m is what you pay for instafix, but remember they avoided all the technical teams thus far. He will give away free kicks on the edge f the 18 and well certain quality punishes you there.

    If you want to fix the team, you need 3 players (Arsene is correct as usual) a leader at CB, A DM to screen, he needs to cover the marauding FB’s and stop the CB split. And you need a LB, neither Kolasinac or Monreal can match the pace of players, Cohen can and it’s about returning, if necessary making sensible early fouls and having the engine to get up and down.

    Pretty much remember to hand off to your CB and never get out after your near side CB. Timing of tackle, delivery and passing accuracy come next, aerial ability is handy and crosing, but mostly it’s mental attributes. Listening and being humble works. Why do you think Pep got such quick results, he went for the receptivity of youth combined with the respect of his past accolades. He shouts and asks why you make so many stupid errors. People earning 3 times they may not appreciate your approach no matter how right you are.


    Well you need two AM preferably either footed LCR Golovin and Meyer.

    You also blood your GK and have a strong option, Cech is a better all round GK than Online, it affects David’s confidence, and Cechs continued development.

    If Cohen is the Hector I think and I tell you, I knew about him before most anybody, I watched hi at around 14 once and I said to Conor, we don’t need a RB any more. We don’t need a LB.

    So well I’m at 5 already. If Meyer hasn’t said anything, he’s got to be stalling on the Manager. Liverpool, don’t have space for him, thanks Ox. Nobody with neither prestige does either. So let’s say it’s a certain and free, less liabilities.

    Well Golovin and that player Arsene earmarked, that is a player, everything we lost with Alexis.

    So that leaves the same issue, the spine, half the world can tell you about those problems. But for me I would get in Diallo as he covers two positions and if get a certain DM. It puts pressure on Ozil and Xhaka. Because it changes the system, or tweaks it.

    And for me Carvalho is nice, so Nice CR7 said sign him, could be a problem with Modric going.

    Carvalho and Kroos. With Hazard, Bale (10) Asensio and CR7 at 9 is all they need with De Gea.

    Seri should be on Barcelona wish list, he only cost €1m.but he does use a non EU place. He may opt to wait one year to nationalise in France and fix that.

    I’m absolutely certain on

    Jack Butland
    Maxamillian Meyer
    Aleksandr Golovin
    Abu Diallo

    I’d see about switching out Mustarfi for Rugani, but Juventus are probably waiting to see what funds they raise elsewhere.

    But the real work just started, do given the announcement and notice, Wenger is probably discussing these things with Sven and being of all the assistance he can be.

    As Jose said, Pep also, I look, we give names and that’s the end of it. They maybe get a chat with the player when the fundamentals are in place

    You don’t want to be in Conte’s shower with people just turning up at your door. Like I’m here to play. Rudiger is a worse players than Mustarfi, but makes up with physical prowess and is an option player to allow Hummels rest.

    I’m not hating on Mustarfi, I just knows his head is elsewhere.

  21. If I think about it, I’m afraid there have been many central defenders at Arsenal since the Invincibles that I would have questioned as to their quality and effectiveness. I would go as far as to say there are only two defenders at all who I would have said were as good as the Invincibles defenders: Sagna and Kos. (A honourable mention goes to the BFG too.) But I don’t know if the stats support my impression. I could be completely wrong. It is possible that the stats for all other defenders indicate they were each individually lacking enough quality or it could be that the stats reflect a collective issue ; they lacked collective coaching or enough midfield protection and had they been given more of that, their individual stats would have improved.

    What watching the game gives you which stats don’t (I think?) , is the pattern of defensive strategy. Where Players are positioned in relation to one and other, whether they anticipate as a group or read the game collectively, whether great big gaps keep on appearing or the whole unit gets pulled across to leave gaps, if the defence, in one way or another, keep getting caught out. Its the sense of collective control or collective panic that speaks to us.

    And the results speak too. The big fat stats that show we have conceded too many and/or not scored enough to win enough points to meet our objectives.

    I’m hoping that the new Manager/ Coach tries to create a better off-the-ball/defensive unit, with the same players or new ones. I just don’t think we will be able to get such good attackers that we can disregard collective defending completely. Most crucially, I wonder what Arteta thinks?

  22. What are they smoking at whoscored? Mustafi who’s lost his place in the national team?

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