Human Performance, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Dec 7, 2016
Per Mertesacker on leading in the English Premier League.

Per Mertesacker has taken to captaincy with all the assurance of a World Cup winner. The Arsenal FC captain and defender, who won soccer’s biggest prize with Germany in 2014 – making his 104th and final international appearance in the final – has become Arsenal’s most prominent leader during his five seasons at the English Premier League club. He is Manager Arsène Wenger’s trusted voice both on the pitch and in the dressing room and his return to action following a lengthy injury absence is eagerly awaited by the Frenchman.

Wenger signed Mertesacker in August 2011 when he felt his team needed an additional dose of calm and committed leadership to stabilise after difficult start to the 2011/12 season. The prolonged, injury-enforced absences of former club captain Mikel Arteta meant that vice-captain Mertesacker has been called upon to step up on multiple occasions and he assumed the role full-time ahead of the 2016/17 Premier League season.

With the confidence of his manager, he quickly established his ability to lead a talented, multinational team by engendering their trust and leading by example.

Arsène Wenger’s on-field voice

Beyond adding defensive resilience to his squad, Wenger wanted Mertesacker for his ability to be his voice on the pitch. “It’s really important for me as captain to be his first voice on the pitch, to be his most vocal player,” Mertesacker, speaking at a Leaders Sports Performance Summit, says. “He wants me to be vocal and lead the team no matter what happens on the pitch.”

How did Wenger begin that process? “When he first spoke to me, I was not actually his player yet,” he says. “He showed off his German skills and I was really impressed when he said: ‘I want you to have leadership skills.’ At the time I didn’t exactly know what that meant but the first thought that came was that I’d stick to my qualities. After that phone call I already had that feeling he would trust me no matter what happens and that is vital for the relationship between a player and manager.”

I already had that feeling Wenger would trust me no matter what happens and that is vital for the relationship between a player and manager.

That confidence has been reinforced through regular conversation between the two. “I struggled a bit in my first season and there were mistakes but he told me: ‘You need to learn and you need to be intelligent, but I believe in you and I believe you are intelligent.’ I was a bit of a panic buy after Arsenal lost 8-2 to Manchester United [in August 2011] but the way he approached things, in a calm way, that’s what comes to my mind when I think of the manager in difficult situations. That’s something I’ve learnt from him.”

Handling the dressing room

The Arsenal squad is made up of disparate cultures and personalities, which require astute handling. Mertesacker excels in this manner: “You can’t treat everybody the same, you need to figure out how to handle different players at different moments,” he says. “If a player loses his concentration in training you have to find a way to pull him back. You let a player be himself and then find ways to get to him when you think it is an appropriate moment to intervene. You keep him with the team because team spirit and tolerance are important.”

What aids Mertesacker in these processes? “Communication is a huge part of it. As a leader you have to be a genuine character. I stick with this attitude all the way through and I’m not going to fake it or do something else. That’s how I am used to doing it.”

He has earned the players’ trust and will speak to the manager on their behalf. “I’m always going to protect the dressing room. That’s really important – some things going on in the dressing room are not for the attention of the manager and he’s never asked but if there’s an issue with a player I will certainly talk to him. He has a good sense for these things and that’s very important for the players.”



Handling adversity

Mertesacker’s approach to handling adversity is to stick to his performance values and behaviours at those critical moments. “I played just 45 minutes on my Bundesliga debut for Hannover in 2003 and was substituted at half time. I played at right-back, which is not my position, and was exhausted. I didn’t play again for half a year.

“We won the game and everyone was happy but for me personally it was pretty horrible and afterwards I went back to the reserve team and I tried to go step by step to get some confidence back. I figured out how to do this myself. I’ve learned more about myself in difficult periods and also found out that I can cope and come back stronger. My motivation was even higher to come back and play an important role.”

His return journey led to the World Cup and Mertesacker demonstrates that with clear communication and setting consistent examples a captain can earn the trust and respect of their teammates and reward the faith of their manager.

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