Per Mertesacker admits Alexis Sanchez’s two-month injury absence at the turn of the year hit Arsenal hard, with the Gunners all but certain to miss out on the Premier League title yet again.
Sanchez has been in fine form in recent weeks and took his goal tally to five in four games as he hit the match-winning brace in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over West Brom on Thursday night.
The win, which came in front of an unusually sparse Emirates Stadium after reportedly as many as 2,500 season-ticket holders stayed away, was enough to move Arsene Wenger’s side up to third in the table as they look to secure a 20th consecutive season of Champions League football.
But it could have been so much more for a team now set to end the season empty-handed.
At the turn of the year Arsenal sat atop the standings, with the two teams now realistically fighting for the crown, Leicester and Tottenham, in their wake.
Wenger insisted the experience in his squad would see them over the line, but a poor run followed and fans turned on the Frenchman, especially after successive defeats to Manchester United and Swansea.
Sanchez missed two months of the season, over the crucial Christmas and new year period, after suffering a hamstring injury in November’s draw at Norwich.
He returned in late January, but it has taken him until the last month to get his sharpness and explosiveness back. His quality was in evidence as he struck early on against the Baggies before curling in a free-kick later in the half.
And Mertesacker accepts the Chilean was sorely missed.
“There are a couple of things we missed, but he is obviously one,” the defender said.
“When he was out, I think the statistics were not that bad for us, I think we played 10 games without him and won seven.
“But obviously if he is on the pitch, he creates space always for other players because he draws so much attention and that is the key to any team.
“He is a key member of our team and, if he is fully fit, he makes the difference and that is always the case. During the time he was out, I think we had quite a good record, but over the whole season normally we need him healthy.
“He is the type of player who makes the difference and, even when he is in Chile playing two qualifiers, he will be back on track in the right time when having just two days’ rest in between. He is that type of player who gives everything to the team. Those team members are well appreciated.”
Mertesacker came back into the Arsenal side as one of three changes for the clash with Tony Pulis’ Albion, having been confined to the bench due to the form of both Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel.
The Germany international and World Cup winner was disappointed to be dropped, but is looking to take the positives from it.
Asked if being in and out of the side had been difficult, Mertesacker replied: “That’s team sport.
“I was always involved in team sport and this is a different situation, but sometimes you need to step back and learn something out of it.
“Now I can train more than I ever could before. I sat back and looked at what I could do in training to really get better. That’s the only thing I thought of.
“Obviously you are disappointed, but I will never drop the respect for anyone here, even when I’m not playing. I’ll keep working harder. It was a good time for me. If you change a little bit of your perspective, you see how other people feel.
“We are a 25 (man squad) and not everyone can be selected. It is a learning process, even when you are a 30, 31 and a World Cup winner.
“But we have got 25 players, everyone wants to play and obviously the boss has got a lot of headaches with his selection. With players coming back, it is going to be tight and good competition. That is what we play for.”