Arsenal announced on July 7 that, from the 2018/19 season, Per Mertesacker will lead the Academy.
The news came as a surprise to many. After all, Per will only be 33 when he retires next summer, and will then make an instant transformation from player to management. But scratch beneath the surface and it becomes clear that the World Cup winner possesses plenty of the qualities needed to make the step from the pitch to the touchline.
“I always see Per as a role model,” Mesut Ozil told us last year. “He’s very focused, very professional. He does his job 100 per cent – he’s not the sort of person who does things by half measures.”
“I think I benefitted the most from Per,” added young striker Stephy Mavididi. “He’s so experienced and is such an authority on the pitch. He’s always talking and organising.”
Per himself says he feels “so welcomed here by this club and by the idea of taking over at such a young stage”, but after producing one of our all-time best FA Cup final performances against Chelsea in May, the defender tells us he is more determined than ever to realise one final ambition in his final season: becoming a Premier League champion.
THE BIG INTERVIEW
Per, you’re preparing for your final season as a player. Have you done anything differently this summer?
No, it’s the same focus on being 100 per cent professional. It’s very important to get it right in pre-season, to get the workload in and be sensible with your body and mind. There are lots of parts you try to improve, so it’s the same kind of desperation to be the best I can be. That’s how I’ve approached all my career as a footballer, so I’ll continue to do it. I have to admit that there’s a different level of how you prepare things, and when you think about your last season you try to put enjoyment in, the fun that you’ve had during nearly 15 years in that profession. It’s special in that case because it’s the final season. You prepare well as you always have, but there’s something in you that says you have to enjoy it as much as you can.
You're still fairly young. Were there options to play on somewhere else?
Certainly. I didn’t let it happen because it’s the final year of my contract and normally negotiations start in January as then I’m a free agent out of contract. I didn’t let it happen, so the club offered me that job one year before my contract ended. I didn’t have to consider much. I made my mind up, it was my own decision and I’ve not been distracted by anything else. I just wanted to get my own path and my own future right, the right thing for me and my family because it’s a big decision. Once I signed the contract, I signed up to the end of my career as well. It was a big decision for me.
You’re married to former handball star Ulrike Stange. Did you talk to her about what it’s like to retire from top-level sport? She would know, having retired professionally when she found out she was pregnant in 2010...
Kind of. With her, it was more of an accident because we had our first boy that year and we went to England the same year he was born. In England, handball is not the kind of sport you can play regularly in a professional league. For her, she had to retire in terms of sacrificing for the family. Now it’s time for me to do the same because I promised her that we’d look at her as well after I’d finished my career. I had to think of asking my family the right questions. Do they want to continue to live in London? Do they actually give me another chance to go to another profession and live our life how I want it to be? That’s why it was a family decision first.
Let’s go back to the morning after the FA Cup final. You’ve woken up, played one of the games of your life... How are you feeling?
It was a pity because we had no parade to celebrate as much as we wanted to. That was the only thing. It was absolutely amazing to see how things can turn around literally in one game. That was the most exciting thing about it, to see how quickly things turn around in football. There was a lot of doubt before the game and I can understand that, even from the fans. Is he still able to play at the highest level? Things like that. There were a lot of questions before the game and after that day there were all the answers. I just gave them that answer on the pitch and that is the most satisfying moment I’ve probably had in my career. After a long time out with injury, I wasn’t being selected, plus the fact that everyone counted me out of being in the line-up, out of the squad. That was the most satisfying thing for me – that you can give all the answers on the pitch, and that’s what we did as a team. To have that trust in each other was, for me, the most impactful thing I’ve ever felt, especially in that game.
It’s always a team win but Martin Keown has called it the ‘Mertesacker Final’. You found him in the tunnel after, so what did you say to each other?
It was exciting for me to see how things can turn. Nobody believed in me and to call it the ‘Mertesacker Final’ says it all. I don’t take that at all, though, because it’s not about me. The way people think about teams nowadays and singling out individuals is wrong for me. I won’t take that. I felt I had to say something about me, but I meant it more about the team generally because Chelsea were super-favourites and everyone thought they would win. We kept our legacy in the FA Cup going and that was our main aim that day. To beat two top teams in the semi-final and the final was very good for us, for our team to realise what we are capable of. I normally don’t talk to ex-players who are now pundits much because they have their words and their criticism, which is absolutely fine. Sometimes I listen and sometimes I don’t. You have to pick up the right things for yourself. Sometimes you take things away, sometimes you don’t. This was all a team effort and just for myself to get that trust from the manager and the players was more vital for me than anything else in the world. When I get praise from pundits, I take it but I put things into perspective because everyone wrote me off for the previous half of the year. Nobody believed in me, so I didn’t really care. I just thought about us and myself being in the position where nobody believed in me other than those within the team and the manager. That was amazing for me to feel.
Many Arsenal fans have watched that game again to re-live the moment with their friends and family. Have the players done that?
No. We’ve just seen a few clips around the stadium on the screens. Even on the tour in Asia, they were showing replays of the FA Cup. Obviously we are proud of that achievement, the club shows it off and these games are showcased for what we have achieved, but we are more focused on the present and what is ahead of us in the future. That’s more important to us. Obviously we’re proud of sharing our achievements with the fans and the buzz in that building because there were doubts. You could feel that and sense it, but when the whistle was blown for kick-off, there was a huge buzz and level of support. When things go right for yourself, when you have a good game and the first tackles go right, there’s a belief that keeps going and going to give yourself a good feeling. For the club it was amazing but we don’t review it because we’re facing Chelsea again a lot of times this season. We need to really focus on what we did well and the hard thing is to repeat that. Chelsea are preparing for those big games again because now they really respect us, even more than they did before. Maybe you could see that in the final because they won the league, they were champions and they underestimated us a bit. Now, that’s totally over and maybe that advantage has gone.
We can’t believe that you haven’t watched all three of our centre halves sliding in to block the same shot or Rob Holding getting into Diego Costa’s head...
I don’t even know who won that ball! I’m not sure who tackled it, who received it, it was just amazing to see how the team responded to certain things and the support we have for each other.
Moving onto next year’s job, have you spoken to interim Academy manager Luke Hobbs about what you can expect yet?
That’s going to come. We’ve met a couple of times when I helped him welcome a few youngsters to our club, which meant a lot to me. I’ve visited Hale End already and have seen him a couple of times. He’s helpful to me and will be very helpful to me when we talk about what’s going on in the academy. He’s got the look at the moment but, in my transition year from being a player to taking on this Academy role, there’s going to be a lot of discussions over where he sees himself in the future. It’s all about assessment for me, to know how it works. At the moment, I can only tell how youngsters look in first-team training. That’s my overall look at things. In the next year there will be lots for me to learn, to see how it works and make starting my new role easier. It’s going to be a huge transition and there are going to be a lot of challenges for me. I can just predict a few, but there will certainly be some things that I cannot predict now. I feel so welcomed here by this club and by the idea of taking over at such a young age. The people here believe in my abilities to grow and to learn without having any background in coaching or managing. That gives me confidence, even when I’m feeling uncomfortable being confident to overcome these situations.
We saw you come out for training with the coaches on tour, before the players. Is that because you’re starting to make that change from being a player to being a coach?
No. For me it’s important to set the tone, tempo and be ready for training. I’m ready for training and I want to show that. If there’s something to discuss with the coaches or to even see the manager and have a word with him, I need to use these windows before training. This means I’ve got five to ten minutes to talk to coaches, assistant coaches, to the manager, to get certain things done. It’s something I use particularly to show being ready but also to communicate better with the manager.
They teach you how to win in youth football, but do they also teach you how to deal with losing, which is a big part of growing up?
For me, I didn’t learn that so much because Germany didn’t lose many games! I remember there were seasons where we would go unbeaten in 70 or 80 games because we used to play lots of friendlies, lots of tournaments and our generation was unbelievable. We broke loads of records, won the Nike Premier Cup, which is basically a World Cup – actually we won that here in the UK. The final was at Old Trafford. Even if we drew a game, everyone would be crying or would be very disappointed because it was very hard for us to take. As we grew older, obviously we got more bad results, but it still didn’t happen very often so losing was really hard for us. If we went to a tournament and lost a final, loads of players used to cry. What they did teach us though was that, when we’d won a final, before we celebrated, we made sure we took care of the players on the other team. Not too long ago, Barcelona won an award because the players were consoling the other kids after winning a game. You could see the players saying to the others, “There’s nothing wrong, you’ve only lost a game, life goes on.” They were really young, but those are the kinds of morals they teach you over there. I’m really happy to carry them with me today.
What is your assessment of this group of young players? We’ve seen Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock excelling in pre-season...
It’s good for me to see these youngsters on a daily basis. They went with us on tour and now they’ll keep training with us, which is really important. It’s not only one or two weeks where you show up and show your skills, or in one or two games. It’s the consistency and it’s really important that they understand when there is doubt or they feel there is a gap between youth and first team, they need to express themselves by coming to the first team and communicating. They’re welcomed. If there’s anything I can help with, they need to understand that they can talk – there is no need to hide. They need to feel welcome because they’ve done a lot for us, they’ve contributed. To do that on a consistent level, because they’re not in the first-team dressing room at the moment, it creates a little bit of a gap. That can mean they don’t know where they are. Are they Under-23s, Under-19s or first team? It’s important that we keep in touch and communicate well. They’ve got huge potential and have high levels of skill, but it’s what you make of it. That’s something I’m going to address in the next couple of years. I respect them highly but the only ones who will make it are the ones who make the most of their potential. Talent means nothing to me – it’s all about hard work. I put the emphasis on making sure that they’re not told how talented they are too much. Talent is what you make of it. Finally, you’ve lifted the World Cup and the FA Cup.
It’s your final season as a player, so do you ever close your eyes and see yourself with the Premier League trophy?
I see it. It’s really important for me to clarify that I want to give 100 per cent. I want Arsenal to be champions of England. That’s something we haven’t achieved in my time here. Champions of a nation is something I look up to and think is something we have to achieve.
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