This story first appeared in the January 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
“Per has a lot of class on the pitch and after the game. He is well respected, also in the dressing room, because he is always 100 per cent committed and gives everything for the team. Every day he works with 100 per cent commitment. They are typically German qualities but even more typically Mertesacker.”
Arsène Wenger’s assertion is further evidence that Per Mertesacker’s value to Arsenal stretches far beyond the assured central-defensive displays. Per has established himself as a crucial component of the Arsenal set-up.
He helps harness team spirit, leading by example on the pitch and occasionally displaying his quirky sense of humour off it - just search ‘Mertesacker mean tweets’ on YouTube for an amusing example. The high regard with which Per is held in at the club goes far beyond his manager.
“I always see Per as a role model,” revealed Mesut Ozil in August. “I speak to Per a lot. Per is always there to help me out,” added Calum Chambers recently. Arsenal’s vice-captain - who has regularly worn the armband over the course of the last season and a half - is certainly not short on knowledge of the game, having turned 31 this year.
As one of the squad’s most experienced players, the World Cup winner’s presence has proved vital in crafting together what could well be the most close-knit group Emirates Stadium has ever housed. It should come as no surprise then that, with the squad so united, Arsenal are set to enter 2016 harbouring very realistic hopes of lifting the Premier League title for the first time in 12 years.
A league winner’s medal has so far escaped Per during a career in which he has added to his success on the international stage with three domestic cup trophies. Speaking to the Arsenal Magazine in one of the interview rooms at London Colney recently, the charming defender made his determination to change that this season abundantly clear - and emphasised why Arsenal’s unified team dynamics could make the difference.
Per, you’re in your fifth season at Arsenal. How has the relationship among the squad evolved since you arrived?
Firstly, for me it was a good opportunity to join the club. Arsenal decided to buy a few new players, because of their results at the start of that season. They bought players late in the transfer window, something unusual for Arsène Wenger. You have to take that as a motivation.
I was very grateful for the opportunity to join the club. I thought it was going to be a critical week for everyone because of the result against Manchester United. But when I came, the situation was totally different. It was calm. There were no supporters at training, no press. That gave me the feeling that it was more calm than it would have been in Germany, with all the press and people there.
It was more relaxed and that made it a good situation for me to focus on my job and settling in, trying to adapt as quickly as possible to the language and my team-mates. The situation is different now in terms of how we approach things and how we’ve dealt with certain situations. That gives you experience and it makes you stronger. We went through difficult periods where we were doubted a lot but, as a team, we always focused on ourselves, on things like how we could improve, how we could better ourselves.
How did we do that?
By communicating, by coping with tougher situations. Slowly there is a feeling that the basis is much stronger than it was when I arrived. We have a good potential but still, there’s always room for improvement. You can always communicate better, analyse situations better, work harder.
There’s always this feeling I have that the team wants more, and that’s a good sign. We want to prove we have a certain consistency and therefore we have to prepare even more than we have ever prepared.
How would you describe your role off the pitch?
When everything goes well, it’s easy for every player. You have a certain rhythm and momentum. You recover quicker, you play better, the confidence is sky high. In terms of when you’re not so successful, when you go through difficult periods, I try to bring in my experience, speak a lot, train well and help out in certain situations.
You want to keep the confidence at a certain level. When it’s not going well, you have to keep your focus. You have to make sure that no one is drifting away from the group and thinking too much about themselves. That’s what I mean when I talk about taking care of the team. In those difficult situations, you have to be vocal and on the ball to make sure that everyone is training well and performing well.
In general though, I’d say we are much more resistant than we were. Your team-mates talk a lot about you being a leader in the dressing room.
Is that something natural or has it developed over the years?
Everyone has their own personality and brings something to the team. Our dressing room is really lively. We have different characters and the young, talented players sometimes look up to the more experienced guys.
In that case, I have a role to play. I do it in an honest way. Things that I learnt and grabbed during my career that I think are important would include being genuine to all the lads and treating everyone equally and differently. That’s something I try to do in the dressing room. There’s no hidden secret - I just try to contribute.
What happens after a disappointing result? Who tends to speak in the dressing room?
It’s very important that it’s not always the same people, not always the captain or the vice-captain. Obviously there are situations where you need to talk but we need a lively squad to be successful. Sometimes if someone feels something and stands up and says what they are thinking, we are all very happy about it.
Sharing the responsibility is one of the keys. That’s how we approach it. It’s not only the captain or the vice-captain who stands up and speaks. That’s not the case. We think we are very good in sharing responsibility, in sharing these moments.
Is there anything specific that you will do when the team are going through a tough time?
We’ve got different characters here and everyone needs different things. That’s what I mean when I say that you try to treat everyone equally but in a different way. You approach people in a different way and speak to them in a different way. You try to get everyone involved, especially on the pitch.
When we go out, we concentrate, we are on the ball and we all speak the same language. Off the pitch, there are a lot of things going on. Everyone has their own habits, their own things to do. You respect that and there’s not a lot of talking or guiding people. Everyone is professional enough to cope with situations but on the pitch we want to be a unit from top to bottom.
You had to earn their respect in training. Slowly, you start being comfortable with those situations. At first, it can be difficult to train with the first team and then, at the weekend, go back down to the reserves and play for them. I needed to learn how to be respected as a professional even when I was youngPer Mertesacker
That means communicating to each other, pushing each other on and helping each other out. I’d sum it up by saying we move forward as a team when everyone is on the same page - that’s the most important thing for me.
Will the boss ever come to Mikel and yourself to enquire about the mood in the squad?
He knows us very well. He will have a few words now and then, and we will too if we think we need to speak to him. The most important thing for us two is to keep up the mood, keep up the confidence, even when we find ourselves in difficult situations. We feel that the squad responds well to what we’re doing so that has to be the target - that we continue on that path.
We need to make sure that everyone feels confident in the game and in the dressing room. A good atmosphere is essential if everyone is to perform at their very best. As long as we keep our structure and that atmosphere, I think we have a good chance to compete at the top.
You occasionally captained Werder Bremen when still young. Looking back on it, how beneficial was that experience?
Soon after I was made permanent captain, I actually left the club. The manager there told me I was going to be captain and then five weeks later I was at Arsenal. You feel it when a manager gives you a certain role.
You try to lead by example. I’m not going to demand anything from the lads that I’ve never done before. If you speak, you need to have something you did before to refer back to as emphasis. You need to be honest with everyone in different situations to make sure they feel ok. I’ve learnt a lot. Not only at Bremen but when I started too. I went through difficult periods.
You have to perform well to earn the respect of the lads. Things come with that. It’s not just being a leader in the dressing room, you have to lead the team on the pitch too. That’s the most important thing for us as football players.
We spoke to Torsten Frings recently, who said you’ve always been the sort of player with no ego, who just wants the best for the team. How important is it to have a diverse set of characters in a successful squad?
It all comes back to team sports. It’s not about me or anyone else, it’s about the club. We want to dedicate our lives to that club, and that means more to me than just performing well individually. I think there are characters in the squad that just take care about playing football and try not to lose energy, which is what you need.
You always have different types of characters but my personal approach was always that I would feel good if things were put in place, were planned and were organised. I try to communicate well on and off the pitch so the lads know that when I say something it’s honest and it’s the truth.
I won’t change that. It’s always for the good of the team. I haven’t changed in that regard. The first thing for me was always helping the team. That’s probably what Torsten tried to mention, but it’s the first time I’ve heard it from him, so it’s pleasing!
There are a number of very experienced players in the Arsenal squad at the moment. Does that take pressure off you when it comes to off-the-pitch duties?
Yeah, of course. Like I said, sharing the responsibility is a huge part of our job. The more people you have, the more people who want to get up and say something, the easier it is for the whole squad. Having such an experienced squad makes it so much easier for everyone.
I think we always help each other on and off the pitch. We share information, experiences. That’s something that I’ve learnt is very important. We have young players who want to contribute and have their say about certain things, because they are different people with different outlooks.
It’s important to respect that. I will never allow anyone to lose focus because that would mean that we weren’t on the same page. I don’t want to think about it because I don’t want to consider being on an unsuccessful way, and that would be the starting point. We don’t allow ourselves to do that, and if it did happen, we have a lot of players who can step up and put that right again.
One of those experienced players is Petr Cech. What has he brought to the squad?
Huge experience. He has won a lot of titles, including the Premier League. He knows how to deal with situations and how to stay consistent. He knows how to win things and, to get information, advice and opinions from him makes us stronger.
I realise that this is very important for a squad that is on the one hand young and talented and on the other hand has experienced players who still want to learn a lot about the game. Petr is vocal. He wants to speak, he wants to share that information and what a win-win situation that will be for us over the next few years.
Having someone like Petr around must be very useful for the club’s young players. Four of them made their debut in the recent Capital One Cup match at Sheffield Wednesday.
How did you try to help them deal with that experience?
It is difficult because you train once with them before the game. But it helps the players to step up and see how it is. When you feature in a game like that, you have to show your skills. You try to give them a good feeling before. I won’t talk a lot because they have to be themselves and play their way.
But giving them a good feeling, a good atmosphere to be in, helps them to become better players. The experience is vital for any youngster coming through.
What was it like when you were coming through at Hannover? Was there anyone in particular who made it easier for you?
Well first of all I had to earn their respect. There was no one who took care of me. I was one of two or three young players who got their experience of training with the first team while playing for the under-21s.
You had to earn their respect in training. Slowly, you start being comfortable with those situations. At first, it can be difficult to train with the first team and then, at the weekend, go back down to the reserves and play for them. I needed to learn how to be respected as a professional even when I was young.
But by being consistent in the sessions, by being focused and performing well, you slowly earn that respect. Suddenly, they speak to you and think you are a good addition to the team. First of all, you need to act really seriously and respect everyone. You need to be kind off the pitch and be brave on it.
How advantageous was it for you to have grown up in such a sporting family?
My family has always been very interested in sport. I can remember my father taking me to football when I was four years old. At that time I was really grateful to get a hobby and to get myself going in team sports. But it was not only football.
They took me to table tennis as well and I would go on a weekly run on a Sunday. They were really sporty and that helped my brothers and me to grow up playing team sports. It helped me get to know myself a bit better, learn how I react in certain situations.
I think sport can help in many different ways, certainly how to manage yourself in difficult situations. And now you’re married to an international handballer… It was quite good for me to get in touch with women who are famous and are doing well in sport on a daily basis.
As a footballer, getting in touch with different sports is very important to open yourself up. There are lots of people who dedicate their lives to sport and don’t earn as much as footballers do.
That was something I realised, that great sportsmen and women dedicate their lives to the sport, to be healthy and are motivated by success. I’m very grateful for that. At that time, early on I didn’t realise how happy I would be to be the partner of someone who has dedicated her life to sport.
She understands me even better and that makes things so much simpler for me to perform on and off the pitch. She knows exactly what’s going on regarding the situations and pressure I have to deal with. She knows exactly what I mean and when we talk about things, they are easy for her to understand. We decided to have a family together and that meant for her to stop her sporting career.
It was a hard decision for her but I think she’s grateful to have two healthy boys. Now we are looking forward to our next chapter, which may start in maybe five or 10 years. We want to educate our children as we were educated, with sport.
Finally, you mentioned your children. Do you encourage them to have an active lifestyle too?
At the moment it’s quite difficult. I think it’s a good thing that they grow up bilingual. They have a good opportunity to grow up this way and we love it. But we are sporty and they pick things up so quickly, like what we do. It’s not only football and handball though.
It’s more general - we try to get them educated to become sporty. Their grandparents - her parents and my parents - are looking after them as well and they do that well by going out with them, trying to find hobbies and what they are good at. We are really happy to have such a big and healthy family. The boys’ grandparents have made a massive contribution to that.Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source