The smile that creeps over Tomas Rosicky’s face as he sits down with The Arsenal Magazine is intriguing. For a man not known for a deep love of media work, it is something of a surprise – but then he has much to be satisfied with during what has been a stellar season...
The 33-year-old is arguably in the form of his Arsenal career and while he insists it is not up to him to make that judgement, his performances this term make for a compelling case.
The highlights reel so far includes star turns in Dortmund and at Newcastle, as well as the home games against Napoli and Liverpool – and who can forget him racing through before impudently chipping Hugo Lloris to score against Tottenham in the FA Cup?
In an Arsenal squad positively teeming with No 10s, Rosicky brings something fresh: impetus.
Mesut Ozil may have the guile, Santi Cazorla the craft and quick feet, Jack Wilshere the aggression, but the Czech midfielder’s energy, direct nature and ability to change the speed of a game has proved hugely important.
It is a unique skill set that is appreciated by both Arsène Wenger and his team-mates.
On the pitch, I talk, I shout, I scream because I want to get everyone goingTomas Rosicky
"In my opinion Tomas belongs to the best midfielders in the Premier League," Ozil said recently. "When you see how much he gives for the team and how he enjoys being on the ball it makes us happy to have a player like that in our ranks."
The feeling is certainly mutual, but that doesn’t quite explain his grin.
No, the reason for it is something quite different: he has just watched the Czech Republic’s ice hockey side beat Latvia 4-2 in Sochi to bolster their Winter Olympic hopes. Now this proud son of Prague is gunning for gold.
Arsenal have enjoyed a fine campaign to date, but with just four points separating the top four it seems destined to go down to the wire. But Tomas – who won three titles with Sparta Prague between 1998 and 2001 and then the Bundesliga title with Borussia Dortmund in 2002 – is confident this side is better equipped than previous incarnations to last the distance.
"There will be some bumps in the road but that is to be expected. I won the league in Germany and that was even more up and down than it is here. You cannot expect to have no obstacles during the season. The most important thing for me is to show fight and hunger for the title. It will not always be smooth football that helps you beat teams.
"For example, when we went to Southampton and Liverpool recently, the big difference was that their opening spell was much more aggressive than us. Basically, if we don’t match our opponents’ fighting spirit and aggression, we can’t expect to win every game just based on our football skills. It doesn’t work like that. I am not worried about it though, because we have shown that plenty of times this season. I know this team is capable of doing it."
Tomas is happy to lead the charge. An intelligent thinker and student of the game, he is a fascinating character but one that is surrounded by contradictions. Nicknamed ‘the little Mozart’, yet a big heavy metal fan; one of the Premier League’s elder statesman yet still one of its most energetic players; a quiet, unassuming person off the pitch yet one of the most vocal, demanding members of the team while on it. There is certainly more to him than meets the eye.
He enjoys being part of a restyled Arsenal team that can now not only stand up to the physical nature of some opponents, but actually appears to relish the game’s darker arts.
Tomas is at the forefront of that, bellowing instructions to team-mates, flying into challenges and driving the side on by word and by deed. And when he sees the likes of Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini alongside him, he knows this team has what it takes to achieve the success that has eluded the Club for so long.
"The guys like Per, Mathieu and obviously me – that is what we are trying to do. Even in the training sessions [we are always talking]. For example, before a game in the dressing room I cannot say I am a real talker – the boys will not really hear me because I have to concentrate on myself too. But on the pitch, I talk, I shout, I scream because I want to get everyone going. I think this is the right way to go for the title because I think we are capable of it.
If you see the positions in the league, you can see it is very like 2007/08
"We have people like Mathieu, Jack who is a warrior and Ramsey as well – you can say we have players who enjoy the [physical] part of the game and that could make the difference.
"Mathieu is the type of player that we missed in the past. We didn’t have that type of guy, a proper physical guy who makes life difficult for everyone. I’m glad he’s back – we’re friends from his first spell here so I was delighted when he rejoined the Club. We needed his qualities.”
Both Rosicky and Flamini were part of the last Arsenal side to make a concerted push for the title, in 2007/08, although Tomas missed the second half of that season after sustaining a serious hamstring injury that would keep him out of the game for 18 months.
While he accepts that there are some similarities between this current campaign and then, he believes there is an added substance to this squad that marks them out from their predecessors.
"If you see the positions in the league, you can see it is very like 2007/08," he says with a smile. “But there is a difference in that I think this team is able to fight more. In 2007/08 it was a great team who could play great football. We had the midfield, we had Robin van Persie up front and Emmanuel Adebayor on top form, so it was a very talented team. We lost it in the end because I got the injury, Robin and Eduardo got injured and we lost three important players and started to drop points.
"The physical part of the team was not as capable as this one. This fighting... I don’t want to say spirit... maybe instinct, this aggression is more advanced than that team in 2007/08."
It was a long road back for Tomas from his hamstring injury, and it was a journey made all the more difficult following the break up of that Arsenal side. His three closest team-mates, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Hleb and Flamini, all left the Club, and while they experienced contrasting fortunes upon their departures, Rosicky admits it was a challenging spell for him.
"They were my friends and they still are. It is not just like your good team-mate is leaving, they were my close friends. It was difficult. But while it is not easy to see your friends go, I always know what I wanted to do. I knew I was somewhere where I wanted to be. I always believed in it here at Arsenal, and I still do. I knew this club was the right place for me and I want to be here for as long as I can."
Those 18 months out of the game have had a profound impact on him. Not only does he admit to thinking about the game differently now, perhaps appreciating it more, but on the physical side he believes he has plenty more left in his legs. He may be 33 years old, but he believes his "football age" is nearer to 31 due to having so much time out.
Pertinently, Wenger tells the Arsenal Magazine this month that the advances in medical science over time have helped add years to certain players’ careers, with Tomas cited as an example. So how much longer can he play for, and how much does the fear of retirement motivate this already highly driven character?
The idea of winning the league really drives me forward. I love itTomas Rosicky
"It is obviously very difficult to predict how long I can go on for. I feel very good, I don’t feel any different than in the past, I don’t feel any change in myself. All I can say is that I still have a big passion to achieve things and that is really important. You must have that force, that drive to go on and achieve something and I definitely still have that.
"Who knows what will happen when I lose it! I am not even thinking about finishing playing.I was nearly out of the game because of injury so I have a different approach now because I know it could end at any point. I just want to be successful with Arsenal.
"I definitely agree with the boss [on how medical advancement has helped players]. All the physiotherapy stuff is making a massive step forward every year – there are always new things and new ideas for what you can do to your body. When I started 13 or 14 years ago with Sparta Prague, there was basically nothing! Everything is better now and that is why players can have a longer career if you approach things right and make the right sacrifices for your body.
"When you’re young, you don’t have problems. You think you don’t have to do anything because you don’t have troubles. But when you get older you start to feel a bit here and a bit there so you have to do things to combat that. Before training and after training you really have to work. Yoga is part of it. When you see people like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, it shows that it is definitely possible to extend your career – but it depends on the person and also that you’re not unlucky to pick up another serious injury.
"After a very long injury, there was a possibility I wouldn’t make it back so you think about everything slightly differently. But I cannot say now that I am in a rush [to win trophies] just because I know I’m near the end. I’m hungry for success anyway. I won three titles in the Czech Republic before I left, I won the Bundesliga with Dortmund and I still believe I can do it here.
"I wouldn’t stay here if I didn’t believe. The idea of winning the league really drives me forward. I love it.
Read the full interview with Tomas in our latest edition
"I said at the start of the season that I have never been hungrier for success and that still counts. It is why I came here – to win trophies with Arsenal. I will do everything I can to achieve my dream, it’s as simple as that. Wherever I was before I won the title, so of course I want to win it here as well and I believe we can do it. It’s a real driving force."
And with that he is away, joining Lukasz Fabianski in front of one of London Colney’s big screens as the action heats up on the ice. But make no mistake, that is merely a momentary distraction from the real task in hand: to fight for the Premier League title right to the end of the season.