Five weeks after he helped Arsenal to victory against Chelsea in the FA Cup final in 2017, Arsenal confirmed that Per Mertesacker would become the club’s Academy manager.
Only 32 at the time, the appointment was a huge show of faith in the German on the part of manager Arsene Wenger and CEO Ivan Gazidis who, to their credit, were both looking to the club’s long-term future. With 12 months left on his playing contract, Mertesacker wouldn’t assume his new role until July 2018.
By the time he got his feet under desks at London Colney and Hale End, a tide of change had flooded the club. In the wake of Wenger’s departure, a procession of familiar faces packed up their belongings and left the building. In their place, new personalities and fresh ideas have landed.
In a whirlwind 14 months, Mertesacker has, so far, withstood all the long balls that have been punted in his direction. His passion for the wellbeing of the club’s youngsters shines through, as does his eagerness to see the first team delivering on their potential. After a period of flux, it feels like stability has been found and progress is being made.
Fresh from reading the World Cup winner’s newly translated autobiography ‘Big Friendly German’, Arseblog News sat down with the World Cup winner to see how his work at the Academy is coming along.
You were very young when you were approached about the Academy position, I was wondering if you had any doubts in your own ability to do the job?
[Laughs] Oh, probably in the last year, a couple of times, yeah. But before I got the job I was really prepared to suffer and be challenged and to learn and improve myself. I knew there would be times when I doubted myself, big time. But then it comes back to [remembering] how did I handle the situation when I was playing. At the moment, I’m quite happy that I stopped playing and that I’m now responsible for young people and making sure that they can make a difference in the world.
You write in your autobiography about your dad’s involvement in the youth set-up at Hannover and you specifically mention him making the effort to know the names of every youth player. I was wondering if there was anything you’ve taken from the way your dad conducted himself that you’ve tried to emulate?
Looking back, he was always someone that when the kids saw him they had a smile on their face. They knew that he cared about everyone. He was tough on them, but as well, they always knew that he was someone that could be approached. He knew their names and was connected to them. That’s an environment I want to create at Arsenal – that the youngsters can approach me, that they love to see me, that they see value in being next to me. That’s what I took from him. It amazed me at the time [when I was in Hannover’s Academy] how well he connected with everyone.
The youth set-up you came through at Hannover 96 is very different from the one that exists at Arsenal and many other top clubs. Before taking the role, you mentioned a desire to ‘attack the system’, how much progress do you feel you have made on that front in the space of a year?
We’re not going to turn the clock back 20 years. The challenges we have; we’re going to judge early, we’re going to make decisions and not a lot of players will actually make it in professional football. There’s a lot of responsibility, but as well, I want to create a culture where people are willing to learn, willing to respect each other and willing to have the discipline so that they can be beneficial to the world out there. Therefore, I need to be a role model. The staff need to be role models. And the [players] need to understand that the bubble of football can burst at any moment. It can be a shock sometimes to parents, agents and external factors.
When you took on the role, did you look outside of Arsenal for any inspiration? I know you talked to Oliver Bierhoff. Were there other personalities outside of the game you talked to? Have you been to other academies?
I’ve had no time for this right now. I needed to get our house in order first. And get to know the ones [players and staff] inside. Edu now coming in is another challenge. How does it fit? How does he fit in? At the moment there are many, many challenges I have to tackle internally so that I’m in a position in one or two years to look for input from other countries, academies, sports to take things to another level. At the moment, I feel like I’m needed on a daily basis in the Academy to make sure we know what’s in-house.
It was Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis who had the initial conversation with you about taking on the Academy manager role. How did you feel when they departed so soon after? Were you unbalanced by the situation?
It felt weird because both have literally appointed me and trusted me. I think they were acting for the club, that’s how I see it. They saw the benefit [of appointing me] for the club, not for them personally, but for the club, the kids, everyone. That’s how I’ve taken the role on. Everyone I’ve spoken to has echoed that feeling of trust in me to learn and be the best Academy manager in a couple of years.
Have you spoken to Arsene at all since he left?
He was at my farewell game in Hannover in October. My target is to sit down with him. I felt like he wanted [things] to settle down.
Listening to Wenger speak recently, it sounds like he deliberately put some distance between himself and the club. It would be a real shame if you didn’t have contact with the guy who saw you as an Academy manager.
I know. He will be a role model and always a figure at Arsenal. That would be beneficial for us. It would probably be easier [for him] to go to Hale End and the Academy. That’s probably one of my next targets to ensure we see some [of his] grey hair at Hale End. He’s someone who has been so magnificent for this club. It would be great to get him to share wisdom and share his experiences with a lot of young people who’ve not seen a lot in the world of football. And he has.
When you were a teenager, you seemed quite aware of the possibility of not having a career in football. Under your guidance, what is Arsenal doing to prepare its young players, many of whom won’t make it at the club, for the future?
Obviously, football is our vehicle. Kids love playing football. But we should never forget that not many of them make it at Arsenal and in the first team somewhere else. We need to make sure there is a path for them to contribute well in the world. And make sure that that is valued. Our approach is that we want to challenge them as much as we can as a football academy, but as well we want to teaching them the skills so that they can excel somewhere else and make sure that they are also part of our ‘Hall of Fame’.
Amongst other things, youngsters get the chance to do their coaching badges at a young age?
Yes, we offer them loads of stuff. In terms of education, when they get their scholarship and go to London Colney, we give them the options to do anything. We invest a lot of money in our education programme, where they have a free education. But as well, sometimes, they don’t think about that. But we make sure that they will be life long learners. That’s something that always stuck with me, that they learn the ingredients of understanding that you have different paths in life and they don’t put all their chips in football. ‘I’m going to give it my all’, ‘I’m going to learn all the important things that are important in a football academy’ and that helps me to be prepared to cope with any challenge in life. My vision is to create ‘Strong Young Gunners’. By saying ‘Strong Young Gunners’, [I mean] strong in any challenge in life. That can be first team training, that can be on the pitch at the Emirates, but that can as well be getting injured and getting released from the club. I want them to be able to rise to any challenge in life, in whatever path they take. 1 per cent will make it at Arsenal, another 1 per cent will make it in professional football but the other 98 per cent they shouldn’t fall off a cliff. That’s a huge responsibility for us. With all the programmes we run, there’s always a holistic approach and a development that goes beyond the football business.
The balance between Arsenal being a business and obviously supporting all these young people that are in its care [must be delicate]…are there quotas, is there a certain number of players that you’re trying to get into the first team, are there numbers of players that you have to make a profit on. How do you work within those?
There will always be a business decision in some capacity. Some can create value in the market of football, that’s what we’re all trying to achieve at some stage. But still, there are obviously different paths. Do we have an efficient loan system? Do we have an efficient system where players go somewhere else, get developed there and we put sell-on clauses in? We’re trying to really stretch the system and thinking how can we add value to the person and the player and making them a better version of themselves. But as well how can we promote our Academy players into the first team. We try to open up different routes.
This seems to be reflected in the club’s new structure with Ben Knapper in charge of loan deals and Freddie Ljungberg and Steve Bould switching places. How much of a role did you play in coordinating that?
There were ideas around that. I was involved in that because I brought Freddie back to the club, literally to take care of the under-23s. And he did a fantastic job. Ultimately, what he wants to do is to manage a team and that helped him a lot with his development. Now, you could feel that he wanted to be closer to the first team. And Steve Bould wanted the opposite. He wanted to be in a development position and having a team. That worked quite well. The idea came across from a lot of people actually in the same timeframe. It helped everyone.
You mention in the book that when you made it to the Hannover first team you felt more comfortable in your new surroundings because your youth team coach, Mirko Slomka, was part of the set-up. Are you seeing something similar with the guys breaking into the first team at Arsenal?
I think they are embracing it really, having such great influence from ex-players at Arsenal. There’s me now in place, Freddie having a big impact on them – he understands more about top football and what players need to achieve – and Edu now coming in with that gene of the ‘Invincible’ season. All kinds of things where you can see football is a major part now. There’s a lot of leadership in there. People can actually excel from Steve Bould coaching the under-23s. I’ve seen him coaching, I was coached by him and I know what he is capable of. We have more people thinking about a positive future for Arsenal Football Club.
You’ve spoken recently about there once again being a ‘British’ core at Arsenal. Do you think it’s important that it’s a ‘British’ core or that it’s just an ‘Arsenal’ core?
Big time. Big time. I was watching the England game [versus Bulgaria] and there were no Arsenal players in the senior squad. Sure, we have Reiss [Nelson] and Eddie [Nketiah] in the under-21 squad. All the other big teams have two, three, four players in the England senior squad. That should be the target. It’s good for connecting with the fans and for representing the club. It’s better for everyone. I believe that we need to have a strong core in the England senior squad and that’s what we’re building towards.
There are a lot of complications that come with your role. You’re dealing with a lot of parents, agents…everybody these days. Money obviously gets in the way. Would you be supportive of a salary cap at a younger [Academy] age? Is it a silly question.
I don’t know. I don’t know.
You can tell in the book that you’re kind of exasperated by the money side of the game.
Yeah, money destroys a lot of scenarios. When they earn a lot of money and they are not going to make it or they have a certain standard [of living] and they go down to League One or League Two and they get less money. I don’t know. It’s just a dangerous position to be in from my point of view. I was happy earning apprenticeship money either as a plumber or as a footballer. €1,000 net per month put me in a position where I needed to earn the right [to earn more]. I wasn’t paid for the potential, which can be positive and can be very, very negative.
The middle-class background you present in the book almost sounds idyllic. Many of the kids at Arsenal are coming from the exact opposite of that. Trying to get in their head must be quite difficult, how do you do that? How do you get in the head of a kid who comes from a completely different background to yourself?
I totally respect that. And I know that I’m not able to do that. I need to have good staff who recognise that and work with these kids and build trust and a better connection than I ever can or will have with them. And then we need to understand them and take care of them. But by doing that, and having people around me who understand them and can connect better, that will help us build relationships around the whole place. I’m not deluded, I’m not saying I can do that. I don’t know what it’s like to be exposed to criminals, to gangs, I don’t know that. We need to have people around the place that can connect in a better way because they’ve been through it.
What does the day look like for you when you wake up? Is it completely varied? Between Hale End and London Colney you must be meeting a lot of people?
It could be a 12 hour day.
Which must come as a bit of a shock…
Yeah, a big shock. On a Monday I go to London Colney in the morning, I’ll make the transition to Hale End because they train from 6pm-8pm. When I want to stay around the parents that takes me to 9pm at night. When I start at 8am, it means I’m finished and home by 10pm. But I want to be there, I want to be present. I need to make sure I take care of myself and that the energy I’ve got is fully loaded. There will be days like that but there will be days when I just stay at Colney for the morning and afternoon and then head home. I can’t sustain going from one site to the other every single day. It’s not sustainable.
It’s a massive sacrifice doing what you’re doing when you’ve got a family at home, how’s that working for you?
The only positive when you stop playing is all of a sudden you have a winter break. All of a sudden you have a two-week break, all of a sudden you can go away at Easter because there’s not a game. For my family, it’s a big change in terms of me being at home on a regular, daily basis but on the weekend I can sometimes be there, in winter we have two weeks together. Obviously, time management is going to be crucial.
Per Mertesacker’s autobiography ‘Big Friendly German’, co-written by journalist Raphael Honigstein, is available to buy now – https://www.decoubertin.co.uk/bfg/