Per Mertesacker’s academy revolution
It just seems like yesterday when Per Mertesacker put in that iconic display in the FA Cup final against Premier league champions Chelsea, helping us win our 3rd domestic trophy in 4 seasons. Signed in 2011 for under £10m from Werder Bremen as part of Arsene Wenger’s famous 5 ‘panic buys’ in 48 hours, Mertesacker’s growth within the club has been truly remarkable.
Initially doubted by some to cut it out in the Premier league due to his lack of pace, Mertesacker showed the world that pace isn’t everything when it comes to defending. His astute reading of the game, coupled with his aerial prowess and leadership proved to crucial for Arsenal, as he went on to form a solid partnership with Frenchman Laurent Koscielny.
Mertesacker isn’t your stereotypical leader who is always super vocal and charismatic. Per is usually calm and collected and has always been a great mentor for our younger players. On the other hand, he isn’t scared to stand up to big names either. When Mesut Özil threw a tantrum after our 6-3 away defeat to Manchester City, Mertesacker confronted him for storming off the pitch without thanking the fans. It tells you that he understands what Arsenal stands for – We have certain values that need to be respected, win or lose.
It is a combination of these traits – Leadership, mentoring, intelligence and understanding of club values that makes him a perfect candidate for his role as academic director.
It was announced in 2017 that Mertesacker would retire at the end of the 17/18 season to take up this role. Speaking in 2017 to weekly German magazine Der Spiegel, Mertesacker said:
“I am prying on my new role and the people, on the huge machine of this academy – Some 70 employees, 150 to 200 youth players. I want to get to know them as soon as possible. I don’t want to start my job next year by saying that I will need a year to settle in. That would not be good enough.”
By balancing his playing career in 17/18 with learning and growing into his role, Mertesacker has been able to seamlessly transition from player to academy director.
While his work may offer some short term benefits to the current crop of youngsters, the nature of his role is to impact the club in the medium to long term.
Here are the 5 main principles that Mertesacker is looking implement/build on at various academy levels:
#1 Learning is more important than short term winning:
In an exclusive interview with football.london, Mertesacker says:
“Before it was almost like winning a game was the short-term reward that meant everything. Now if we lose a game with the U18s and U23s what do I look at? Great learning moments.”
This is a really interesting point as whilst it is always good for the academy to win trophies, the main purpose of having it is to serve the first team. It comes down to how many individuals can make it, or be sold to generate value.He was quick to acknowledge the combined £45m we got from the sales of Alex Iwobi, Xavier Amaechi and Krystian Bielik,
On the other hand – Players like Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith Rowe and others are stepping in and adding depth to the first team.
Mertesacker sees great value in youngsters learning from defeats and becoming better players, as that’s what matters in the grand scheme of things.
#2 Challenging young player’ mindsets
The game today is different from what it was 15 years ago. So much has changed. You see a teenager like Callum Hudson-Odoi who has barely played for Chelsea earning a wage of over £120,000 a week which was unthinkable even for an established star back in the day.
As a result, there have been players who haven’t been able to push on. Either the money came too early, or the success got into their head and their minds were elsewhere. In an extract of his book ‘Big Friendly German’, taken Via the Guardian, Mertesacker emphasized on having the right mentality to succeed:
“In my new role as Arsenal academy manager I will do everything I can to challenge the young players’ mindsets. I want to challenge them so that they are ready to take on new ideas and protect them from being injured, when it comes to their body and soul.
I want to convince them they have to do something to get to the top of the world and I want to be an example for them. For me there wasn’t really a way up but somehow I made it there anyway, because I did everything I possibly could to give me the best chances to succeed. Talent is what you make of your situation.“
#3 Adherence to club values and principles
This is something Mertesacker has been very vocal about throughout and says some ‘ruthless decisions’ need to be taken in the event on non compliance. He said to Der Speigel via ESPN, on players that do not comply with his principles and club values:
“Maybe five, six players then have to go. It won’t be easy. That’s my vision and I can work out with the right staffing.”
This was further echoed in his interview with The Independent:
“I would say these three words: respect, discipline and humility play a big part in what we are trying to achieve and are the foundation for me to have an impact.
“If there is a really good player at U16 level who disrespects the coach, if you then say: ‘You can go somewhere else then. That is not how we do things here.’ That would be powerful.”
#4 Creating long term success through the academy:
This concept of an academy being restructured and managed to perfection that it can contribute to the long term success of Arsenal was first put forth by former academy manager Andries Jonker when he joined the club in 2014. He was of the view that Arsenal’s academy had too many deficiencies in terms of recruitment and the way things are structured, but they can be fixed over time with sound management and adequate investment. He also believed that the most important thing was that the club had a head coach that promoted youngsters and at the time, we had Arsene Wenger who was the perfect man for mentoring youngsters.
There is a reason why one of Arsenal’s key factors in selecting a head coach post Wenger was promotion of youth players. It is all a part of the club’s long term club strategy.
Jonker’s aim was to try and scout players across all levels who can play the Arsenal way and build around that philosophy so that in say, 5-10 years, players would be ready to slot into the first team and adapt easily as they’ve all been brought up under the same culture.
This objective has been echoed by Mertesacker in close conjunction with Edu. One of Edu’s key roles as technical director is to ensure the medium to long term well being of the club, for which the developing the academy even further is absolutely essential.
Edu and Per have already made a bold decision to relieve highly regarded youth scout Steve Morrow off his duties, along with several other key academy staff in what comes as a massive shake-up to our academy structure. My hunch is that Edu is going to bring his own people in and we’ll see more younger talents coming in from South America.
#5 Football isn’t the only career option
This is one principle that was first brought to the club by Arsène Wenger, who was always concerned about what would happen to a player should they not make it as a footballer. This led to him considering an idea to try and have a university within Arsenal to ensure players can learn and explore alternative career options in the event they do not make it as a footballer.
The underlying issue is that in the drive of making it to the first team, many give 100% focus on their football career, often ignoring education and other alternative fallback options. Mertesacker stated that the unfortunate reality is that only 1% of academy players across all levels make it to the first team.
Whilst good recruitment and coaching can help increase this percentage, Arsenal have taken steps to ensure that players have a good livelihood even if they don’t make it. The academy has a head of education, Matt Henly as well as a head of personal development and psychology, Kate Green to ensure that player’ requirements outside of football are taken care of.
Speaking to football365, Mertesacker emphasizes about the importance of taking care of released players, not just Arsenal’s but other clubs as well:
“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.“
To Sum it up: Arsenal are entering a new era. A young progressive coach, a new structure behind the scenes, with the academy in its golden generation. Arsenal are in a great place to build and enhance their academy even further. Whilst Mertesacker’s role is of a more long term nature, the signs so far have been very positive. If in 5 years time, we are seeing huge talents breaking in from the academy to the first team, then we are going to have Per to thank. His revolution is just getting started.