In the summer of 2016, after taking a break from his playing career and agreeing to join Manchester City as manager, Mikel Arteta packed his bags at Arsenal and said goodbye to the club that had been his home for five years. It was a moment of transition and upheaval in the Spaniard’s life but, in the midst of all the excitement, he paid attention to Per Mertesacker, his friend and teammate.
Mertesacker had joined Arsenal on the same day as Arteta, the August 2011 transfer deadline day, and had been two of the senior members of the first team for half a decade. They knew how each other thought and felt, and Arteta knew how important Mertesacker could be to the long-term success of the organization.
And so, before Arteta left for City, he passed a message to Ivan Gazidis, then managing director of Arsenal. “When he left us, he left Ivan a note that said ‘you can’t miss Per,’” says Mertesacker. “He told Ivan, ‘You can’t lose this guy. Put it somewhere.’”
Within weeks, Mertesacker had become the new club captain, replacing Arteta. And within two years he had been appointed as the new Arsenal academy manager. Gazidis and Arsene Wenger hadn’t just put it “somewhere,” as Arteta had asked. They had put the German in charge of the football future of the club.
Five years have passed since then and Arteta and Mertesacker, who used to car-share to train as players, are now perhaps the club’s two most influential people. Aged 41 and 38 respectively, they are determining the direction of Arsenal’s journey in the short, medium and long term.
Mertesacker first recommended Arteta for the head coaching role in 2018 when Unai Emery was named. “I put in a good word for him,” Mertesacker says. “Without knowing how good he was as a coach. I knew how good of a human being he was and how much I trusted him.
“A year and a half later, he arrived and it seemed like the right time. From there it was a feeling of confidence, that we both do the best for the club. He’s practically lined up. It’s a brilliant feeling we get in this place.”
While Arteta’s first team push for the Premier League title, trophies are also the order of the day for Mertesacker’s academy: Arsenal’s under-18s, coached by Jack Wilshere, will face West Ham United in the final FA Youth Cup on Tuesday evening.
It was Mertesacker who appointed Wilshere last summer, following talks involving Arteta and Edu, the club’s sporting director. “I was praying that Jack would show up for the interview and be himself,” Mertesacker says. “It was great to see him present himself, what he stands for, what coach he wants to be, what he wants to be.”
Mertesacker has been on the training grounds for the past few days, helping Wilshere prepare his under-18s for their big night, but his role is usually more office-based. Mertesacker got a taste of coaching in 2019, when he was appointed first team assistant during Freddie Ljungberg’s short spell as interim manager, and that was more than enough for him.
“It was basically the shock experience of my life,” says Mertesacker. “It was tough, and it was overwhelming for me. I was almost going back to my 15-year playing career: every week there’s something on the line. I felt it was not something I wanted to pursue.
Not that Mertesacker’s day job as head of the academy is much easier. The former defender must constantly think about the bigger picture – “it’s a 10-year cycle of shaping our young people” – but also deal with short-term issues, including informing young players and their families that they will be released.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” she says. “There is always a different person, a different face. I go to these matches and I’m nervous, similar to playing 300 games and going to an FA Cup final feeling nervous. Whenever I get into a difficult conversation with a member of staff, or the decision is to release someone because we believe it is best for the individual, I will still be nervous and stutter when I speak.
Some parts of Mertesacker’s work have been simpler since Arteta instilled a new culture in North London. The exiles, and subsequent departures, of star players such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi impacted not only the first team, but the entire club.
“May I ask the players of the academy: what will Mikel say about this behavior in the first team?” says Mertesacker. “I can put it on them. It makes it much easier for me now. ‘Do you think this behavior will make it easier to go to the first team? Do you think Mikel will accept this behavior?’ This is pretty impactful.
“Mikel changed the direction of the club. He sends a message to the rest of the organization, to myself, that we need to be punctual in developing young individuals who can stand up to the challenges, the pressure. I like that. He is setting standards at the highest level”.
In their five years as teammates under Wenger, Arteta and Mertesacker achieved “OK, but not outstanding” results, says the German. “A bit of the Champions League [qualifications]some FA Cups”.
Now, in different roles and with different responsibilities, there is a shared determination to achieve more and win more than they ever have as a player.
“We want to build something now that is more successful for the club’s future,” says Mertesacker. “That’s what excites me. We didn’t manage to make it, in terms of league titles, when we were here [as players]. Hopefully we can be more successful in terms of major trophies and hopefully build the next generation of players and people who can make a difference on the pitch.”