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Shkodran Mustafi: A rocky road to his Arsenal redemption

January 22, 2020

Dealing with mistakes isn't easy with the eyes of the world on you and Shkodran Mustafi has learned this lesson the hard way. Despite a brave public admission of his fragility, the German defender is still struggling.

England | London | Premier League | Chelsea FC gegen Arsenal FC
Image: Imago Images/S. Brooks

A new boss, a clean slate and a spot opening up in the team. Things had seemingly started to align of late for Shkodran Mustafi in a sorry spell at Arsenal that has turned the 27-year-old from a World Cup winner to a meme magnet and target for ridicule, even among his own fans.

Mikel Arteta took over the reins from Unai Emery just before Christmas and, partly as a result of injuries to others, has given the former Valencia center back much more Premier League game time than his predecessor, as he has with Mesut Özil.

While Özil has provided Arteta with fleeting hints that he can still operate at the highest level, Mustafi's reintegration has been shaky. His woefully short backpass against London rivals Chelsea on Tuesday night led directly to the sending off of his defensive partner David Luiz and brought fresh scorn upon him from all directions, though Arsenal recovered to claim a 2-2 draw.

"I actually feel sorry for Arteta that he has to keep picking Mustafi," said former England defender Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport. "I don't ever see a good performance in him. He makes mistake after mistake, there’s nothing new in his performance that gives me any comfort."

Coping with criticism

Other pundits were similarly scathing, as was the reaction on social media. Mustafi, who has made a string of high profile errors in recent seasons, has seen it all before. He recently told Arsenal's website how the criticism had affected him.

"For people who look from the outside, they only see this particular scene where this error happens and then they're angry at you. You become nervous yourself because you don't want to make these errors again. It was difficult at this time to handle all the pressure," he wrote.

"You’ve also got to deal with social media," Mustafi went on to say. "On there, it's difficult to handle when things are going well and then when things are not working out it's even tougher. When things are going well, it's easy to read those comments and like what you read. It gives you confidence but you have to be careful not to get carried away because you still have to stay professional.

"Then when things aren't going well, obviously you don't like the stuff you read. You don't agree with a lot of comments, so it makes it difficult. It's so much easier when things are going well because when you're reading comments you don't like, you have to go out and play and you've got those comments in your head."

Though Mustafi went on to say he'd been grateful for the support of his family and the club and was sometimes able to "forget everything" it's clear, both from his indecision and nervousness on the pitch and from his words, that his confidence is shot.

Mustafi (left) at World Cup 2014 with Sami Khedira and Per Mertesacker
Mustafi (left) at World Cup 2014 with Sami Khedira and Per MertesackerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But with Luiz now suspended and Arsenal's defensive injuries unlikely to clear up any time soon, Mustafi will probably have to try and rebuild his belief on the pitch and under the spotlight, though Arteta may also be in the market for a replacement in the January transfer window.

Compatriot and confidant

One person he should be able to lean on is Per Mertesacker. The ex-Arsenal and Germany defender, a former teammate of Mustafi's at club and international level, is now the club's academy manager. In 2018, Mertesacker became one of relatively few high profile footballers to open up on his mental health struggles."My stomach turns as if I’m going to throw up, then I choke so much my eyes water," he said of his anxiety ahead of matches.

Mustafi has previously said that Mertesacker "helped him a lot" both on and off the pitch in his early days at Arsenal and his words about his own struggles suggest he too believes that the increasing openness around mental health in sport is a positive sign.

Though there are those who will want him to fail, there are still plenty who still have hope for a player who appears to be trying plenty to find a way back to form and footballing happiness.