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Wenger would be wise to keep Mertesacker's experience at Arsenal

Per Mertesacker
Per Mertesacker may not play a lot but his leadership qualities and dependability make him a valuable player to Arsenal.

Per Mertesacker has become the latest Arsenal club captain to only have a peripheral impact on the team, with the German yet to make an appearance for the Gunners since Arsene Wenger handed him the armband this summer. 

And even when he returns from the knee injury that has kept him sidelined, he will likely struggle for playing time even when fully fit -- like Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen before him. 

And yet Wenger didn't hesitate when asked about the future of Mertesacker, whose contract expires this summer. 

"We have an option [to extend the deal for another year]," Wenger said. "I think we will take it."

At first glance, one might wonder why. Mertesacker is unlikely to displace Shkodran Mustafi as the first-choice centre-back partner to Laurent Koscielny. He might not even be the first backup, with Gabriel Paulista having played well when given the chance this season. 

At 32, Mertesacker certainly isn't getting any faster -- his lack of speed has always been his greatest weakness -- and there were signs last season that his best days might be behind him. 

Then there's young talents Rob Holding and Calum Chambers to think about. If Chambers returns from his loan at Middlesbrough and Wenger keeps Mertesacker, Arsenal will have six centre-backs in the squad. Surely that would only serve to hinder the development of both Holding and Chambers, whose opportunities for playing time would be limited at best.

Britain Football Soccer - Arsenal Training - Arsenal Training Ground - 5/12/16 Arsenal's Per Mertesacker during training.
Per Mertesacker hasn't appeared for Arsenal yet this season but is back training and nearing a return.

But Wenger is probably right to keep the German around. 

For one, Mertesacker has been a devoted servant to Wenger since joining the club in 2011, and it's easy to understand why the Arsenal boss wants to stand by him after such a difficult year. Loyalty is one of Wenger's most cherished values, even though he can sometimes show too much of it towards some players. 

But, in this case, the Frenchman's reasons go well beyond sentimental attachments. 

Mertesacker is one of the most experienced centre-backs in the world, with more than 100 caps for Germany and a World Cup title to show for it. His positioning and reading of the game remains top-class and often help him make up for his lack of his pace. He may not unseat Mustafi or Koscielny, but as a ready-made backup he can still play an important role for Arsenal on the pitch. 

And his bigger contribution may come off the pitch. Wenger clearly rates Mertesacker's leadership qualities highly enough to make him club captain, and by all accounts he's a respected voice in the dressing room. Arsenal is so often accused of lacking leaders, so keeping one of the few they have makes perfect sense even if he isn't a regular starter.  

Finally, while Mertesacker could take playing time away from Holding and Chambers, his presence also offers them an opportunity to learn from an experienced veteran who is more than willing to teach them the trade.  

Even if Mertesacker doesn't play a minute next season, he could still earn his salary if he functions as an extra coach for two players who could one day form a centre-back partnership for both Arsenal and England. 

That alone should make it worth keeping him around. 

Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.

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