Mertesacker: Scholar decisions can miss 'sweet spot of development'
Written by Simon Austin — March 12, 2022
ARSENAL Academy Manager Per Mertesacker says there is a risk of clubs missing out on a ‘sweet spot of development’ by making scholarship decisions on players at Under-16s.
When Academy players have completed their GCSEs, in Year 11, they can either be offered a scholarship by their club or else released.
Mertesacker, who won 104 international caps for Germany and the 2014 World Cup, said this would likely have meant him dropping out of Hannover’s Academy as a 16-year-old.
At the ages of 15 and 16 he was injured for a year because of a rapid growth spurt, meaning he fell far behind his contemporaries. However, the former defender was able to play on and made his first-team debut for the club at the age of 19.
Speaking at TGG’s Youth Development Webinar, Mertesacker said: “Nowadays, if I would compare that to England, if you were out for a year with a growth spurt, it would be fairly difficult to stay in an Academy. Decisions - on registration, scholarship - there are deadlines on those and if you are not fit at that moment in time it can be difficult to get to the next stage.
“I would think the system in Germany helped me to grow in my time and not necessarily just what the system allows here. Sometimes, to make scholarship decisions at U16, I feel we are missing half a year or a year of that sweet spot of development.
“Where you see someone is stagnating and someone is developing. A little bit more time would help to make better decisions at that stage. Two years later, that’s the sweet spot. When I then played as a 17-and-a-half year-old there was a moment in the training game when I thought, ‘I can keep up, this is my chance now and I can grab it.’
“Two years ago these players were much faster, now I’m on the same level and can really excel.”
Mertesacker, who has been Arsenal’s Academy Manager since 2018, said these early setbacks helped him become a better player.
“I had many setbacks in my youth time at Hannover when I was written off, when I was injured, never the best player, a lot of silver medals, but it really really helped me when the crunch time started.
“My best talent was coping with that and being able to grab an opportunity when it came along and really mattered. Once I hit 17, 18, and stepped on the field… being on my 'A game'.
“That champion mentality I got from my dad telling me, ‘You’ll never make it’ and my mum saying, ‘This is your hobby, do your school.’”
The German, 37, said that doing the German equivalent of A Levels was also helpful. Players do carry on academic studies during their scholarship years in England, but this tends to be at BTEC level, with football the main focus.
“I used to go to school until I was 18, in the morning,” Mertesacker said. “I would never, as a 16-year-old, like in England, come in in the morning to have a training session.
“It gave me time, because I was a late bloomer. I was brought up in a very calm way and I think that helped me.”
Ralf Rangnick, who was Hannover’s Head Coach at the time, emphasised this academic focus too.
“He was the same guy who went with me to my school and said, ‘Per’s a really good footballer, but he’ll finish his A Levels,’” Mertesacker remembered. “He really cared for a young guy who made a couple of minor mistakes but were crucial in the way forward. I finished my A Levels, put in my all, and then started my career.”
Arsenal emphasise their players being ‘lifelong learners’, Mertesacker said, and that is exemplified by 20-year-old England international Bukayo Saka.
“He always put education first and epitomised what we think a lifelong learner is,” Mertesacker said. “Having a thirst for personal development is crucial for us.
“He has made himself a better player because he’s a better person, a better student. And he will continue to go on that journey, he’s not someone to think this is me done.
"The club is in a position where we trust the youth, from the Academy and Europe, so you see a change in mentality throughout the whole club. The trust in the Academy and from the people who develop our players is here.”
During the Youth Development Webinar, Mertesacker outlined Arsenal Academy’s overall vision of creating ‘Strong Young Gunners’, which U18s coach Dan Micciche also discussed on Episode #21 of the TGG Podcast.
“I think it was formulated four years ago, in my last season as a player (2017/18),” Mertesacker said. “I came up with a framework of what I believe, from my own experience and also by talking to people.
“Strong Young Gunners means this is our vision where we want our players to stand strong in every scenario they will face. We are passionate about creating youngsters who can rise to any challenge and we have a rich history and heritage we want to pay tribute to and carry on.
“We want to make a difference and measure it; we want to create certain pillars and standards in our environment that are important to us.”
The German also talked about the importance of analysis within the Academy.
“We have cameras around our pitches at Hale End and Colney, to make sure we clip training, games,” he said.
“We have Hudl where we clip our games and training and we want our players to comment on clips and sessions. This will give more a platform where we can rewatch and to be a student of the game, that’s what we talk about. It’s of interest for the players in terms of reviewing, getting detail.
"Our U15s can watch the training or a game of the U23s, they then relate to the players above, what do they do, how do they play.”
And Mertesacker emphasised something that TGG has reported on a lot in the last couple of years - how a hybrid role of analyst-coach is now becoming more prevalent.
“In the last couple of years the analyst has grown into almost like an assistant coach position, whether it is presentations about Academy leadership, presentations to the players, to units; reviewing games and training; speaking to the players before training to make a point.
“The analyst has been a revelation in the last couple of years in terms of the working relationship with the coaches, which has become closer and closer. Our analysts, yes they clip, but sometimes even they step on the pitch, so they need to have a tactical understanding, big time.
"The modern analyst will need to develop themselves into almost an assistant coach to work at the highest level.”