Mertesacker reveals Arteta urged Ivan Gazidis to keep him at the club

Arsenal academy boss Per Mertesacker reveals how Mikel Arteta urged Ivan Gazidis to keep him at the club when he left for Man City – now the former captain has the young Gunners in the FA Youth Cup final

  • Ex-Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker was appointed academy manager in 2018
  • He revealed how former team-mate Mikel Arteta recommended him for the role
  • Mertesacker is helping the Under 18 side prepare for their FA Youth Cup final

Back in July 2016, Mikel Arteta’s mind was made up. Then 34 and recently retired, the Spaniard had the chance to stay and coach at Arsenal. Mauricio Pochettino wanted him on his staff at Tottenham, too. But Arteta had decided to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Around that time, something else had crystallised in Arteta’s mind. It involved his former club and Per Mertesacker.

‘When he left us, he left (former CEO) Ivan Gazidis a note saying: “You are losing me now, you are asking too late”,’ Mertesacker recalls. ‘But he told Ivan: “You can’t lose this guy. Just put him somewhere.”’

Arteta and Mertesacker had arrived in north London on the same day – amid the ruins of Arsenal’s 8-2 defeat by at Manchester United in 2011. They spent five seasons together under Arsene Wenger. Now they are in tandem once more. Arsenal heeded Arteta’s advice and, in 2017, appointed Mertesacker as academy manager even before he stopped playing. Eventually, they listened to the German, too. After Wenger stepped down in 2018, Mertesacker recommended Arteta for the top job.

‘I put a good word in for him, without knowing how good he was as a coach,’ the academy boss says.

‘I knew how good he was as a human being and how much I trusted him.’

Former Arsenal defender and now academy boss Per Mertesacker spoke with Mail Sport ahead of the Youth Cup final between the Gunners and West Ham on Tuesday evening

Mertesacker revealed Arteta recommended him for a job when the Spaniard went to Man City

Arteta and Mertesacker (holding the trophy) arrived at Arsenal on the same day back in 2011

Instead the job went to Unai Emery. ‘He called me when he didn’t get the job to say thank you.’

A year and a half later, however, Arteta was back. ‘It felt like the right time,’ Mertesacker says.

‘We couldn’t get it done in terms of league titles when we were here,’ he adds on their playing days. ‘Hopefully we can be more successful in terms of trophies and major titles, and hopefully build up the next generation of players.’

The signs are encouraging. Despite their recent wobble, Arteta’s side remain top of the Premier League.

‘Who would have thought it?’ Mertesacker says. The women’s team are 90 minutes from the Champions League final. And at the Emirates on Tuesday night, Arsenal’s U18s take on West Ham in the FA Youth Cup final. Manager Jack Wilshere was playing the last time they won the trophy in 2009.

‘It is a brilliant feeling that we have around this place, that we are creating,’ Mertesacker says. ‘It is based on the past we had together and it is really powerful.’

The 38-year-old German sensed similarities between himself and Arteta on their arrival in north London.

‘I was never thinking: “I am going to be academy manager and you are going to be the manager”,’ he says. ‘(But) we have traits of taking responsibility and wanting to take people with us. I felt that.’

In recent years, Mertesacker has developed a close relationship with sporting director Edu, too.

He is, in part, responsible for Wilshere’s new role at Arsenal, too. It was Mertesacker who coaxed the 31-year-old into starting his coaching badges when they were players here. It did not seem the midfielder’s obvious route.

The German originally recommended Arteta as manager when Unai Emery got the role in 2018

Mertesacker (right) sensed similarities between himself and Arteta (left) on arrival at Arsenal

‘I was probably thinking the same: he will not make that transition. But he proved me wrong,’ the German says.

‘I had a perception about him – super talented but probably not fulfilling his potential because of all the injuries.’

He adds: ‘As a first-team player, you turn up at 9 or 10 and finish at two o’clock. That’s your day done. This is not possible if you want to do a proper job.’

Mertesacker, Arteta and Edu were all involved in appointing the new U18 boss last summer.

‘I was praying that Jack would turn up for the interview and be himself,’ the German says.

‘I was sitting there, Mikel was sitting there, Edu was sitting there… that was a moment when the truth comes.’

Nine months on, Mertesacker has just spent the morning on the grass, helping Wilshere’s players prepare for Tuesday’s final.

‘He’s made a huge impact,’ the German adds. ’His ambition, naturally, is one day to go somewhere and coach a first-team, but I’m not letting him at the moment.’

The now academy manager is preparing for his side’s FA Youth Cup final against West Ham

He also explained that along with Arteta and sporting director Edu, they helped get Jack Wilshere (centre) to come back to the club to take up the role of Under 18 manager

Mertesacker says Arteta’s high standards help to motivate young players in the academy

For a few weeks in 2019, between Emery’s sacking and Arteta’s appointment, Mertesacker had a taste of life in the first-team dugout under interim boss Freddie Ljungberg.

‘The shock experience of my life, basically,’ he recalls. ‘It was tough and overwhelming.’ And it proved something: ‘This is not the direction I want to go in,’ Mertesacker says.

Now he leads dozens of staff at Arsenal’s Hale End academy. Now he can use Arteta’s strict standards to his own advantage.

‘It makes it so much easier for me,’ says Mertesacker, who will ask youngsters: ‘Do you think this behaviour will make it easier to go to the first-team… that Mikel Arteta will accept this behaviour?’

That helps Mertesacker’s mission to create good people as well as good players. Familiar questions about footballers and their attitudes resurfaced last week, when Arsenal’s first team were accused – unfairly, Arteta insists – of ignoring a young mascot. Mertesacker knows how the ‘bubble’ of academy life – the handouts, the facilities – can spiral into ‘entitlement’.

‘So we work hard every day with our people to get the right messages, the right team building, life-skills programmes,’ he says.

‘Coping skills is the biggest talent… creating strong, resilient young guys who are able to rise to those challenges.’

That is why Arsenal mix players between age groups and vary their playing time.

‘We put our best player in the Under 14s on the bench? Deal with it.’

Mertesacker (left) had a short spell in the dugout in 2019 but soon realised it wasn’t for him

Mertesacker with Reuell Walters after Arsenal beat Man City 2-1 in the Youth Cup semi-final

The message is simple: ‘Football is all right but it’s not good enough. This club, this academy is about more than just kicking the ball around. If you just miss something at school, get it done…if you just build a foundation on your football skills, that will be over.’

Why? ‘You’ll be released.’ Mertesacker was written off as a teenager. ‘Even my dad said I wasn’t going to make it,’ he remembers.

But the pathway towards Arsenal’s first team is there. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe were part of the last U18 team to reach the Youth Cup final. They lost.

‘I would love for the club to win it,’ Mertesacker says. ‘If it’s not the case? Do we still believe in them? Yes! Because we have seen other players fail in those moments and still being successful in their lives… so this is a celebration for the academy. We embrace it and we will deal with the outcome.’

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