Arsenal interview: ‘Our confidence is rising’
Per Mertesacker is Gunning for a better second season at the Emirates
Per Mertesacker was probably glad West Ham weren’t in the Premier League last season.
After 90 minutes spent largely grappling with Andy Carroll and heading away crosses from his own six-yard box the big German looked shattered after Saturday’s win at Upton Park.
You sensed that if this game had been a year ago, when the new arrival from Werder Bremen was finding it tough to adapt to the English game, he would not have enjoyed the experience.
“When you know the Premier League after one year it’s much better and you feel more comfortable,” he admitted, before adding with a smile: “I have tried to develop my English too and communicate better at the back, and that helps a lot.”
Having arrived in August 2011 with more than 70 caps for Germany to his name, the expectations on Mertesacker were as lofty as the 6ft 7ins Hannover-born defender himself.
He doesn’t mind admitting that his debut season in north London did not really go as planned. Although he started 27 games in all competitions, an indifferent campaign was ended prematurely in February by an ankle injury.
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“For me personally I would like to have a better season, without injuries, that will make the difference in the end,” said the 28-year-old. “After the injury last season, missing the Euros was very disappointing for me.
“Last year we reached third place but it was difficult and we want to keep focusing on our defence. We have to develop our defensive line after last season when we conceded too many goals.
“We haven’t conceded a lot of goals in open play this season, mostly [we have conceded] from set pieces so we want to keep concentrated on our defensive level because it is crucial for our season.”
Concentration was certainly needed on Saturday, when Mertesacker was at the centre of a rearguard recovery that saw West Ham puncture Arsenal’s resistance once, but not again in the second half when they piled the pressure on with the score at 1-1.
“We saw at the start that this would be a tough game, we felt it in the air,” said Mertesacker, for whom this was a first visit to the partisan bearpit of Upton Park.
“We had to fight a lot, especially in the second half and especially in defence, and on the headers which was vital. “It’s always good to win in front of an international break.
“We have good confidence and we showed it. It was tough but we didn’t let ourselves down. We needed this win to come back after the defeat against Chelsea.”
The Chelsea defeat is the one cause of regret at the Emirates from what has proved a satisfying opening phase to the season, being the only blemish in 10 games in all competitions.
It was the only Premier League game Mertesacker has not started, with Wenger’s choice to partner Laurent Koscielny and skipper Thomas Vermaelen resulting in an aerial deficiency that was highlighted by Chelsea scoring both their goals from set pieces.
Although the German was suffering from a virus, he was fit enough to be on the bench but is philosophical about the decision from his manager.
“The manager told us before the season that we have a good number of centre-backs and that he is convinced it will make us stronger and stronger. We have a lot of good players, maybe two players for every position.
“We have quite good confidence now and our dressing room is full of good lads. We are looking forward to every game and all the subs who came on on Saturday were fantastic, so we can feel our confidence rising up.
“We showed our ability to win and come back from behind. We try to be our best and you can see it is coming and everybody appreciates it.”
Certainly, Arsenal fans are appreciating Mertesacker a lot more this season, as are his team-mates, but he is aware a good start will mean little if it is not maintained.
“After a win it is easy to be together,” he laughed. “But after the defeat [to Chelsea] we knew that we could come back in such a way, especially away from home.
“For the centre-backs we are delighted to play and see our improvement. It is crucial for us that the defence is helping to win games. We will try to keep that in our minds all season.”