Unai Emery launched an impassioned defence of Shkodran Mustafi on the eve of Arsenal’s Premier League trip to Wolves – but admits there is room for improvement for the beleaguered centre-back.
Mustafi was singled out for widespread criticism following his performance in Sunday’s 3-2 home defeat to Crystal Palace.
A win over the Eagles would have seen Emery’s side finish the weekend in third but they now head to Wolves outside the top four and with Champions League qualification still in the balance.
Mustafi, 27, has split opinion ever since he joined from Valencia for a reported £35million in 2016 but Emery believes the Germany international has the ability to be a success at the Emirates Stadium and that he is often unfairly singled out when things go against the Gunners.
“I want to protect the players, Mustafi is a very good player, a very good centre-back,” Emery said as part of a four and a half minute answer to a question on Mustafi’s response to recent criticism.
“He has the habit – usually he is doing the sliding tackle and using anticipation against the opposition. He can win one, win two, win three, win four – but if he loses one he is the picture and if he concede a goal he is the big picture, Sunday was the same and happened with him.
“I have spoken to him: ‘You are young, you can improve and you need to work hard because you have a big quality for a centre-back.’
“He is young, he is improving and Sunday he is in the big picture because of the second goal. Who is in this picture? Mustafi – but it’s not his mistake. The mistake was tactical because we need to protect him with two centre-backs against [Wilfried] Zaha. I protect him because I believe in him.”
Pundits such as Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville have been vocal in their scathing reviews of Mustafi in recent times – while the former Everton youngster is often a source of ire for Arsenal fans on social media.
But Emery wants to work with Mustafi to improve his game and has called on supporters to also help by laying off the defender.
“He needs to improve things tactically, decision-making, but he has good quality and needs quality and my work is to help him,” Emery added.
“I am going to say to our supporters, ‘Help our players.’ We need to take the criticism and be strong as players, as a coach, as a team, as a club. We need to improve knowing that.
“Okay, we are receiving criticism after Sunday. It is normal. It is normal. The players know that.
“But we here need to be strong and okay we need improve and need to do this decision we need to take also this tactical approach for tomorrow.
“We are going to do that. After being together we are strong. We need our supporters, we know sometimes we need to receive criticism and sometimes we also need to receive praise.
“I say my message. I am going to protect the players and help the players. And all the supporters who love Arsenal club I prefer to do that.
“But I know it is not easy and they are going to criticise when they are in the stadium and also when they are watching on TV.
“But we need also to learn to receive criticism. For us we need to protect and know that all the supporters they can do that.
“Personal insults I don’t agree with. Insults I don’t want. I think it is not used to do the insults.”
It also appears as though Emery is planning to work with Mustafi beyond the end of this season.
Despite being linked with a move away last summer, when asked if the club would be open to offers this time round, Emery added: “We need him, now we need him. I am going to use every player to help us.”
It remains to be seen if Mustafi retains his place in Emery’s defence as Sokratis Papastathopoulos is available following a two-match ban, while Granit Xhaka could also be involved at Wolves following a hip injury.
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