Per Mertesacker never really expected to become a professional footballer. His recently released autobiography makes that clear. He describes his first steps in the game with self-deprecating humour, portraying his progress almost as happy accident.
Mertesacker was never among the most regarded talents of his generation. His career might actually have been over before it began when, as a 15 year-old at Hannover, growing pains manifested themselves in a chronic knee condition. His body would eventually call a truce with itself, but it remains Mertesacker’s belief that he was only retained at the club during that period because his father, Stefan, was their Head of Youth Development.
That’s modesty, perhaps, but it’s certainly true that he existed on the margins and that’s given Mertesacker – who became Arsenal’s Head of Academy in 2018 – a broad perspective on the challenges facing young players in the modern era.
It helps that he’s so forthright, too. Mertesacker is a critic of the homogenised academy environment. He makes it clear throughout his autobiography that real world challenges and mild adversity were forces for good within his own career. Sat in a hotel in St Albans, those are themes he’s keen to re-emphasise, while also stressing the importance of parents within the development process.
“At 15, when my dad told me that it was over, I had mum to say ‘don’t worry, you have your education and football can stay your hobby’. So I benefited from my parents’ calm and I can offer that as an example.”
It’s becoming an increasingly difficult precedent to follow, though. Modern football’s promise of exorbitant wealth will always be magnetic, and that can encourage the kind of inhibiting pressure which, when applied from within a family, can crush a delicate career. It can also create the perception of a binary outcome at the end of the academy journey and that’s also something which Mertesacker seems keen to change.
Historically, he believes, that problem has been created by the under-emphasis of education in British football, something which shocked him when he first moved to England in 2011.
“It was really difficult for me because the first thing we do in Germany is school, no matter what, until almost 18. Or, if you go down the apprenticeship route, that’s the first thing you do every day. Here, if you’re a scholar, the first thing you do is train.”
He’s distrustful of the bubble in which modern football lives. In his own formative years, he would balance school and training, commuting between the two while catching up on sleep and homework. Today, that kind of independence is prohibited. Players must arrive at the academy by taxi and, in Mertesacker’s eyes, that denies them a key life experience.
“Yes, it’s one of the problems I’m facing. Off-site attendance is really important. From the age of 16 we do in-house education, so that’s now missing from the culture.”
He’s right, it is important. Translated into Ashworth-ese, the language of The FA’s famous England DNA document, it refers to problem-solving. It’s intended to refer specifically to performance, but can also be extended to include how a player approaches life and the difficulties which they can face.
One of the more compelling periods in Mertesacker’s senior career occurred at Werder Bremen. Continually plagued by injury, he created his own conditioning program, privately employing two Polish personal trainers to help with his recovery after games. It’s a minor example, but it characterises the kind of initiative which – perhaps – isn’t bred within contemporary football’s air-locked greenhouses.
Another deficiency comes in the lack of consideration shown to young players who suffer rejection at an early age. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the mindset. Michael Calvin’s No Hunger In Paradise changed the conversation around after-care to an extent, and a few recent, tragic examples have alerted the game at large to its implied responsibility.
It’s something Mertesacker takes seriously. When asked about the challenge Arsenal face in creating rounded human beings rather than just footballers, he looks almost affronted:
“That’s all we do. That’s how we shape the environment. We try to look at what’s important at different ages, in terms of their schooling and also in the providing of workshops which help players develop as people as well as footballers.”
It’s heartening to hear. Mertesacker is also keen to emphasise the care Arsenal show at the point at which the player is most vulnerable.
“If a player gets released, we try and provide as much evidence as we can to show that it’s not the end of the world. That they could still make it as a footballer, that they could go somewhere else and succeed.
“Here’s Eddie Nketiah, he got released by Chelsea at the same age and he was able to have a professional career. We try to contact other clubs to arrange trials and do what we can to make the player feel encouraged, even if the moment of the message is still negative.”
But what of the players who don’t have a future? For whom, for whatever reason, a drop down the divisions isn’t an option. On the basis of Joel Darlington’s recent suicide or the many instances of mental health issues invading the space left by football, the game is yet to fully understand its capacity to change a life’s trajectory. At Arsenal, though, they seem to have that balance.
It’s telling that our conversation never reaches the actual football. That, for instance, there’s no discussion of blue-chip prospects or first-team pathways. Instead, Mertesacker’s focus seems to be on texture – on what his club’s academy is, as much as what it’s able to produce.
“We’re proactive in everything we do. So if someone wants to go into education, then our head of education is there to offer advice. He’s constantly advising, constantly making sure that we’re taking school seriously. It’s what we stand for as an academy. Of course, not everyone makes it as a professional, but we have to have responsibility for those who don’t.”
The old adage is that great players rarely make great coaches. A similar truth probably applies to development, too. For those to whom a career came easy, true perspective will always be elusive. But for someone like Mertesacker, who was always too tall, too thin, too slow and too frail, the complexity of the challenge and its brutal realities are far clearer. Tomorrow’s Arsenal players appear to be in good hands.
Per Mertesacker: Big Friendly German is published by DeCoubertin Books and is available now.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.