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Shkodran Mustafi

Shkodran Mustafi

The fact that the football culture war between stat aficionados and obstinate traditionalists continues to rage is proof it has not been won by either side. Those who adopt a more balanced view acknowledge that statistics can shed light, but also obscure; they can be revelatory or act as a work of misdirection. At the moment, at least, numbers are still an adornment to football, rather than the key to unlocking its inner secrets.

Still, one particularly impressive stat which did the rounds at the weekend threatened to reveal something significant about Arsenal. Following a 1-0 win over Burnley, it was trumpeted that Arsenal are yet to concede a goal when Nacho Monreal, Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny play together in defence.

As well as the stirring late win at Turf Moor — the third time in a row Arsenal have beaten Burnley with a goal in injury time, and the second time in a row that goal has been a penalty scored by Alexis Sanchez — the trio have kept clean sheets in a 3-0 home win over Bournemouth, the 0-0 draw away at Chelsea, a 2-0 home win over West Brom and the 2-0 victory over Tottenham on Nov. 18. Hardly a roll call of the division’s easiest sides.

It was not widely noted that in each of these games, Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac have started either side of the back three and Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka have occupied the space in front of them. The focus has been on the nub of the defensive unit and it is worth looking at why it seems to work for Arsenal — for now at least.

Successful football teams are all about balance. Think of how Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg complemented each other with very contrasting styles on either flank, or the interplay between Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright. The alchemy of winning comes in discovering partnerships and collectives which allow all component parts to play to their strengths.

This particular back three gives licence to Koscielny to attack the ball when he wants, and take the ball out from the back when he wants, too. For Monreal, on the opposite side of the three, it allows him to occasionally indulge his full-back sensibilities: as well as making some crucial defensive interventions like his goal-line clearance to prevent Jay Rodriguez scoring for West Brom, the Spaniard is also venturing forward regularly, firing off a few shots against Burnley to widespread amusement.

But it is surely the central member of the unit who has benefitted most from its deployment.

Mustafi finished last season in a state of dislocation. He featured in the new back three but alongside a rotating cast of partners. Injured for the FA Cup final win over Chelsea, he was reportedly close to a move to Inter Milan at one stage over the summer. But given another chance to show his credentials, he is certainly proving his worth now.

For Mustafi, the stats are even more pronounced. Arsenal have conceded only once in the seven league games he has started. In the six he has missed, they have conceded 15. Not the biggest physically, his strengths lie instead in defensive organisation and anticipation. Following a monumental display in the win over Tottenham, he was exceptional again when facing a tough test at Burnley. He has become quietly crucial to this team.

If the move to Milan had materialised then Mustafi would have been a footnote in Arsenal’s recent history. But sometimes the best football solutions are messy ones and, for now, this back three appears to have developed a very good understanding. Mustafi is the brain at the centre of it all.

“I’d like to congratulate our three centre-backs again today,” Wenger said after the Burnley game, “because they did a remarkable job.” Whether you want numbers to bolster your argument or not, the evidence is clear.

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Hans-Wilhelm Muller-WohlfahrtHans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt

Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt

Aside from his wedding, it has been a year to forget for Bayern Munich and Germany captain Manuel Neuer. The goalkeeper will be sidelined until 2018 following three fractures of the foot in a matter of months.

The 31-year-old went under the knife for the first time at the end of March but was rushed back into action just two weeks later for the Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Real Madrid in Munich amid doubts over the quality of backup keeper Sven Ulreich.

Following Javi Martinez’s dismissal, an inspired Neuer almost singlehandedly kept a Robert Lewandowski-less Bayern in the tie with a string of majestic saves. And Bayern’s Champions League dream was still very much alive after 90 minutes of the return in the Bernabeu, forcing extra time with a 2-1 win, with a half-fit Lewandowski taken off just before the end of normal time.

Then Neuer suffered another fracture in extra time, with 10-man Bayern shipping a further three goals as they were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by the eventual winners, but not before numerous complaints about the referee, offside goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and the validity of Arturo Vidal’s red card.

With Neuer vowing to return for the start of the campaign, Bayern — once bitten, twice shy — were in no hurry with their new captain over the summer. Spared the elongated summer tour of Asia to continue his recovery, the keeper got hitched and enjoyed a relaxing honeymoon.

He eventually made his comeback as Carlo Ancelotti’s captain against Werder Bremen on Aug. 26, playing four games and keeping three sheets, breached only in the tame 2-0 loss at Hoffenheim, Bayern’s sole Bundesliga defeat this season.

Then the unthinkable happened. On the eve of a trip to play his boyhood club Schalke, Neuer suffered “a repeat hairline fracture of the metatarsal in his left foot” during a training session on Sept. 18.

Another operation inevitably followed the next day, ruling him out until the New Year. In the meantime, Neuer has revealed that he has been playing with a metal plate in his foot for years, since picking up a similar injury at Schalke in 2008. The keeper didn’t appear particularly perturbed but warned it could take him six months to heal properly — worrying for Germany, with a World Cup defence on the horizon next summer.

Understandably, this was not particularly good news for Bayern either — or an under-pressure Ancelotti. Ulreich struggled to fill Neuer’s rather large boots in goal. He was horribly exposed in the 3-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League and also inexplicably allowed a soft free kick past him against Wolfsburg as Bayern suddenly did very un-Bayern like things and let a two-goal Bundesliga lead slip at home.

With no Neuer to save the day, these errors were the final nail in the coffin for Ancelotti and proved his last game in charge in each respective competition.

However, since taking over for a fourth term, Jupp Heynckes has not only revitalised the German champions’ fortunes but Neuer’s shaky backup suddenly looks as safe as the Bundesbank in goal.

Despite admitting to ESPN FC he is “no Neuer,” Ulreich has kept a string of clean sheets and his crucial DFB Pokal penalty shootout save from RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner kept Bayern’s Treble hopes alive.

Just four league games into Heynckes’ fourth term, Bayern boast a healthy four-point lead in the Bundesliga, and also sailed into the Champions League knockout stages for a 10th straight season, following home and away victories over Celtic.

All would appear rosy in the Bayern garden, if not for a few unseemly squabbles in the medical department. Dr. Volker Braun, 44, an orthopaedist and trauma surgeon, resigned on Monday after nine years at the club, having assumed responsibility for the first team two years ago following the ugly departure of Dr Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt.

“Mull” and his entire staff left the club in April 2015 after 38 years of service, following disagreements with then-boss Pep Guardiola over the treatment of injured players.

German tabloid Bild claimed that Dr. Braun had not applied “ideal treatment methods,” meaning injured stars such as Neuer spent extended spells on the sidelines. Bild also suggested that Dr. Braun only left the club to be spared a messy sacking by a less-than-amused Bayern hierarchy.

Nevertheless, surely the club knows the quality of its medical staff after almost a decade of service? In any case, Neuer soon came out in Dr. Braun’s defence on his Facebook page, saying he was “absolutely not to blame” for his injury woe.

“The media today are giving the impression that Dr. Volker Braun is responsible for the development of my injury, because he did not apply the ideal treatment methods,” he wrote. “I categorically dispute this. Bayern’s former team doctor is absolutely not to blame. I can even assure that he applied the very best methods that modern medicine allows.”

With Dr. Braun gone, there is a void in the treatment room. It would be no surprise to see the 75-year-old Muller-Wohlfahrt back working his magic on a more active basis in the coming weeks.

Dubbed “a phenomenon” by Bastian Schweinsteiger and “a genius” by president Uli Hoeness, the healing hands of Muller-Wohlfahrt continue to treat a long list of Bayern stars, including Arjen Robben, Jerome Boateng and Robert Lewandowski, even though he is not officially on the club’s payroll.

Usain Bolt has been a patient at his downtown Munich practice since the age of 18 and devoted an Olympic gold “to a man with a big heart,” even handing over his world-record breaking shoes as a gift.

The veteran medic left the club in rather ugly fashion, while his close friend Hoeness was still languishing in prison. However, fast forward to 2017, and it is a time when the old guard is reforming under Heynckes.

In order to smooth the 72-year-old Heynckes’ return, Bayern paid around €2 million for a 65-year-old assistant coach in Peter Hermann from second-division Fortuna Dusseldorf, so it would be no surprise to see the 75-year-old “Mull” using his magic potions on a more active basis in the coming weeks.

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Dries Mertens

Dries Mertens

Napoli returned to the top of Serie A with a 3-2 win at Genoa, courtesy of a first-half brace from Dries Mertens.

Mertens scored his eighth and ninth goals of the league season in the 14th and 30th minutes to put Napoli ahead after they had gone behind to a fourth-minute Adel Taarabt strike.

An own goal from Genoa’s Ervin Zukanovic’s on the hour sealed a ninth win in 10 games for Maurizio Sarri’s side before Armando Izzo scored a second for Genoa.

Juventus remained three points behind Napoli thanks to an emphatic 4-1 win against Spal.

Federico Bernardeschi and Paulo Dybala scored in the first-half while Gonzalo Higuain and Juan Cuadrado netted after the break as the Bianconeri took their tally to 31 goals in 10 Serie A games this season.

Alberto Paloschi was on target for Spal.

AC Milan ended a run of four Serie A games without victory as they beat Chievo 4-1 to move up to eighth.

Strikes from Suso, Hakan Calhanoglu, Nikola Kalinic and a Bostjan Cesar own goal were enough to ease the pressure on Milan coach Vincenzo Montella.

Lazio overcame Bologna 2-1 in a match where the visitors walked out wearing white T-shirts printed with a photo of Anne Frank and the words “no to anti-Semitism.” They also warmed up in the same shirts.

The team struggled to find their usual game, with Ciro Immobile missing a penalty and the capital club hitting the woodwork four times.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Senad Lulic netted for Lazio in the first half. Lulic also scored in the wrong net early in the second period.

Elsewhere, Diego Perrotti’s 10th-minute penalty was enough to see Roma past Crotone 1-0 and keep them in fifth place.

Fiorentina thrashed Torino 3-0 at the Artemio Franchi, where Marco Benassi gave the hosts a first-half lead.

Giovanni Simeone extended the Viola’s lead and Khouma Babacar added gloss from the spot, with Antonio Barreca sent off in giving away the penalty.

Antonin Barak’s strike was enough to secure Udinese a 1-0 win at Sassuolo, while Cagliari edged past Benevento 2-1 in a match that came to a thrilling conclusion.

Paolo Farago put the hosts ahead in the ninth minute, only for Pietro Iemmello to level from the spot deep in stoppage time. There was to be another twist in the tale, though, as Leonardo Pavoletti headed home for Cagliari.

Atalanta racked up a comprehensive 3-0 win against Hellas Verona.

After a first half in which both sides had goals ruled out by the video assistant referee, the hosts kicked on at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.

Remo Freuler opened the scoring five minutes into the second half, with Josip Ilicic adding a second soon after before Jasmin Kurtic wrapped up victory — Atalanta’s third in succession in all competitions.

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Fiorentina thrashed Torino 3-0 at the Artemio Franchi, where Marco Benassi gave the hosts a first-half lead.

Giovanni Simeone extended the Viola’s lead and Khouma Babacar added gloss from the spot, with Antonio Barreca sent off in giving away the penalty.

There was a similarly big win for AC Milan away to Chievo as Vincenzo Montella’s side ran out 4-1 victors.

Suso’s opener was complemented by a Bostjan Cesar own goal, with Hakan Calhanoglu – one of Milan’s many summer signings – extending the lead further.

Valter Birsa temporarily reduced the deficit against his former club, only for Nikola Kalinic to quickly restore the three-goal cushion.

Antonin Barak’s strike was enough to secure Udinese a 1-0 win at Sassuolo, while Cagliari edged past Benevento 2-1 in a match that came to a thrilling conclusion.

Paolo Farago put the hosts ahead in the ninth minute, only for Pietro Iemmello to level from the spot deep in stoppage time. There was to be another twist in the tale, though, as Leonardo Pavoletti headed home for Cagliari.

In Wednesday’s early kick off, Atalanta racked up a comprehensive 3-0 win against Hellas Verona.

After a first half in which both sides had goals ruled out by the video assistant referee, the hosts kicked on at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia.

Remo Freuler opened the scoring five minutes into the second half, with Josip Ilicic adding a second soon after before Jasmin Kurtic wrapped up victory – Atalanta’s third in succession in all competitions.