Shkodran Mustafi admits he’s endured a season of peaks and troughs but hopes that the campaign will end with Europa League silverware so that Arsene Wenger can go out on a high.
In a wide-ranging interview with the print edition of German publication Kicker, the World Cup winner reflects on his form, the integration of new boy Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the news that the boss is leaving and his take on Per Mertesacker’s recent revelations.
Thanks to @LGAmbrose for his nifty translation.
You turned 26 last week. What does a Premier League footballer and world champion with a healthy family wish for?
You’ve said it yourself: my wish that we’re healthy is already fulfilled, but it was incredible that I could celebrate my birthday at home with everyone – including my parents – for the first time in 12 years. Our schedule meant that could happen.
People can see on social media how important family is to you. You say your baby daughter is your biggest motivation. Are you worried that one day you have to ‘confess’ to her that you haven’t achieved enough despite that motivation?
I’ll only have a problem if I ever tell you that I haven’t given or tried everything. I always give my all.
Eventually, you’ll want to teach her about honesty. How do you think of that in relation to football, where you can’t always take everything at face value?
A very tricky subject, even in football. I aspire to be open and honest. Also on the pitch, where it’s a bit easier for a defender than a forward, where there’s a temptation to dive.
You also aspire to be ‘a good person’. What can you use to define that?
I don’t set any rules. I just try to be myself, not to hurt anyone, not to act with ulterior motives. Talk to others directly and not about them.
Last week, in the 2-1 defeat to Newcastle, you didn’t exactly look good for their equaliser. Do you receive criticism which is then often too personal?
I don’t pay much attention to it as long as it’s not necessary. I’m my biggest critic. It just so happens that people prefer to talk about the negatives.
The negatives can pile incredible pressure on players, Per Mertesacker spoke about that in an incredible way. As a close team-mate had you heard any of these things from him before – had he opened up to you?
Nope. It was very honest of him. Such an interview could backfire and he deserves a lot of respect.
How could he hide it for so long?
He found his way (to cope). And that’s completely fine. I can understand him. Everyone handles the pressure differently.
How do you feel about pressure? How do you channel it before a game or on the pitch?
I always have a film playing in my mind’s eye. It can be moments from previous games or imagining challenges for the ball. Whatever it is, it helps me completely concentrate on the game.
And you pray on the pitch.
Yes, the prayer is my most private moment.
In front of 60,000 fans and millions on TV?
I know what you mean. But yes, it really is. I blank everything out. The pressure, the crowd. Then I’m at peace.
Mertesacker received a lot of applause but also a lot of critics (for his interview) because people say there’s pressure in every profession. Some say it has to be endured because of how much footballers earn.
I don’t see it that way. Everyone’s human, no matter what they do for a living. There should be an understanding for any frailty that a person feels no matter how much they earn.
Does Arsene Wenger help players when they’re in such a situation?
I can’t really say as I’ve not been here that long and not felt the need for that help. But obviously Arsenal have a top team of psychologists that everyone can turn to.
Arsenal have also had a top manager for many years, but Wenger will leave at the end of the season. What does that mean for you, for the team, and for the last few games?
Arsene Wenger has achieved an unbelievable amount with Arsenal, the club is incredibly grateful. 22 years – nowadays in football that’s pretty much unique. An era is ending. I’m extremely grateful that he has believed in me and wanted to bring me here. We obviously want to give him the farewell he deserves. Best case scenario: that will include a trophy.
You can do that in the Europa League, where you face Atlético Madrid in the semi-final. Is it easier to beat them over two games than in a final?
I’ve asked myself that.
And the answer?
I didn’t find one! All I know is we want to win the Europa League. We have to beat them and I think we can set a great foundation at home to finish the job in the second leg.
Even if you don’t win it and thus miss the Champions League, do you think players like Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can help attract good new players?
Yes, that was no different when I joined from Valencia, even though we were still in the Champions League. Auba with his goals, Mesut and his assists, plus Mkhitaryan and Lacazette – when you have players like that, everyone wants to play with them.
On that topic: we don’t need to talk about Aubameyang’s sporting ability but how is he in terms of team spirit? After he left Dortmund, which was his own choice, it seemed he’s on quite the ego trip?
For me he paints a very positive picture, he’s integrated into the team superbly, he’s a class guy who always gives his all.
After the Europa League final comes the World Cup. How do you rate your chances of going after you were left out of the last two friendlies?
I would love to be there. From now until the end of the season I’ll try to prove myself. Playing in the Europa League, against Atlético Madrid, is a chance to do that. I can see the recent exclusion from the squad as a good experience and it’s my aim to be in Russia.
You’re a world champion, you scored at the Euros, you won the Confederations Cup and you also won the u17 European Championships. How hard would it hit you, also long-term, not to make it?
It would obviously be a huge disappointment for me. But if it happens I won’t let my head go down and I’ll keep on working.
You say you are your own biggest critic. So would you say you don’t deserve to go if you aren’t called up for the World Cup?
My season has been a bit like Arsenal’s: peaks and troughs. Recently I’ve been performing.
Your contract runs to 2021 – do you see your long-term future at Arsenal?
I’m thankful to play for a club like this. I want to play where I’m happy and I am happy here. Especially as I almost always start when I’m fit.
You were also happy as a teenager when you joined Hamburg’s academy. Do you still have a connection to the club and do you feel close to their demise?
I spent three wonderful years there. I still follow them from afar. It’s a shame that such an historic club can’t make more out of its potential.
Your u17 Euros win in 2009 came during your time at Hamburg. Then you became a world champion, with Mario Götze, and Marc-André per Stegen has become a great goalkeeper. Do you ever think about your team-mates from back then who didn’t have the same development and have all but disappeared from football?
I’ve spoken about that a lot with my father. There are so many factors that play a role in your career. I know that I’ve been lucky but I also know I’ve worked very hard. Going from Everton to Sampdoria, I took a jump up to play in Serie A. Obviously sometimes I think about what would have happened had I not done that: would I be playing in the second flight somewhere? I don’t know. You need talent, industry, will and luck. With a good mix it all comes together.
Something else that’s mixed: people’s views of video technology. In England there will be another test phase in the cup, it will remain in the Bundesliga and it will be used at the World Cup. Are you for or against it?
I’m generally in favour because football can always be more right and more honest. But it doesn’t work if it takes three to four minutes for decisions. I think it was tested in the professional game too soon – it could have been allowed to mature in lower leagues first.