North London derby: Per Mertesacker's minding the gap to Spurs
German defender knows all about local rivalry – and a certain rapid winger
Germany may have no city with two current Bundesliga clubs, but Per Mertesacker still knew all about the passions of derby days before joining Arsenal 18 months ago.
At Werder Bremen, where the lanky central defender spent five years, the players were well aware of the extra importance of meeting a team such as northern rivals Hamburg. "Those games were special for the fans and you could feel it around the dressing room, that something special was coming up at the weekend," he says in his excellent English.
One away defeat by Hamburg sticks in the mind: "I think it was 4-0 and when we came back to our stadium there were fans waiting to ask us how it was possible to lose like this. They stopped the bus and said they wanted to speak to the players. They just wanted just to know what did we feel about losing so badly to our main opponent, to get a response from the players. But it was a positive thing, we took something out of it."
It seems unlikely that there will be Gooners shivering outside the London Colney training ground this evening whatever the result of the north London set-to. Yet Mertesacker, like those foreign team-mates not brought up on the intensity of Arsenal-Tottenham struggles through the youth and reserve ranks, and living nearer Hampstead than the Seven Sisters Road, believes he understands the importance of tribal superiority.
He was, after all, thrown into a match at White Hart Lane for only his fourth League game after joining the club, collecting a rare yellow card in the 2-1 defeat inflicted by Kyle Walker's goal. Then there was a first goal in this season's 5-2 derby win at the Emirates.
"I feel it's more intensive when we speak about Arsenal v Tottenham," he said. Especially this year: "It is a special game and the League table makes it even more special. Last season I think they dropped 10 points [compared] to us in the second part of the season, but this season they look much stronger and more solid."
While attempting to avoid a Gareth Bale complex, as their manager had made clear earlier in the day by trying to avoid talking about him at all, Arsenal will be all too conscious of the damage he can do. "I watched the game against West Ham and it was unbelievable," Mertesacker said. "The late goal, he just made two steps to the left and smashed it into the goal. It seemed to be so easy for him.
"To stop him is difficult, but as a team we have to focus especially on him. And [Lewis] Holtby I know well from Schalke. He's one of the young players rising up at the moment, a good playmaker who can play decisive balls. Tottenham is not all just about Bale."
It is easy to forget that Arsenal have won four and drawn one of their past five League games, given the dejection that followed cup defeats by Blackburn Rovers and Bayern Munich. "Blackburn was a massive defeat for everyone, we were quite down because we really wanted to do well in the FA Cup. Bayern are so efficient at the moment and the first half for us was nearly like a learning session, but in the second half we had more self-confidence.
"They have a good [3-1] advantage for the second leg but if we have a good day next week and defend better, we still believe. Anything is possible. Sometimes in football you think you can drop five or 10 per cent and then you're going to lose."
Experienced German international or not, Mertesacker has not escaped criticism from fans and media, the worst of it coming after the game in which he was made captain for the first time, an FA Cup tie at Brighton. He retains the faith of Arsène Wenger, who had long had him down as a possible recruit before jumping in on the last day of the August 2011 transfer window after the 8-2 hum-iliation by Manchester United.
Even Wenger could not, however, have been tracking the 10-year-old who used to join family trips to visit an aunt in Plymouth. On one of those trips, Mertesacker recalls, his brother bought a Manchester United shirt, his father an Everton strip and the young Per "Arsenal, the red one with JVC on the front.
"So it was a kind of circle. I was in touch with Arsenal over the years and when they decided to get another defender, hopefully I was their first choice." And, he hopes, will remain so this derby day.
Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
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