Shortly before Christmas, Arsenal were playing Burnley at the Emirates Stadium when their burly, thickset centre-half Sokratis Papastathopoulos trotted over the touchline to retrieve the ball for a throw-in. Ominously, Ashley Barnes - Burnley’s burly, thickset striker - had the same idea.
Instinctively, Sokratis tried to manoeuvre his body in between Barnes and the ball, but lost his balance. Barnes fell on top of Sokratis, and then as the pair both tried to get up, inadvertently put him in a headlock. Sokratis grappled him back to the ground, and the pair then wrestled in an unseemly fashion for some moments until team-mates were able to separate them. The ball, naturally, was nowhere to be seen.
If ever there was a moment to sum up the curious cult appeal of Sokratis six months into his Arsenal career, this was it.
You may have your own personal favourite, of course. Perhaps it was the way he manually bulldozed the Bournemouth wall last Wednesday to clear space for Alexandre Lacazette’s free-kick to pass through. Or the way he celebrated a monumental slide tackle against Blackpool in the FA Cup by sitting on the turf, arms aloft in celebration.
Or one of his many gratuitous, sacrificial bookings, all greeted with the same incredulous, deeply wounded expression, somewhere in between ‘grave family insult’ and ‘I was waiting five minutes for that parking space’. Or maybe it was the way, midway through a man-of-the-match performance against Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday, he abruptly interrupted an indignant Danny Rose mid-diatribe to point out that the referee was trying to show him a yellow card.
Perhaps the most arresting thing about Sokratis is that he appears to be the only footballer in the world who isn’t, in any meaningful sense, playing a ball sport. This is not, by the way, intended as a criticism. Other players live for the perfect 60-yard diagonal pass; others for the long-range piledriver; others for the outrageous trick or sliver of skill that brings a crowd to its feet.
Sokratis, on the other hand, lives for contact. Like an offensive lineman in NFL, his job is less about retrieving the ball himself, and more about stopping you from getting it. He is never more alive than when shoulder-charging an opponent into the corner, or using his considerable heft to shepherd the ball out of play, or sneakily wrapping his limbs around a striker like a climbing plant, preventing him simultaneously from leaping, moving or even going down.
“He’s a little obsessed with defending,” Thomas Tuchel, his former manager at Borussia Dortmund. “He wants to protect the goal-line no matter what. He’s hungry to face duels.”
Jurgen Klopp, another of his former managers, goes even further: “You’re never quite sure if he’s about to kill you.”
This kind of stuff is often described as “dark arts”. On the contrary, it’s the oldest and most basic form of defending, in many ways the last umbilical link between the modern game and its Victorian antecedent, a game of barges and charges and wraps and grapples and matches featuring entire villages. And in many ways Sokratis has honed this game to a fine point: a creature of pure, visceral defending, the Mozart of the salty shoulder-challenge, a master of contact, an emeritus professor in the complex system of weights and measures, levers and pulleys, by which a grown man denies an opponent access to the ball.
He’s only 6ft 1in and doesn’t dominate the skies. Instead, he does his best work on the ground. On Saturday at Wembley Stadium, a ground where he was pulled this way and that by Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min during a Champions League game for Dortmund last season, he skilfully put the same players to sleep. With support from Laurent Koscielny alongside him and Matteo Guendouzi ahead of him, Sokratis simply held Kane tight and never let him go. Kane longs to bring the ball in, turn and wriggle free and release the ball to an onrushing team-mate. Here, every time he did so, he found himself dragging a Sokratis-sized weight around with him, one prepared to match him nudge for nudge, wrangle for wrangle.
“In the last matches,” Unai Emery said, “he has come with confidence in himself to use his skills and capacity to help us.”
And in many ways this was the defining Sokratis performance for Arsenal, an accretion and a culmination of all the little arresting moments of promise that have characterised his first season at the club. It’s certainly been good to watch (by way of contrast, can you name a single thing that Nacho Monreal, say, did in his first six months at Arsenal?), but now it’s beginning to bear fruit too.
He’s 30, and when he was signed for £17 million last summer there were a few murmurs that Arsenal should have been looking to sign a younger, more technical defender. In another sense, though, Sokratis was exactly the sort of defender they needed: fit, hostile, surprisingly quick, and above all not just acquainted but enamoured with the subtle complexities of man-on-man defending.
There is a time for systems and strategies, and then there are times when you just need to win a throw-in by outmuscling another bloke with your backside. The great Arsenal teams of the past all understood this. The meagre Arsenal teams of late haven’t. And though there’s a long road ahead, there’s something weirdly compelling in the way a Greek centre-half is rekindling Arsenal’s love affair with pure defensive physicality.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies