When Per Mertesacker joined Arsenal in 2011, they were 17th in the table, had just suffered their record Premier League defeat and Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas had both recently left the Club.
Fast forward two years and the outlook is altogether more rosy. The Gunners are a point clear at the top of the Premier League,have qualified for the last-16 of the Champions League, and with the fans’ attentions focusing on recent exciting arrivals - rather than departures - among the playing staff.
So the mood around the Club is understandably upbeat, and Per is among the many players who can be incredibly pleased with his performances. The 29-year-old former Werder Bremen defender has been a consistent and stand-out performer at the back, but he says those tough first few months at the Club served to make him a stronger player, and he’s reaping the benefits now.
Over the past year especially he’s established himself as a reliable and influential member of the side, even captaining the team eight times at the beginning of the season. His influence extends off the pitch too, where he’s been an important factor in helping compatriot - and former Bremen team-mate - Mesut Ozil acclimatise to life in London. So it’s been a near faultless start to Per’s third season at the Club but, as he explained when he sat down to speak to the Arsenal Magazine, this is no time for complacency.
Arsenal are top of the league and playing well. How is the mood among the team at the moment?
I think the best way to sum it up is to say, “So far so good.” We are pretty delighted with our fine start, because that was our target in the summer. We wanted to get through the Champions League qualifiers, and to have a better start in the Premier League than in the last two seasons. We were determined not to drop too many points in the early stages. At the moment we are quite consistent and we want to keep that level as long as we can.
"When we played Bayern Munich away, after that game everyone realised that we can beat anybody in the world. We understood we could show our potential on the pitch, and consistently, because that’s what we lacked"
Is the atmosphere around the training ground noticeably different when the team is flying high in the league?
Well obviously everyone is in a good mood; everyone is pretty happy about the situation. Everyone, and I really mean everyone, is enjoying this moment, and that’s good to have in a team. Nobody has dropped their mood, whether he is playing regularly or not, and that’s very important for team spirit. We have good characters in the squad and if we can keep that spirit high, we will be on a good level.
When you take into account the end of last season as well, it’s a fairly sustained period of form. What do you think has changed since January 2013?
I think there was always a good mentality in the team, but you know how it is with confidence in football. Sometimes you just need a moment. Then you realise that the team has good potential. Everyone speaks about the potential in the Arsenal squad, but you don’t want to just speak about it, you want to believe it. When we played Bayern Munich away, after that game everyone realised that we can beat anybody in the world. That was a key point from our own point of view. We understood we could show our potential on the pitch, and consistently as well, because that’s what we lacked. In the past we had good potential, we played some good games, but we dropped points at very important stages. People recognised Arsenal as a good team, but not a serious danger for the top teams. That changed a bit at the end of last season, and we have kept it going this season. Also we didn’t lose any players in the summer, had some nice additions, so everybody was well prepared. There was a good focus on the team. Only Santi and Nacho were away at a tournament, so most of us could prepare as a group in the best way. Everybody knows each other well, and you can see that lately: everyone communicates and covers for each other. It’s fluent right now, but we are aware that things can change quickly in football.
Why do you think your partnership with Laurent Koscielny works so well?
Well, it took a bit of time for me to adapt to the Premier League, and to get to know each other well. With Laurent, Thomas and myself I think we push each other to good form. At the moment it is linked to me and Laurent, but I have to say that Thomas is a role model for everyone here. Not just because he is the skipper, but in the way he communicates, handles his situation when he’s not playing. People always speak about those who are in the team, but you have to mention the players who are not involved in the starting XI, but who have the right influence on the rest of the team.
We are good centre backs, but it takes some time to get used to each other on the pitch, and feel comfortable with the situation on the pitch. At the moment we know each other well, and how we behave on the pitch. We know how to cover each other, we know how our partner will handle the key moments. You have to learn that, especially against a team like Liverpool, because their world-class players – you can’t handle them on your own. You always need someone beside you who is always aware and covering you. When you have that in your mind, that your partner is there for you if there is a problem, it makes it much easier. Overall, though, I think the whole team is defending much better than last season. Dangerous situations can come from everywhere, so if you are well protected from long balls by the midfield, that has an influence as well.
"Sometimes you have to make mistakes. You have to suffer. You have to go through hard periods. But you need to learn quickly - that’s the key"
You say it took time to adapt to the Premier League. What have you had to change in your game from when you were in Germany?
Not that much really. It’s more that right from the start of my time at Arsenal, I had to react to everything. I had to react to different situations. Sometimes you have to make mistakes. You have to suffer. You have to go through hard periods. But you need to learn quickly - that’s the key. You need to have a manager who trusts you, and who tells you, “You are intelligent enough to get through this and learn from it quickly.” That was vital for me as well. When you know you have to get through it, it makes it easier, and you don’t have to put yourself too much under pressure. When I first came here I said to myself, “You want to be respected, but for that you need to work hard and come through difficult periods.” That’s what happened.
It is a very different situation today at the Club to when you joined. Arsenal had just lost 8-2 at Old Trafford, had one point from three games and there was a big turnover in the playing staff. Did you wonder what you had let yourself in for?
At that moment I didn’t care about the situation, I just wanted to be part of Arsenal Football Club. That was my main target. Then I soon realised it would be quite tough at first and I had to play right from the start. A couple of days after joining I played against Swansea in the Premier League. There was no big preparation, no pre-season, so it was too quick to get into it easily. Maybe it was different with Mesut. He arrived late in the window, but we tried to prepare him from the very start. It’s good to have team-mates who can speak the language and who can translate and help you with the details. So it caused some problems for me at the start. I could cope with them though, and now I see it as a big benefit for me. I know what to expect so I could help prepare Mesut and Poldi for details when they arrived.
How long do you think it took you until you felt fully settled into life at Arsenal?
I would have to say I think it took me almost a year to get into everything. I got injured late in that first season, and went back to Germany for nearly three months, so that also affected me settling in. After that I didn’t play at the European Championship - I was in the squad but did not play. So then I tried to think about the positives. I just trained, with no games. Sometimes after an injury it’s good to concentrate on training for a couple of months, with no other pressure on my ankle in the games. I didn’t have to rush it. So after a good pre-season it was much easier to get back into it, and I was much better prepared - mentally and physically - for the games. That’s when I felt like I was a good addition for the squad. When I review it now, I’d say that after one season here, that’s when I started to feel comfortable with the situations I have to cope with.
And now you are a vital part of the team, and have captained the team this season. Do you enjoy this level of responsibility?
Yes, as I mentioned it was always an aim to be respected; at first by your own team-mates. For that you need to be honest and do your work, especially on the pitch. That’s what you need to be successful. Then everybody will know you as an honest worker and good footballer - that’s the first thing you want to achieve at the Club. Then after that first year, and the second year, now into my third year I feel really responsible. I feel responsible for my play on the pitch, but also for some other aspects away from the pitch.
"It was always an aim to be respected; at first by your own team-mates. For that you need to be honest and do your work, especially on the pitch. That’s what you need to be successful"
Do you mean duties like collecting the fines from the players when they are late? Do you enjoy your role as debt collector?
Yes, Thomas and Mikel chose me for that job - perhaps because Germans are well known for their strictness, their honesty and being able to handle an economy! So it’s my job to collect the fines, but I have to say that we have a very good squad on that side, and I don’t have to fine a lot of players. Most of the players are on time each day - there is not one player who owes me much money at the moment!
You have won the fans’ respect too. How do you feel that relationship developed over the past couple of years?
I have to say from the start I always felt the fans were with me. Hopefully they had belief in me, and I got a very good welcome and appreciation from them. I think German players had done well here previously, so that made it easier to be in touch with the fans.
You have your own chant as well, referring to your size and nationality…
Yes, you have to take that with a bit of a laugh as well. A German journalist told me it’s a good thing to get this sort of appreciation from the fans. There’s a bit of sarcasm there I’m sure, but it’s also a point of respect.
You mentioned Mesut Ozil. What’s it like to be playing alongside him again?
It’s great. We played together at Bremen a few years ago and had a good time there. We were always playing for the championship, but we never quite won it. We were second, and we always qualified for the Champions League. So of course I was very happy to see him again when he joined us, although I never really expected that we could get him to Arsenal. I thought he was parked at Madrid. I was always happy to see him whenever we joined up for the national team, but it was a big surprise for me that we signed him.
"German players are well respected at the moment, and we show respect for the Club and this country too"
When did you know we were signing him?
Not until that day, the last day of the window. He didn’t ask me about the Club before signing. The boss got in touch with him first. But we had spoken about Arsenal together before. When we were together for the national team we would speak about the team, and about London. Lukas and myself always spoke in a positive way about Arsenal, so perhaps subconsciously he had it in his mind that it was a good place to go. So maybe we made a little contribution there! But it was his decision, and the boss convinced him too. Mesut knew he was a long-time admirer of him; I think that’s the main part of it.
What have you helped Mesut with specifically since he joined?
Well to be honest he really likes it here and he told me he felt welcomed by absolutely everyone since he joined. That’s what Arsenal Football Club is about. You all feel a warm welcome. Everyone takes care of the players here, they are treated as the most important thing. He loves that and it’s been good for him to have me and Lukas here, because he already knew us. We haven’t had to help him much, just small details: how to get around, which roads to take. I have picked him up a few times, shown him some short cuts, that’s it really. All he has to do is show his qualities on the pitch, and we know he can make the difference. The rest of it, off the pitch, has been easy for him, because things are easy to cope with. The team spirit is good, we qualified for the Champions League just before he arrived and everyone was happy, so that made it easier for him to fit in as well, and just to enjoy playing. He fits completely in here.
The German contingent has grown since your arrival, as well as Mesut and Lukas, Serge Gnabry and Thomas Eisfeld are also coming through…
Yes, we have a good generation at the moment. Everyone speaks about Germany because of last season’s Champions League final. Everyone is more aware of the Bundesliga at the moment, so it’s natural Arsenal want to bring in young German players too. German players are well respected at the moment, and we show respect for the Club and this country too.
Has Arsenal made the German players more English, or have the German players made Arsenal more German?
There is no point talking about this really - you can just say we are all together Arsenal Football Club. We are international, I would say. OK, Arsenal have been influenced by other countries over the years, but there’s always been a British core. I think that’s a key part of Arsenal - the tradition and history here. Arsenal will always be known as a team that plays good football, passionate football. The fans want to see that in every game, at home or away. We need to be aware of that as players - the quality and the class that Arsenal have shown over many years.
Germany have secured their place in the World Cup next summer in Brazil. Do you often find yourself looking forward to that?
Not really. It’s too far away at the moment. When we qualified after the Ireland game we felt relieved, we knew we would be there next summer, so we could forget about it for a while. Everybody expected us to be there, so it was a relief.
But you will be regarded as one of the main favourites too…
Yes, we have been on the edge of winning it lately. We’ve been consistent, but without getting the title. If we could do that it would be a great finish for this generation that has played together for nearly 10 years now. There are a few of us with 90, 100 caps, so it would be a nice finish for all these players who have worked hard all this time. We seem to always be beaten by Spain or Italy, so we want to win it now.
Finally Per, you have more than 90 caps to your name. How does this current Germany team compare with previous squads you have played in?
If I were to compare it to 2006, for example, I would say there were about 12 or 13 players who would make a strong starting XI - now we have about 25 or 30 players. They are all in fine form, so the selection problems for the coach are massive. Everybody has to be at their best form when it comes to the summer to be prepared for what I think will be the hardest World Cup we’ll ever play.
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