Former Arsenal manager George Graham has told The Times he is hopeful Arsene Wenger may have finally addressed the club’s longstanding lack of “toughness” and “mentally strong” players.
Wenger has faced questions over Arsenal’s lack of mental edge for many years, particularly since the departure of midfielder Patrick Vieira in 2005.
Graham, who led Arsenal to First Division titles in 1989 and 1991, had been associated with defensive football during his time with the club and, having attended the Gunners’ 4-3 home loss to Liverpool at the start of the season, he described that performance as “typical Arsenal these days.”
He added: “It’s not a secret, is it, that they’ve needed more toughness, more mentally strong players?”
He said the change came after the unbeaten “Invincibles” Premier League season in 2003-04. He said he considered that team to be the best in Europe and that they “had it all — power, strength, beautiful football.” Afterwards, though, he said “they kept buying small players, very technical players, and they didn’t get the balance right. In possession? Up there with the best. Out of possession? Hmm, not so sure.”
Graham hopes Germany centre-back Shkodran Mustafi, who arrived from Valencia at the end of the summer transfer window, may have helped address the issue.
Arsenal are currently level on points with Premier League leaders Manchester City and sit top of their Champions League group on goal difference, and Graham singled out Mustafi’s performance against Diego Costa in September’s 3-0 win over Chelsea.
“I’m sure Arsene has been after a centre half for a few years, but there aren’t many great ones about,” he said. “Early days, but I like what I see of Mustafi — typical German defender, physically tough, mentally strong. Hopefully he is the one. He was excellent against Costa.
“Hopefully, with the buys Arsene has made, they’ve got that toughness now and they can have a real go — not just in the Premier League but in Europe because what I would love, more than anything, is to see Arsenal win the Champions League.”
Graham also said the trend toward high pressing in the Premier League was being undermined generally by the lack of quality centre-backs.
“A lot of the other teams are buying into a pressing game as the modern way to play,” he said. “We used to press years ago, believe me, but not collectively to the extent they do it now.
“The trouble is that when teams bomb on like that, it puts an even greater onus on the centre halves. And there isn’t an abundance of top-quality centre halves, which is why, even with all that money, all the top teams in England are vulnerable.”