Per Mertesacker hardly had the ideal preparation for the FA Cup final.
The Arsenal defender was starting a match for the first time in 392 days, was unsure he would be able to last 90 minutes, had never played as part of a back three, and was lining up in a new-look and makeshift defense against one of the most potent attacks in English soccer.
Mertesacker didn’t let any of that show.
With the captain’s armband strapped around his left bicep, the lanky former Germany international bestrode the Wembley Stadium turf in the 2-1 win over Chelsea on Saturday, showing all the authority of a 104-cap veteran.
Intercepting passes nonchalantly. Sliding in for last-ditch clearances. Barking orders and organizing the defense.
Mertesacker was immense throughout, with the only blot on his display _ much to his misfortune _ coming when he stuck out his right foot to deflect Diego Costa’s shot past his own goalkeeper, David Ospina, for Chelsea’s 76th-minute equalizer.
Arsenal scored again almost immediately, through Aaron Ramsey, and Mertesacker ended up deservedly on the winning side.
When the final whistle blew on Arsenal’s record 13th FA Cup title and a record seventh for manager Arsene Wenger, Mertesacker trotted over to Ospina and they shared a long and warm embrace in the penalty area. He did the same with Rob Holding, the defender who Mertesacker marshalled through the final.
It might be Mertesacker’s final match in an Arsenal jersey after six years in north London. If it is, what a way for the 32-year-old center back to go out: Lifting the FA Cup along with regular club captain Laurent Koscielny in one of the unexpected victories in recent finals.
“Per Mertesacker, for me, is a fantastic example for any young professional football player,” Wenger said. “What he did today was just a consequence of an unbelievable attitude every day, even if he was not selected in the squad until the Everton game (on the final day of the English Premier League).
“He played his first game tonight and that’s the reward of when he was not selected, he worked even harder. That’s why I will play special tribute to him.”
Few were giving Arsenal a chance in the final even before Wenger was deprived of Koscielny because of suspension and Gabriel Paulista because of injury, with both center backs getting ruled out in that Everton game.
It meant Wenger lined up with a back three of Nacho Monreal (a left back by trade) and Holding (playing only his 18th game for Arsenal) either side of Mertesacker, who was injured until February and whose only 37 minutes of the season was as a substitute against Everton.
Behind them was Ospina, Arsenal’s second-choice goalkeeper who was playing ahead of Petr Cech as has been usual in cup games, and at left wing-back was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a right-footed player.
It wasn’t a backline to inspire confidence but Mertesacker’s presence was key, with his authority, experience and positional play. His lack of pace wasn’t shown up on the vast Wembley pitch because he read the game so well.
Mertesacker was sent off for a professional foul on Costa the last time he came up against the striker, in a league game at Emirates Stadium. But Costa struggled to break free from Mertesacker, who blocked three of the striker’s shots with timely challenges.
He nearly made it four, only for that close-range shot to ricochet into the net.
However, it was Mertesacker dancing and singing long after the final whistle, the cup in one hand and a winners’ medal round his neck.