Per Mertesacker focused on Arsenal’s title target
Anfield is Arsenal’s first in series of ‘proper tests’, says the big defender
Per Mertesacker believes there is something different about the Arsenal of this season, something hardier and more self-assured. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP
Per Mertesacker is lecturing and he is eminently qualified to do so. The subject matter is history and psychology, through the prism of Germany’s habit of beating England in international football matches and Arsenal’s centre-half from Hannover is on a roll.
“You respect us for our footballing past but what happens when you play against us is that it’s always the same,” says Mertesacker. “All of our young players in Germany, they don’t even know what happened previously but in England, especially the newspapers, they remind us how well we did or how frightening we are or how we always win no matter what happens and that makes us even stronger.
“We would normally have forgotten but you always remind us. I think it would be better for the English people if they think that it’s now a different German generation and you just try to beat us or maybe try to copy us. You’d have better karma.”
Germans, eh? Mertesacker does not even mention the Wembley friendly between the nations from last November, when he headed his country’s winner – a personal high in a season of stellar levels. The 29-year-old has great expectations for the World Cup finals in the summer.
But before that, Mertesacker is consumed by another well-worn narrative and it is one he is determined to rework. Arsenal have not won a trophy since 2005 and, although they sit two points clear at the top of the Premier League with 14 matches left, nagging doubts remain about their durability. They have form for implosion.
“Nobody knows how to treat us at the moment,” says Mertesacker. And he is probably right.
Arsenal have had their season charted by potential crash points, when the tailspin was supposed to happen and Mertesacker describes the one that is now upon them as the “proper test”. They visit Liverpool on Saturday lunchtime before they play Manchester United (also a league match), Liverpool in the FA Cup and Bayern Munich in the Champions League. The games come in the space of 11 days.
“There are a lot of mental tests,” he
says. “How good are we when we maybe get another setback? Are we able to come back in the way that we have always come back this season?”
Mertesacker chooses his words carefully but it is clear that he thinks there is something different about the Arsenal of this season, something hardier and capable of taking a surer route. “That’s what I try to explain, although it’s really hard because we haven’t proved anything yet,” he says.
Mertesacker talks of the depth to the squad, how he draws “strength” from players stepping in for injured team-mates to make the difference, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain did with his two goals against Crystal Palace last Sunday.
Above all, though, he advances the sense of precision and successful fine-tuning, from the club’s record signing of Mesut Özil last September to the work of assistant manager Steve Bould on defensive drills in training. With Mertesacker’s partnership with Laurent Koscielny to the fore, Arsenal have been miserly at the back this season.
“Steve likes to work with us, especially with the back four,” says Mertesacker. “We are grateful for his influence . . . He’s a good addition on the coaching staff.”
Özil, with whom Mertesacker played
at Werder Bremen, has been a mood-changer, even if he has been quiet at times.
“To reach another level, you sometimes need the right addition to lift everybody, not just the players but the whole club and the whole public in between,” says Mertesacker . “We didn’t need five or six players late in the window, which is what Arsenal got when I arrived [in August 2011]. It is not easy to get everyone settled. We were a good squad and we didn’t lose any players over the summer, which was the main part. But we needed that right addition and we can say that Özil was it.”
Özil’s signing followed the failed pursuit of Liverpool striker Luis Suárez, whom Mertesacker will face at Anfield.
“When he is on the pitch, what is going on around him doesn’t bother him,” says Mertesacker. “He is just a pure striker and that is what comes out after the transfer requests and him saying: ‘It’s better for me to leave because I want to play Champions League.’ When we heard that Arsenal might be interested in him, obviously we were up for it and we thought, ‘Yeah, he would fit in.’ But after, we got Özil.”
The Arsenal linchpin savours the challenges ahead and it is plain that the north London club has got under his skin. He feels that he owes the manager, Arsène Wenger, for helping him through an error-strewn and injury-curtailed first season and he is ready to extend his contract beyond June 2015. Guardian Service