At the EUROs this summer Per Mertesacker played his role as a squad player admirably. He supported the team and helped out wherever he could. Now Mertesacker is back. At Arsenal he has established himself in central defense and for the National Team he played all 90 minutes alongside Holger Badstuber in their impressive performance in Dublin. On Tuesday the National Team takes on Sweden in Berlin, their last home game of the calendar year. Mertesacker sat down with DFB.de reporter Steffen Lüdeke to talk about London, the development of the National Team, defending, and the upcoming match against Sweden. You can find the original interview (in German) at dfb.de
“Against Ireland we finally broke our duck”
team.dfb.de: Mr. Mertesacker, six goals against Ireland, a very impressive overall showing but also a goal conceded. How frustrating was it not to be able to keep a clean sheet?
Per Mertesacker: We allowed the Irish very few chances to score. That was especially important in the opening stages of the match. In the final minute we did not have that same organization that we needed and showed in the previous 90 minutes. It was a minor error but we will take a look at the goal again and continue to work to improve. To concede always frustrates me but I was very satisfied with the match overall.
team.dfb.de: After the exit against Italy in the summer the team played and beat the Faroe Islands and then Austria, albeit not entirely convincing. How liberating was the performance against Ireland?
Mertesacker: The EUROs ended in extreme disappointment for us. And after that things with the clubs quickly got under way. We had little time to take it all in. More important though was that we started qualifying with three wins. These wins give us confidence that we are heading in the right direction. There were doubts because we missed that crucial last step and after the EUROs we needed some time to find ourselves again but we won our games. Away to Austria was especially important and it all culminated in the performance against Ireland.
team.dfb.de: You have said yourself before the EUROs that Germany needed to play more like Dortmund. More defending from the front and a quicker transition game. How far away is the team in implementing these changes in their style of play?
Mertesacker: It is obvious that you can always take something away from successful teams and their styles of play. We still have some things to learn to not only be able to keep up with a top team like Spain but also outplay them. In that sense we are still missing a certain something. You can see that Dortmund have those qualities to put their opponents under pressure to the point where it causes them problems. We can improve in areas like that but it is not our primary focus. Against Ireland for example it was not an issue because they played so many long balls. In this game it was more important to see how we worked out our transitions. After winning the ball we were very dominant. When one or two of our players get into full gear and burst forward it would be difficult for any defense. Against the Faroes and Austrians it could have been better but it was much improved against Ireland.
team.dfb.de: In your career, you have come up against many good strikers. Are there any that stand out above the others in your opinion?
Mertesacker: No. Defenders in a back line of four less frequently focus on one single player. It is no longer the case that a defender spends 90 minutes assigned to just one player. We defend as a unit and cover for each other. Naturally you end up in one on one duels sometimes and of course there are certain players who you have more fun playing against than others, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic for example. He is extremely strong, good in the air, goes for every ball, is technically strong, and has great unpredictable movement. To play against him is going to be a great challenge but not just for me, also for the entire defense. We will handle it as a collective, defense too is a matter of teamwork. We will be punished if we focus only on ourselves and fail to support our teammates.
team.dfb.de: Is there a striker, a style of striker for example, that you would don’t particularly like playing against?
Mertesacker: Whether a striker is small or big makes no difference. You have to adapt to the kinds of striker and their style. When you know someone is quick and elusive, then you have be confident in making the right decisions.
team.dfb.de: Luis Suarez of Liverpool is such a player. You received great plaudits after Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Anfield Road. Is one of the reasons for your development in London that you have become a more versatile defender?
Mertesacker: I don’t know. For me it was important that I felt a certain confidence and a certain respect. That is something that also comes with time. I set out to work very hard in the Premier League and Arsenal in the past season. There one simply cannot be complacent and carry on as before. I learned a lot in my first season but there is no one particular aspect where I can say I have improved more than another, more like many small details.
team.dfb.de: What is your impression of training under Arsene Wenger?
Mertesacker: The level at Arsenal is very high. The manager demands a lot. That is why I take away many things I did not know before from practice. That is not just the case at Arsenal though. In my career I have been fortunate to be at the right clubs in every stage of my development. It was always a good fit. I never felt overwhelmed and grew as time progressed. Now I am at a world class club and feel very good.
team.dfb.de:Is the observation correct that your agility improves as a result of you being more laterally oriented on the field than frontal?
Mertesacker: Somewhat. One always analyzes how one can improve in different areas. Part of that has to do with body movement and the question of how one’s positioning can be improved to be able to turn quicker and to become faster. When one is positioned high on the field there is always the danger that the ball will be played behind you. Then it comes down your reactions and turning in the right direction as quickly as possible.
team.dfb.de: In London you and your family wanted to assimilate and participate socially outside Arsenal and not just be closed off. How has that been going so far?
Mertesacker: We have completely assimilated in London. My family feels very good and we were ready to embrace England. For us it was always clear that we would not just hide away.
team.dfb.de: During the Olympics you and a few others attended the Beach volley ball games. Did you really take the subway to get there?
Mertesacker: Of course. It is simply the best way to get around in London. It is either too long or complicated with a car or Taxi. When you want to go into the city you are almost guaranteed to be stuck in traffic. That’s where the subway is the most efficient alternative.
team.dfb.de: And the Londoners leave you alone?
Mertesacker: Completely. The Londoners are very relaxed. There are so many stars that are more interesting than a footballer from Germany. The people are busy enough in the subway to even notice that a footballer is on board with them.
team.dfb.de: The start to the season with Arsenal has been very good, especially compared to last season and particularly defensively speaking. When you played there have been only two goals conceded in the last six matches, a penalty and a goalkeeping error. You have done quite well…
Mertesacker: I went into the summer break without an injury and had a great opportunity to train very hard as a result. It helped me to focus completely on the start of the season and to get fit in time.
team.dfb.de: You have received great reviews after almost every game, especially after the 1-1 at Manchester City. Everything seemed to go well for you at Arsenal and then coach Wenger benched you in the game against Chelsea. Considering it was also your birthday, how disappointed were you?
Mertesacker: The coach already said beforehand that we do not only have two good center backs and that he will rotate frequently during the course of the season. For me it was naturally disappointing because my entire family traveled from Germany. But Wenger spoke to me, it was ok. It also gave me a chance to celebrate my birthday more extensively.
team.dfb.de: At Arsenal you play at center back most frequently alongside Thomas Vermaelen, in the National Team most recently with Holger Badstuber. What similarities and differences can you draw between the two situations and partners?
Mertesacker: Naturally there are ways in which the two individuals differ but generally speaking the defensive strategies of both teams are quite similar. When it comes to how the defenders start the build up play from the back both Arsenal and the National Team have similar philosophies.
team.dfb.de: The National Team is back in Berlin and also back in the Schlosshotel in Grunewald. Here is where the Summer fairytale of 2006 took place. What memories did it bring back when you arrived at the Hotel last night?
Mertesacker: I can’t think of anything specific. The memories are still fresh however and the impressions very clear. I can barely believe that it is already six years ago. The time here was very intense. Germany hosted a fantastic World Cup and we played our part even though we would have preferred to celebrate winning the whole thing.
team.dfb.de: Alongside you there are only four players in the squad that were there in 2006. Can you name them quickly off the top of your head?
Mertesacker: Let’s see..Philipp, Bastian, Lukas. One is missing. And Miro of course!
team.dfb.de: Do you find that five players remaining is a lot or very little?
Mertesacker: Football develops very quickly and six years is a long time. Us five can be very proud in any case that we are still here.
team.dfb.de: On Tuesday in the Olympiastadion you will face Sweden. We have already talked about Ibrahimovic. What else do you have to watch out for against Sweden?
Mertesacker: We have always gotten good results against Sweden because everyone always puts in a good performance from us. And that is also necessary against Sweden. The Swedes continually qualify for big tournaments, last being the EUROs of course and that is not always because of Ibrahimovic. Sweden has a good team overall. They have some players who have already proven themselves at the international level and if we underestimate them it will be very dangerous. But we won’t make that mistake.
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