Cast your mind back to early September 2011.
Our club was reeling from the loss of two key players (Fabregas and Nasri) and had made a terrible start to the season, capped off with a humiliating 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford.
Three days after that awful thrashing and with the transfer window about to slam shut, Arsene Wenger went running round Europe with his shopping trolley like a slum-dweller from N17 on a looting trip at the Pound Store during the annual riot season.
Anything he could lay his hands on went in the cart. Or so it seemed.
The Press – and a not insignificant minority of the Arsenal fan base – were quick to scream “Panic Buys.”
And indeed when Arsene got home and tipped his shopping out on the floor it was a mixed bag. From the bargain shelf there was the mystifying inclusion of a job lot of Pot Noodles (Park Chu Young); there was a big round tin of Brazilian beef, well past its sell-by date (work it out); there was some fine Spanish ham and, finally, a giant German sausage.
As supporters it was hard to know quite what to make of it.
Mikel Arteta was a known quantity – a midfielder of skill and intelligence, though injury prone. Even if people weren’t setting off rockets in celebration, his arrival from Everton felt like a solid signing.
But the others?
Let’s face it, we had never heard of Park Chu Young or Andre Santos, so it was hard to get excited about them.
But Per Mertesacker was a different kettle of sardines. Even if we weren’t fervent watchers of the Bundesliga we all knew that Mertesacker was a very tall German international centre back with 70-something caps.
Remember, this was the summer when our clear need for a new central defender had led to strong campaigns in favour of us signing Gary Cahill, Chris Samba, Phil Jagielka and even Richard Dunne, who is older than dandan.
The one thing all those Premiership defenders had in common (apart from Dundun) was their price tag: all of them were supposedly going to cost well north of £15m. The big German – with all that international experience – was only £10m.
I remember Mertesacker’s first few games for us. In his debut outing we beat Swansea 1-0. The German looked a bit disorientated and there were worrying signs that pace was not his strong point (it was rumoured that once, when playing in Switzerland for Germany, he was overtaken by a glacier).
His second game was a 1-1 away at Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League (GiE in his match report commented on how Mertesacker’s pace was exposed), then there was an away game at Blackburn Rovers – a 4-3 defeat in which our defence fell apart like an Ikea shelf unit assembled by Stevie Wonder.
The press – still gorging on the ‘Arsenal in crisis’ story – were quick to write off Mertesacker as an ungainly, tardy waste of money.
The trouble with the media is that once they have given someone a label, it takes them years to remove it.
As far as they were concerned Big Per was a disappointment and wasn’t cut out for the Premier League. Some of them are still saying that even now. Given the general despondency around our club back in Autumn 2011 it is hardly surprising that quite a lot of fans agreed.
But let’s put things in context: Mertesacker had joined a team that was in utter turmoil – both from a sudden influx of new faces and from the emotional fall-out of the Man Utd defeat and the late departures of Cesc and Nasri.
He was in a new country, a new league, with unfamiliar team mates. If he had slotted in like a world beater from Day One it would have been the greatest footballing miracle since the noisy neighbours trained an ape to wear their tatty shirt and kick a ball.
History often hysteria look foolish, and if you think back to Arsenal’s slow-but-steady recovery in the 2011-12 season you’ll see that Armageddon never quite happened: we weren’t relegated, we climbed up the table, we “minded the gap” and we finished third.
And one of the biggest factors in our return to form was the tardy Teuton himself: the lumbering giant, the heavy-legged Hanoverian, the sluggish Squarehead. Except that by now most Arsenal fans had realised that if his legs were sometimes slow, his mind was like Usain Bolt when it came to reading the game of football.
Even by late September of his first season the Big F*cking German (as we now fondly called him) was earning these sorts of write-ups in the AA match reports: “Best game yet, calm and assured,” (Jamie, after we beat Bolton 3-0 on September 24th); “Reads the game so well, he can intercept the ball or break up the play higher up the pitch than one might expect… The BFG is growing into his role with us, a pleasure to see that,” (26 May after our 2-1 victory over Olimpiacos on September 28th).
Early in his Arsenal career I said he reminded me of David O’Leary in the way he read the game and was able to snuff out trouble before it got serious.
Since then he has got better and better and is now one of the first names on our team sheet. When all our defenders are fit, the only question for the manager is whether he should be partnered with Koscielny or Vermaelen.
What’s more, he is clearly becoming a leader at the club, both on and off the pitch (as Arsene Wenger mentioned recently). You really get the sense that he is loving life at Arsenal and in London and even the journalists are belatedly beginning to realise what we Arsenal fans have known for quite some time now – that he is a top quality player.
In the weekend’s win at Swansea he had an 87% pass success rate; he won the one tackle he had to make; he made four successful clearances out of four attempted; he succeeded in both his attempted headed clearances and was victorious in all four of his aerial duels.
But what the stats don’t show is that he was always there to receive the ball and be the calming presence in our back line.
Which brings me back to my original question: is our Beanpole Boche the best central defender in the EPL?
His competition would come, I guess, from the likes of John “Jeremy Kyle has my family on speed dial” Terry; Gary “not to be confused with Tim” Cahill; Vincent “Two’s” Kompany; Martin “no Halloween mask necessary” Skrtel and Jan “Badly Advised” Vertonghen.
Some of them have qualities that the BFG lacks – mainly speed, as has been discussed. But in their overall contribution to their team’s defensive units I don’t feel any of them is currently better than our commanding Kaiser.
It is rumoured that Arsenal are planning to offer Mertesacker a three year extension on his contract, which expires at the end of next season. I hope it’s true and I hope the business is concluded quickly.
He may be a beanpole, but beanpoles are there to help things grow – and Per is certainly helping his Arsenal colleagues grow into a formidable unit.