The seemingly effortless way in which Shokdran Mustafi has settled into life at Arsenal should come as no surprise.
Ten years ago, aged just 14, Shokdran left his home in the central German town of Bad Hersfeld to join Hamburg’s academy, some 250 miles north. Just three years later his next move took him even further afield – to the Premier League, in fact – where he joined the youth setup at David Moyes’ Everton. He managed only one first team outing for the Toffees before departing for another new country – this time Sampdoria came calling, and he was off to Italy’s Serie A.
Two years later, on the back of winning the World Cup in Brazil, Shkodran had another new club, in another new country, after signing for Spanish giants Valencia. So the German defender had already packed a lot into his career by the time he joined Arsenal, just before the transfer deadline at the end of August.
And he took no time to acclimatise to his new surroundings in London, winning each of his first five league games and, at the time of writing, remaining unbeaten in 12 overall since his debut. In that period he has forged a solid-looking partnership with Laurent Koscielny, showing plenty of confidence and assuredness in central defence.
The 24 year old told the Arsenal Magazine just before the recent international break that his ability to adapt to new challenges and environments is a product of his frequent moves earlier in his career and is also inspired by his grandfather’s journey from Albania to Germany, two generations ago.
THE BIG INTERVIEW
How have you settled into life at Arsenal, Shokdran? On the pitch it wasn’t difficult, because I already had a spell at Everton in England. Then I came in to a team here which is working already because you have great players, a great manager, great staff around the club, with a great structure, and it makes things easy to settle in on the pitch. Off the pitch, it’s a bit different because until you find your house, until you get sorted with everything, so it's a bit frustrating. But as soon as you have your house, your sofas and all that stuff, you can start to relax.
Have you seen much of London yet? I’ve been out for dinner and shopping a few times. We don’t have that much time, playing every two or three days, but yeah the days that I have off, I’ve had a look and it’s a wonderful city, isn’t it?
You speak perfect English. How much do you think that has helped you settle? For me it’s a different country again – every time I’ve changed club, I’ve changed country too. When I went to Italy, I think it probably was the hardest to learn the language because I started from zero. I didn’t know a word in Italian. Then I went to Spain and it’s difficult again. And yeah, I can believe that is one of the hardest things – language – because even in football when you see things you want to tell your team-mates but you just don’t know how. And then suddenly you just say, “Ah it’s not worth it now,” to think for like two hours of the word that I’m looking for, and then you’re just too late. It’s not a nice thing, so it makes everything quite easy when you speak the language.
Your relationship with Laurent Koscielny looks good so far. Why do you think the partnership works so well? I think it’s because we see football in quite a similar way. We’re not trying to be just defenders – we try to start the game from the back, to play football and not just clear the ball. If you have the possibility to keep the ball on the pitch, then do so. Even when we’re trying to defend, we look to go forward too – not just drop, drop, drop and find yourself always in the box.
I think they’re small details that show we see the game the same way, and then it makes everything easier because when I have to deal with a situation he knows how to react to cover me, and I’m the same. I see a situation and think, “He’s going to go,” because I know I could go as well, but then I can cover him. If you see the game with the same eyes it’s easier, and that’s what’s happening. It’s not really only with Lolo, I think it’s like that with all the team.
Right now we’re playing great football and it makes everything easier. Lots of the time we win the ball up in the first third, in the opponent’s half and that makes life for us defenders even easier.
And do you feel your style of play is suited to the English game generally? I don’t think there is a particular style that suits English football. I think it’s about having the winning mentality. Even if your style doesn’t fit, you just want to get out of the game with a win and take the three points with you. So the main thing is the mentality and then, obviously, trying to play the game I want to.
When you play your own game it means you trust in what you do. If you just listen to someone who tells you, “You have to do that and you have to do this,” you think, “I’m not good at that!” So sometimes I think you should just stick to your game, do the things that you can do and then for sure the result will come. That’s what I’m trying to do. I want to do the things the best way I can, and have that winning mentality.
So what areas of your game do you feel you need to improve to be a success in the Premier League? What I’m working hardest on is trying to improve my reading of the game. The main thing is reading situations, knowing “OK, the ball is now on the left, but with one, two or three passes it could come on the right – so how am I going to react?” Football is becoming so quick, you have less time to think. It’s all about decision-making and then even if you make a decision, you have to cope with if it’s a good one or a bad one. You don’t have that much time, so you have to be good at reading the game.
Building strength and all those things, they are important, but you do that every day in training anyway. You have to run, you have to jump, you have to go body-to-body with your team-mates in training. But reading the game is something you sometimes forget. So I think it’s important, for 90 minutes in a match or one hour in training – being really there and trying to stay the whole time on the pitch concentrating and thinking. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
What do you make of the atmosphere here, compared to other countries you have played in? The people here, they live football. With everything they do, they have football in mind. It shows how important this sport is in this country and obviously you feel that. When you go to pitches like Burnley you see that the crowd are behind their team.
Against small teams you could think, “Yeah, we’ll just go there, take the three points and go home,” but it’s not that easy. They are the most important games because they have the crowd, they have nothing to lose. They think, “OK, we’re playing against Arsenal – if we lose, everyone expects us to lose – so we’ll just go there and try to win.”They have a strong mentality, which is something I really like about English football. Even if you’re leading 3-0, they’re not dead – they just score a goal and they come alive again. And then they just go again and again and again. It shows the great mentality and spirit of the people here – they have football in their blood.
Can we go back to your early days in football. You left home at 14 to join Hamburg. How did that experience affect your character? It’s not easy, you know, moving from home when you are 14 – most of the things in life you never had to do yourself until then. Your parents do everything, you just go to school, play football, come back home and that was it. Suddenly you have to move to a city which was like 400km away from home and yeah, it’s not easy not to have the people around you and you start growing quicker. You think about things that a 14-year-old kid wouldn’t think if he was at home.
When you look back now, do you think that was a valuable thing to do? I think it was, but it can be different as well. As a father or mother it’s difficult to see your kid go away at 14. For me at that time it was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll go to Hamburg. It’s a team that plays in the Bundesliga – yeah, I’ll go!” Because it was a dream for me, but for the parents, they think differently. They think “OK, 14 years old, he goes away – it’s not around the corner and if something happens I can’t be there in five minutes.” You have to know your child really well to think, “OK, I can trust him, I can let him go because I know how he is.” I think it’s something that the parents have to make a decision on.
Did you move in with another family in Hamburg? No, we had a place where the 15 of us lived – boys from all over Germany, and even from different countries, of different ages as well. We all lived in one building and we all trained with the team. So the good thing was that I wasn’t alone. I had people around me who helped me a lot.
Were there difficult times too? Did you ever want to go home? To be honest, the most difficult time was the first week. The first thing you think when a team like this invites you is, “Yeah, I want to go.” But then you feel the pressure of training every day. It’s not like being at home, where you’re the star player and you can do whatever you like. Here you really have to earn your place.
There is so much pressure when you are 14 or 15, it’s difficult. You don’t have your parents, you don’t have your friends around you to talk to when you don’t feel good. There’s no one there. But that was only the first week. Then I said to myself that I have an opportunity and I need to take it.
Who did you to look for guidance in your parents' absence? I had a coach when I went to Hamburg called Stefan Brauer, and he was really, really good. Not only at coaching, but he knew how to handle players like me who came from different cities and were alone. He knew how to handle that situation and that was really good because he helped me when I got a little bit down, or had no motivation because things weren’t working.
Was your religion important back then as well? Yes, it was important to me then as well but, to be honest, at that age I didn’t think too much about it. I was thinking more about my grandfather really. He went to Germany with nothing, because my family are originally from Albania. He went to Germany with nothing and built everything to give my dad and us and the future generations an opportunity to grow up in a country with structure. He started from zero, so I thought I could do that as well. That was the thing that was in my head that made me strong and made me think I had to take my opportunity. I lived in the same house as my grandfather and grandmother when I was growing up. I think I inherited something from my grandfather which helped a lot at that time.
You mention your Albanian roots, and Germany has a very multi-cultural team now. Do you see yourself as a role model in that sense? People always talk about this, I don’t know why. Maybe for them it seems strange, but for us it’s normal. People like Mesut and me and the others in the national team, Gundogan and the rest – we were all born and raised in Germany. We went to school in Germany, our families still live in Germany, so for us it’s just normal.
We don’t really think about it – it’s more that people talk about it, and say, “There are so many players who play for Germany who are not really German, or are half German.” It’s something that’s not important. It’s boring, I think. You have to identify yourself with who you are playing for – whether it’s your country or your club, and that’s it.
Given the social situation in Europe though, don’t you feel this can have a positive, unifying affect, even if you’re not consciously promoting it yourself? Probably, maybe for people who have difficult moments, like I had myself at 14. Back then I was thinking about my grandfather because I loved him and had so much respect for what he achieved.
So probably for a young boy from Syria for example, in Germany now, I’m that kind of person who can give him that strength to continue and to keep doing things the right way. Sometimes you do think about it, especially for players like Mesut who has achieved a lot in football, people are looking up to him and yes, I see myself in that role a bit too.
What does being a role model mean for you?In football you have so much pressure – not only to perform, but to behave, because the whole world is looking at you. There is so much pressure to do all the things right. As soon as you don’t, you will read about it in the newspapers.
Sometimes you forget about it, but other times you are happy with yourself, happy with your performances, and then you think, “Yes, I am a role model for kids growing up.” I have to behave and do the right thing because kids are looking at me and will do the things that I do.
So ten years on from leaving home for the first time, where do you find inspiration now? What do you draw your values from? I think it’s something that you see day after day. You see the way the world is going and how you are developing yourself. For me the most important thing is to try to make everything in the perfect way. If it’s on the pitch, or in life, with your family or your friends. Try to be the best you can be. It’s easy to say, but it’s so hard to do. I think it’s something you have to work at every day until you are 60, 70 or 80 years old because every day we make mistakes. So my biggest inspiration is to try to do everything in the best way.
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