In this edition of The Talking Game, Arsenal FC standing captain Per Mertesacker talks with us about the importance of reading the game as a player, what he thinks about his ‘lack of pace’ as a defender, Julian Draxler and the German national team.
Per Mertesacker has turned into a cult hero among the Arsenal fans since his arrival from Werder Bremen back in 2011. Although initially a lot of critics raised questions marks about how he will adapt to the Premier League, Mertesacker has slowly silenced all of them. The German international, who has already amassed 95 caps for his country, started his footballing career at Hannover 96, before moving to Werder Bremen.
He has been the linchpin in the Arsenal defense this season , and has formed an amazing partnership with Laurent Koscielny at the back. Arsenal haveone of the best defensive records in the league this season and this consistency at the back has formed the base of their title challenge this season. Other than his organization skill at the back, his leadership qualities have also won admiration and comparisons with Arsenal legend Tony Adams. We caught up with the BFG, as he is adoringly known as among the Gooners, as he talked about captaincy, Julian Draxler, his defensive partners and the German national team.
Q: Is it true that initially you thought about changing sports because you had doubts about your ability in this game?
Mertesacker: I liked to do all kind of sports when I was young. Tennis, table tennis, ice hockey and of course football. What is true is that I was not that much focused on football. I loved the game but I did not think I will be the next professional player for Hannover 96. That might have helped me in staying cool and relaxed without too much expectations on my shoulders.
Q: Did you have any footballing heroes or any role model center back that have helped you develop into the footballer you have become?
Mertesacker: I didn’t follow a certain hero of the game closely, I just loved to play it myself. But I do remember Tony Adams. His personality and body language on the field impressed me a lot.
Q: Who is the most talented/best defender you ever played with? Also, who has been your best center-back partner so far – someone who has complemented your style of play more than others?
Mertesacker: I have played with many very good guys. At the beginning of my career in the national team with Christoph Metzelder, now with Jerome Boateng. Naldo was an influencing partner at Bremen and now Laurent is the partner I trust in the club. Each of them has a very unique way to defend and they are all top class players and cool guys off the pitch.
Q: Thomas Schaaf and Arsene Wenger are pretty much one club managers. Are there any similarities between the two of them? How has your experience been so far to work under someone like Arsene Wenger?
Mertesacker: Both managers were very successful with their offensive, attacking football style and have/had a huge influence on the DNA of the clubs.
Mr. Wenger is just “the Boss”. That puts it best. Very smart, calm and pulling all strings in the club to be successful with the team. His language skills are very impressive.
Q: 2013 has been an incredible year for your team and the most obvious reason for that achievement of winning most points in the Calendar year was the deadly partnership that you have formed with Koscielny. In fact, the statistic of Arsenal never having lost a game with both of you on the field for the entire duration of the game speaks volumes. So what has been the biggest change at the back last year according to you, which contributed to his stability? What are your thoughts about Koscielny as your partner?
Mertesacker: We love to control the game and keep the ball, but it is not all about attacking. Now we work better together, not only the back four. Laurent and I got to know each other better day by day. We have different strengths that we combine and that is basically what makes us so strong together.
Q: What has impressed you the most about Szczesny this season? He looks like he has grown by leaps and bounds from last season.
Mertesacker: As mentioned already, we defend better as a group. The defence benefits from that, we get stronger and are more confident, Wojciech as well. So we can all perform on a better level.
Q: Having worn the captain’s arm-band for quite a number of games now, do you see yourself as a future captain? You seem to be a natural leader on the pitch, is it something that you have been blessed or something you have worked upon after receiving the responsibility?
Mertesacker: With Thomas Vermaelen and Mikel Arteta we have two true leaders at the club. I’m just proud and honoured to assist both as good as I can. Wearing the band myself thrilled me already in my youth time. At Arsenal, that feeling is massive. Though one of my best experience ever wearing the band was at Wembley. I scored the winner as the German captain against England.
Q: Many believed that Arsenal missed a leader like you since the days of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira. In fact many Arsenal fans compare you to Arsenal great Tony Adams. Is he someone who inspires you? Did you follow his career in your growing up years?
Mertesacker: Tony Adams is an Arsenal Legend. I always admired him. What he did for the club is huge and cannot compared to my short career at Arsenal yet [sic]. If I can get anywhere close to what Tony Adams means to this club, I would be more than proud.
Q: You seem to be in love with nickname the Arsenal fans have provided you. So how would you describe your relationship with the Arsenal fans since your arrival?
Mertesacker: I really love the passion our supporters have for the game and the club. I had to settle in the club first of all. There was not much of a choice as the problems in our defence were huge when I came, and I was not at my best after an injury. But I adapted to what was needed and the fans noticed my will to give all I have. I love the BFG chants as it is a kind of appreciation for what I’m doing, including this British wink.
Q: Considering that as a defender you lack a bit of pace, is it a thing that bothers you or are you confident that the other aspects of your defending can make up for it?
Mertesacker: We can have a race, if you want.
Q: Arsenal meet Bayern Munich in the next round of the Champions League. How do you think the side has changed under Pep Guardiola?
Mertesacker: From what I’ve seen so far it is obvious that Bayern wants to keep the ball even more than last year. They adapted this well known Barca-Style and are hard to defend against. But they are defending very high up the pitch which might give us some room for counter attacks.
Q: Julian Draxler has of course been heavily linked with a move to Arsenal. How do you think he will fit in the squad if this does materialize?
Mertesacker: If you have a look at our style of play, you notice immediately that a player like Julian fits into this technical, creative passing game 100%. He is one of the most promising talents in Germany and will definitely make his way. I would like to see his next steps at a club like Arsenal.
Q: The likes of Hummels and Thiago Silva are really good at carrying the ball out from the back. Also, Gertjan Verbeek recently spoke about using a libero at Nuremberg. Do you think that we will start to see the use of a libero lot more in football in the future?
Mertesacker: It is not the question of having a 4-4-2 or 3-6-1 or if you’re playing with a libero or not. It is more about how you understand and read the game, can you anticipate what might happen next, do you have flexible solutions? If you need to respond with a Libero, do so. If you need to attack without a number 9, do so. I like finding answers to the questions of the game in the game.
Q: The German national team has often been criticized for a lack of defensive solidity; do you believe that the defensive side of the game is a weakness of this side? If so, what do you believe is the problem?
Mertesacker: It might be a bit similar to our situation at Arsenal. We’re a good, an offensive side that likes to keep the ball and create chances by passing. Sometimes we don’t defend very structured as a group, which makes it more difficult. But that is normal if you only meet for games without being together for a longer period to practice tactical things. But we have improved as a team in the last time and will be well prepared for Brazil.
Q: Do you feel there is a lot of pressure on the German national side to win this World Cup, even though no European nation has ever won it outside of Europe?
Mertesacker: Pressure is something you face each week, sometimes three times a week. At Arsenal you are expected to win all the games, with Germany as well. So we are used to it, whereas a World Cup is always something special. Also for the younger players, but it is not about your age, it is about your quality. And we definitely have some quality in our squad.
Q: Having been the more consistent of the center halves for your country it is obvious that you will be first choice, Who would you like to see playing beside you in central defence for the world cup?
Mertesacker: I might do my coaching licence after my career. Then I could tell you more about putting a strong defence together. But at the moment I don’t have any clue.