Per Mertesacker spoke this week with German website SPOX. One of our readers, Thomas Loser, has provided us with this translation in which the BFG discusses his new role at Arsenal, his admission of mental health issues during his career, Arsene Wenger’s departure, Mesut Ozil and more.
You are Head of the academy at Arsenal FC, are now a pundit on DAZN (a sport streaming platform) and manage your own foundation. How does this work out in terms of time?
Time management is certainly going to be a vital topic for me. I am aiming at developing a productive week, together with my partners. My work at Arsenal obviously has the highest priority and remains in the foreground. It is my main duty and I am wholeheartedly committed to it. I want to be present every day and always be available for the young players. My foundation is being managed by my family. With DAZN, I found a partner, where I am allowed to develop something new and maybe interpret the role of a pundit in my very own way. I am looking forward to get a foothold in this business.
Was this a long-term plan – to become a pundit?
Not at all! When I was still active as a player, listening to pundits always felt weird. I often considered their remarks to be too negative and lecturing. So when the offer came in, I asked myself if this could be something for me, if I could be critical enough? Eventually, I answered these questions with a yes and now I am enthusiastic about the concept of DAZN. We don’t want to produce another run-of-the-mill programme.
Back to your “main job”. Why did Arsenal choose you of all people to run the academy?
Well, the Club certainly reflected well enough before trusting a young guy like me to run an academy with 150 employees and 250 children. I am fully aware that it is a massive apparatus which comes with a lot of responsibilities. However, the club believes that I am an ambitious, down-to earth team player who can cope with this.
What message do you want to convey to the youth players?
I was never talented and still I became a professional footballer. I want to bring in this perspective. Football is developing in a direction, where selection takes place very rigorously from a very young age and children are being described as “top talents”. The wage structure at youth level reflects this trend. With this, you are sending signals to players that “you are going to make it! You will become a professional!”.
Sometimes, parents of nine-year olds resign their jobs because they are speculating on a professional career of their son. In such a situation, all the alarm bells ought to be ringing! I want to build relationships to the players, their parents and the coaches and to instil a sense of realism. I am curious if I will achieve this. But there are many other questions that concern me too: Can I not only get the best out of myself, but also out of others? Can I use my ideas to further develop people? Can I be a role model and a leader for the entire academy?
A lot of money is being paid on the junior transfer market. How do you judge this?
Nowadays, there is a huge competition for talents. I cannot turn back time, say 20 years, and demand that the kids won’t earn money anymore, should go to school and only have to train twice a week. We live in a different time to back when I was young and I have to get used to this.
Where’s the difference between the English and the German youth football?
In England everything is more extreme. 16 year old youth players at Premier League clubs are being treated like professionals. They train daily at ten o’clock and once a week they have a little bit of education. In Germany, there is a stronger focus on education, thus the young players are not among themselves all the time. This is a lot healthier and I prefer it.
A few months ago, der Spiegel published an attention-getting interview with you, in which you talk about the pressure in football. Was this a topic during the recruitment process for head of the academy?
After the interview, Arsenal reiterated three, four times that now they are even more sure that I am the absolute right man for the position. It has opened more doors than it closed. I showed a certain weakness that signals to the young players that everyone is carrying something with them – even a former Arsenal captain like me. I do not want ice-cold professionals who don’t open their mouths.
How did the interview come about?
In the past year I have been writing my autobiography, so I’ve been reflecting a lot and went through every single moment of my career again. When I experience these situations the first time, it felt totally normal. Only afterwards I realised, what they caused on the inside. I did not go to the interview to tell this, the journalist just asked the right questions. That was super important for my own processing. I wasn’t interested in how I was seen.
What reactions did you get?
Many acquaintances called me and asked: “How are you? Do you have everything under control?”. I always answered: “I am doing sensationally fine”. Many have misinterpreted my expressions. I found it quite moving that some of my former team mates contacted me and 90 of them told me that they experience absolutely the same on some occasions. If one opens up, it builds a platform for others to do the same. This is very interesting to observe. After the first big hype however, a topic like this fades away pretty quickly in the media. At least the cards are on the table now and everyone who’d likes to speak about it can do so.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about Mesut Özil and his retirement from the German national team. You have played alongside him at Werder Bremen, Arsenal and the national team. How do you evaluate his retirement?
I find it incredibly sad how it all ended, how parties can live apart and quarrel. Everything has to come to an end at some point, but he would have deserved a better one.
Özil talked about how he felt racial discrimination from certain people within the German Football Association (DFB).
I detected no racism or discrimination within the DFB. Admittedly, in the past four years I have not been a part of the team anymore, but I cannot imagine that something could have changed on that front. But these are his feelings and they have to be respected.
Özil is regularly criticised for his body language.
He has an incredible amount for both the national team and his clubs. Every coach enjoys working with Mesut because he can create incredible situations for a team. And all this with the same body language. Mesut has an incredible value as a footballer and that should not be underestimated. For my own career, Mesut was extremely important, I didn’t play with any other player more often. We shared many special moments.
Three times you won the FA Cup with Arsenal, together with Özil. The coach was always Arsène Wenger who, after 22 years, left the club in the summer. How did you experience him?
He is a prudent man who radiates an impressive calm. No matter how bad the crisis or how beautiful the winning streak was – he always stayed with himself. Wenger had the team well under control and protected us. But this eternal time in business must have eaten away at him a lot. I hope he can switch off now.
In the past years the criticism was steadily improving. Did his resignation came too late?
No. It did not come a second too late or too early. After it became public that he was about to leave, the mood turned and everyone said: “What a great man, who has transformed this club”. It was just not possible to have more success with this team. He received a fitting farewell and left as a legend of this club.
How did he communicate his decision to the team?
That was very surprising for all of us. He came into the meeting room and said that together with the bosses he had decided to step down by the end of the season. It was a sad moment because I felt I had played my part in it. His departure was the fault of us players because we had many opportunities to get better results. We failed while he was always standing in front of us and protecting us. I was the first who felt the need to say something and I expressed my deep regret. It was important for him to see that we as a team had something to say and stand by him.
Did you experience similar situations before?
With Joachim Löw at the DFB, Thomas Schaaf at Werder Bremen and Wenger at Arsenal I had three long-term managers. A dismissal I only experienced at the very beginning of my career at Hannover 96, when Ralf Rangnick had to leave and was replaced by Ewald Lienen. When Rangnick told us, I saw players crying. I had feelings of guilt and thought: “he is a good coach but we didn’t perform. And now he has no job anymore”. The feeling of responsibility is really stark and it affected me heavily. The treatment of coaches concerns my anyway. It is seldom that they are held onto in times of crisis. Before the start of the season you can even place bets on who gets fired first. Many people make fun of the existence of people.
At Arsenal, Wenger was replaced by Unai Emery. What’s your impression of him?
I have a very positive feeling. He will certainly change a few things and everyone has to get used to this. In order for the team not only to listen, but also to believe in the coach’s words, some success stories are needed now.
Back to the topic DFB. After the group stage exit at the World Cup, the sporting leadership remained in office. Was that the right decision?
This summer there were very few winners anyway. But I am glad that the real leaders of the team have stayed and can build something new together with Joachim Löw and Oliver Bierhoff. Fortunately, the DFB believes in these people and trusts them to rebuild the team.
Philipp Lahm recently demanded that Joachim Löw reconsiders his leadership style. How do you assess these statements?
Löw doesn’t need anyone to tell him anything or comment on his leadership style. He’s an ambitious guy and will reflect about himself anyway, regardless of any advice. After some great years, Löw will now be able to draw a lot of conclusions out of this situation of failure and ask himself a lot of questions: Do we have the right nutrition? Do we have the right fitness trainers? The right physiotherapists? He will check everything now and that is a healthy process. But already during my time at the DFB Löw developed himself incredibly well, especially his speeches.
Is there an absence of team leaders currently?
We have enough leaders in Germany. But in principle, every player has to lead in some way or another. On the pitch as well as off it. The discussion about a lack of leaders was already present before the 2014 World Cup. This is a discussion which always existed and forever will exist. But only, things are going badly.
After the round of the last 16 against Algeria in 2014 you gave your legendary TV interview. Was it planned?
No. The game was heated, I was dead on my feet after 120 minutes, I was asked for an interview, I had a lack of oxygen, I got the bright beam of light in my face and then it just happened. At that moment I didn’t care about anything, I didn’t want to put up with anything – I even enjoyed that and had a few funny ideas in the spontaneity. Everyone knew that we had to improve ourselves. I didn’t want to say that either. This game was ultimately the catapult for the great success that no one believed we could achieve.