When Ivan Gazidis and Arsene Wenger handed Per Mertesacker the keys to the Arsenal Academy before the German, it was a remarkable show of faith given he hadn’t even retired from his playing career.
After announcing the news prior to the 2017/18 season, the World Cup winner eventually assumed the position a year later just as Wenger exited the building and Unai Emery entered the fray.
The Frenchman’s departure after 22 years marked the beginning of a turbulent spell at the club with staff across departments coming and going with alarming regularity. When Emery and his team were sacked, the German even had to help coach the first team until Mikel Arteta was recruited from Manchester City.
All the while, Mertesacker came to understand the flaws and positives of the academy structure, gained valuable experience, grew in confidence and slowly began moulding it in his image.
At no point did he believe an overhaul of the club’s approach to young players was going to be a quick job. A year into his new gig, he told Arseblog News that he was “really prepared to suffer and be challenged”. Three and a half years later, he realises he might not see the fruits of his labour until he has a decade in the job under his belt.
In an interview with Nosotros, the German said: “What I realised pretty quickly is that working for the Academy is a long-term commitment.
“Doing this for two years and believing that I would make a difference would be a mistake. You have to think about the journey of a young person who arrives at the club in the under-9s. He may stay with us for ten years. He will develop, and fluctuate, and there will be ups and downs.
“So, thinking of me, two years is nothing. If I want to make a real difference, that I want to root everything that we talked about in terms of vision, pillars, I have to look at things not in four to five years, but rather in seven to 10 years. That’s what I have in mind.
“I wonder how I can make a difference each year to provide the most suitable environment possible. I want to make sure that players can thrive and that we support them in this endeavour.”
Since the get-go, Mertesacker has been keen to stress just how difficult it is for kids to make it through the academy system and into the first team.
Arsenal may have a long-standing reputation for producing homegrown talent – the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson can all point to years at Hale End and London Colney – but they are also rarities.
Charged with overseeing the development of hundreds of young men, the German has repeatedly spoken about his desire to celebrate the achievements of those who end up playing their football elsewhere or who end up doing noteworthy things away from the beautiful game.
He thinks there is still work to do on this front.
“We want this environment to be one of the best in the world, but there are steps to be taken,” he said.
“We are on the right track, because we have good role models, and inspirations. But do we value those who have not turned professional correctly? We have a long way to go on that side, because we want to have more good examples of players who couldn’t “succeed” at Arsenal, but then did other great things.
“We don’t want to be reduced to the success of Bukayo, Emile and the players who, tomorrow, will be leaders at the club and will go down in its history.”
Given he’s still in his late 30s, it’s fairly likely that Mertesacker will eventually take the experience he’s gained at Arsenal elsewhere. Indeed, he was reportedly a candidate for a role with the German FA when Oliver Bierhoff stepped down from his position after the World Cup in December.
For the time being, he doesn’t envisage a career pivot anytime soon. “The position of academy director fulfils me completely,” he said.
“It is a leadership position that I embrace. Are there other positions that interest me? I don’t know. I had 15 years of exposure in top-level football, being an international, playing in the Champions League and winning a few trophies.
“I don’t know yet if I want to find this pressure of being judged every three days, which is the case for certain positions. I do not know.
“I have a family now. We have three boys at home. They need to feel free too, to grow and develop. It’s no longer just about me saying, ‘I want to go from Bremen to London.’ It was my decision.
“Once we arrived in London, the decision to stay there, and then do a different job there after my playing career, was no longer my only decision. It was a family decision. Every decision from now on will be a joint family decision.”
If you don’t speak French, we thoroughly recommend running the full Nosotros interview through Google Translate. Per covers a lot of ground.