Two defeats in the space of a week has seen Arsenal slip from the top of the Premier League table to fourth, and open up a nine point gap behind leaders Chelsea.
Having been unbeaten in the league since the opening day of the season, Arsene Wenger’s side looked like they were finally kicking into gear and mounting a serious assault on the title, having not properly challenged in over a decade.
An important element of their good form as the contribution made by Shkodran Mustafi. The German international has slotted into the Arsenal backline seamlessly, and despite costing Arsenal £35m in the summer, he has been one of the signings of the season so far.
Which makes his absence all the more noticeable. So noticeable, in fact, that of Arsenal’s four defeats this season, Mustafi has featured in none of them.
The missing link? All four of Arsenal’s defeats this season have come without Shkodran Mustafi.? pic.twitter.com/6VyG3MHMMh
— Bleacher Report UK (@br_uk) December 18, 2016
The 24-year-old suffered a hamstring injury in the 3-1 win against Stoke ten days ago. Gabriel Paulista has been filling in, and though the Brazilian was not personally at fault for either of Arsenal’s 1-0 to 2-1 collapses in the past week, Mustafi’s calming influence in defence has definitely been missed.
Granted, the attack did themselves no favours at the Etihad but a strong defensive line is essential. The Arsenal defenders’ positioning for both goals was poor. In the first, regardless of Leory Sané was offside or not he was always going to beat the centre-backs to the ball. The only defender moving in the same direction as Sané was Héctor Bellerín and he was the wrong side of the Man City player.
The second, meanwhile, was more down to Nacho Monreal’s positioning on the left than anything a centre-half could have done, but it was still a bad goal to give away from a defensive standpoint.
In the last two matches, Arsenal conceded twice – the Gunners hadn’t let in more than once in consecutive games all season before that.
Mustafi has posted a positive injury update on social media in the past 24 hours or so, allaying fears that his injury could keep him out for a significant period of time. However, it will probably still be January before he can take to the pitch once again.
Wenger’s men face West Bromwich Albion next Monday looking to get their title challenge back on track – victory against the Baggies is essential if they are to keep up with Chelsea.