LONDON: Arsene Wenger has credited Shkodran Mustafi with giving Arsenal the defensive steel that has helped the Gunners share the lead at the head of the Premier League table going into Saturday's match with struggling Sunderland.
Wenger's side will head to the Stadium of Light level on points with Manchester City and Liverpool and unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions since the opening day of the season.
The midweek EFL Cup victory over Reading maintained the Gunners' interest in four competitions but it is in the Premier League that Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny have formed a formidable central defensive partnership, resolving one of the weak points of the side last season.
Wenger acknowledges Koscielny is the senior partner of the pair, but believes the arrival of Mustafi from Valencia at the end of the last transfer window has helped transform his team.
"Koscielny is the leader because he is captain but Mustafi looks like he is taking leadership as well at the back," the manager told Arsenal.com.
"What is surprising is how quickly he has integrated into the team at the back and how quickly they have formed a pair that works well together.
"Mustafi is a player who is highly focused. On that front he is a typical German. He wants to do the job well every day and he speaks his mind. He is vocal in the dressing room.
"He is not a quiet guy who hides. He speaks out with his opinion and communicates a lot. Even when you isolate the pictures of the game and look at that he speaks a lot during the game."
Wenger admits tough physical games like the one he is expecting against Sunderland -- whose manager David Moyes was responsible for bringing Mustafi to England for a first spell when he was at Everton -- will be a test for the German to see if he is capable of matching them for physicality.
"What makes me positive is he is focused, has the desire to do well, and is 24 years old.
"So for a central defender that is quite young. Let's see how he survives in games like against Sunderland, where it is a case of 'Can I head the ball? Can I win the second ball?' I would say I have a positive feeling."
Wenger must decide whether to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who scored twice against Reading, but striker Lucas Perez has been ruled out with an ankle injury.
Patience wearing thin
Sunderland have a habit of conceding late goals this season, but Wenger will know that an early strike by Arsenal could prove decisive because of the atmosphere at the Stadium of Light.
A section of their supporters are already calling for David Moyes's brief reign to be terminated and patience is certainly wearing thin among others who are dismayed by yet another relegation struggle.
It means they will be quick to turn against the team if Arsenal make early inroads -- and would mean another awkward 90 minutes for Moyes, who is still without several key players.
Adnan Januzaj, Jan Kirchhoff, Seb Larsson, Vito Mannone, Lee Cattermole and Fabio Borini are all certain to miss out, leaving Moyes with few options.
However, he was impressed by Victor Anichebe's contribution in his first start for the club in the midweek EFL Cup defeat at Southampton and may use him alongside Jermain Defoe, who has been a lone striker throughout this season.
"I thought Victor did really well and was a handful," Moyes said.
"He gave us a different outlook all night and we went to him.
"In the future it might be a temptation to play them both, but we don't want to change too much in the midfield because they need to get the ball to the forwards too. You need to get the balance right."