We continue the countdown to the unveiling of the Arsenal.com Player of the Season - as voted by the fans.
In second place is Per Mertesacker. The Germany international had another fine campaign and received 12.8 per cent of the votes.
Arsenal reporter Rob Kelly gives his verdict on the 29-year-old.
If strength of character is one of the defining qualities of the current Arsenal team, then one man embodies it more than most: Per Mertesacker.
The Germany international has proven himself to be one of the finest defenders in Europe over the course of his career, but after 82 minutes of the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan he was facing a sporting disaster, both personal and collective.
"In the space of three years, the German has established himself as arguably the key figure in the dressing room and a deeply-popular character among the fans"
Having barely put a foot wrong during a stellar season, Mertesacker's mistimed challenge on Callum McManaman at Wembley gifted the Championship side a penalty that they duly converted. Arsenal were staring into the abyss, and the weight of pressure must have been suffocating.
But with seven minutes remaining, redemption was his as Mertesacker threw himself at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s mishit shot and cushioned in a header for a precious equaliser. It sparked joyous scenes in the stands, and the outpouring of emotion from Mertesacker himself told its own story.
Cometh the hour, and all that.
It should have come as no surprise. In the space of three years, the German has established himself as arguably the key figure in the dressing room and a deeply-popular character among supporters. If anyone was going to rescue the team when they needed it most, it was Mertesacker.
Arsene Wenger, who was forced to defend the centre back during his early days at the club, has never been in any doubt about his quality. Speaking to German broadcaster ZDF in October, he was fulsome in his praise for a man he has often entrusted with the captain’s armband.
“[He has a] super attitude - very intelligent and is getting a lot of respect from others,” the manager said. “He is very professional. He has developed very well, technique-wise and tactics-wise too. In my opinion, he is one of the best defenders in the world today.”
Mertesacker is similarly popular among his team-mates. His relationship with Laurent Koscielny at the back offers a rock-solid foundation for Arsenal’s attacking talent to thrive, and the Frenchman acknowledges the 29-year-old’s importance - both on and off the field.
“Per gives everything for the club, he is a man who is respected by all of his team-mates,” Koscielny said. “He's German so he's professional and it's very important to have a partner like him in the squad. He tries to give himself for the team and when the other players see that, they want to do the same.”
"He tries to give himself for the team and when the other players see that, they want to do the same"
When, on Arsenal’s FA Cup victory parade, Mertesacker pleaded briefly for “one more minute” with the trophy you could see how much it meant to him. For a man seemingly entwined in the fabric of the club, the moment was something special and one he wanted to extend as long as possible.
More than anything, he seems to care deeply for the club. After signing a new deal in March, Mertesacker's words spoke of a man who cannot believe his luck to be playing for Arsenal - and that, perhaps more than anything, is why he is so loved.
“On my first visit to England as a boy I bought an Arsenal jersey as a souvenir and I was so proud wearing it when playing football with my friends,” he said. “Many years later, I have become a real Gunner, being even more proud to wear the Arsenal jersey. I am truly thankful to the club and all the supporters for the time I have had here so far. I’m proud to be a Gunner.”
It has been a remarkable season for Mertesacker - and that one stooping header at Wembley could have changed the course of the club for good. For the BFG, it was a fairytale moment in a fantastic personal campaign.
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