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After 104 caps and a FIFA World Cup winners' medal, Germany centre-back Per Mertesacker chose, along with his team-mates Philipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose, to retire from international football.
Germany's loss, though, is Arsenal FC's gain as they aim for a long run in this season's UEFA Champions League. In an exclusive interview, Mertesacker – who turned 30 in the summer – tells Champions Matchday that the Gunners still have much to do, but the summer arrival of such attacking talents as Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sánchez has given him much cause for optimism.
How hard was it to readjust to club football after the FIFA World Cup? And why did you decide to retire from the international game
Per Mertesacker: First, it was a fantastic summer for the whole of Germany. We brought the country the long-awaited title, which was very special. It was not an easy decision to retire and not play for Germany any more, but after ten years I wanted to make space for the younger generation and let them grow. Now I want to focus fully on my club and there are many tasks awaiting me.
You are now in your fourth season at Arsenal. How attached are you to the club?
Mertesacker: It is a lot of fun here in England and at Arsenal. Every year I have experienced something special, from the start, where it was difficult to adapt and perform well, up to the win in the FA Cup last season. It has been a very special time, and we want to build on that.
How do you assess the balance and quality in the squad this season?
Mertesacker: [It's] very good. We have a great team that has been improving slowly, but that takes time. If you want to make it into the top four in the league you have to play consistently well, and you need to get everything out of the team. We have lost only a few players over the last few years, and we've added a lot of good players.
We needed some time this season, but after the World Cup campaign everyone is now on board again. We have also had some injured players, but we are confident the team will continue to improve.
Arsenal strengthened in the summer, bringing in among others Alexis Sánchez and Danny Welbeck. What have they brought to the team?
Mertesacker: Danny Welbeck is very fast and clinical, and we desperately needed that. We need his goals so we can win important matches.
And the same applies to Alexis Sánchez, who has a great understanding of the game. He came from Barcelona and he's brought a lot to the team. He is very dangerous in front of goal. When new players arrive it takes some time for them to adapt and get used to the way Arsenal want to play. But we are happy to have both of these players.
As an experienced member of the team, how important is it to help other players, on and off the pitch?
Mertesacker: It is an important duty at Arsenal for the experienced players to show the younger ones that there is a chance to make it into the first team. And secondly, it's important for everyone to take on responsibility, even at a young age. We have a lot of players with a lot of experience who are brave and confident [enough] to take on responsibilities.
How important is communication in your position? And which player do you talk to most on the pitch?
Mertesacker: Well, you try to talk to the whole team, but of course it's difficult to communicate a lot with the forwards because of the noise in the stadium. So mostly you talk to your team-mates to the left, to the right and immediately in front of you. You help them to anticipate and read situations correctly – but you also try to support and help the attacking players with your movements and gestures.
Is being able to read the game essential for a centre-back these days?
Mertesacker: You have to work hard for that, of course, and get a lot of experience. You think about how things will be, how your opponent will play. You can achieve a lot with experience.
I was talented at a young age, but I still had to grow and develop further. That is important – it doesn't just depend on the talent you have.
Are traditional positions now being blurred? A goalkeeper like Manuel Neuer is almost like a defender, full-backs act as wingers …
Mertesacker: Teams are becoming better organised and prepared tactically. You need a special and fast style of play and you also need to adapt certain positions to really break through the lines. That means the goalkeeper needs to be involved in helping to make the game fast, and you can push your centre-backs and the wing-backs high to press your opponent.
Do you think centre-backs these days are expected to be more comfortable on the ball?
Mertesacker: Yes, definitely. It is an important part of the role of a centre-back to focus on building up the game and initiating moves.
Nowadays you can't just play long balls and then move forward; it's important to play good passes and balls from the back, to build up and initiate play. You need pace in your passing and you need to be at a technically high level to pass it on quickly. Your time on the ball is a lot shorter, so you need to develop technically for that, too.
Who has been your toughest opponent?
If I think back to the [UEFA EURO 2008] final against Spain, it was Fernando Torres. I would name him for that time. But you face a new challenge every week in the Premier League, playing against strong opponents, and that's what you have to prepare for. But I enjoy that.
Do you feel that centre-backs get the praise they deserve?
Today it is important to have a good group of players – and that includes the strikers, who are the stars when they score goals. But if you do a good job as a centre-back you are praised and get the recognition and respect you deserve.
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