Die Abwehrlatte, the BFG, the Nationalmannschaft's Tenth Centurion: Per Mertesacker

Franz Beckenbauer. Lothar Matthäus. Jürgen Klinsmann. Jürgen Kohler. Thomas Häßler. Miroslav Klose. Lukas Podolski. Philipp Lahm. Bastian Schweinsteiger. A mix of legends and, potentially, legends-in-waiting. Nine names to have graced the Nationalmannschaft. But can you guess who comes next in this list of illustrious names? You may be surprised. Unmissable yet unassuming, high-profile yet free from hype. A player who, unlike many of his contemporaries, has done most of his work behind the scenes and out of the bright public glare.

The current German squad out in Brazil contains four men who have made a hundred or more appearances in the Nationatrikot. Leading the way is Klose, the Nationalmannschaft’s all-time record goalscorer. Then we have Podolski, who sits join third on the goalscorers’ list. The small but larger than life skipper Lahm. The beating heart of the squad, Schweinsteiger.

From Saturday and the second group game against Ghana this four will become five, for joining their ranks will be centre-back Per Mertesacker – the Mannschaft’s tenth centurion. A man once known as die Abwehrlatte (“the goalpost”) in Germany on account of his tall and lanky frame and now affectionately known as the “Big F*cking German” in England for his current club Arsenal, Mertesacker has quietly gone about his business, reaching this heralded milestone with minimum fuss.

In fact, he probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mr. Clean

Born in Hannover at the end of September 1984, Mertesacker would play at local side TSV Pattensen von 1890 as a child before joining the youth system at Hannover 96 at the age of eleven. Moving up the ranks and eventually into the first team, the tall defender became a much-loved figure at the AWD-Arena. His height and strength complemented his excellent positional sense, and his accurate and efficient tackling soon earned him the reputation as the Bundesliga’s Mr. Clean.

As with all players of his height and build Mertesacker was not the fastest around. At times he could be considered ungainly, but the 1.98, (6’6″) defender continued to enhance his reputation. A call-up to the Under-20 and Under-21 side at national level followed, and at the tender age of twenty he was named in the senior squad for the first time.

On October 9th 2004, just ten days after his twentieth birthday, Mertesacker made his full debut against Iran in Teheran. He was on the pitch for just nine minutes as a replacement for the thirty-two year old Christian Wörns, but as part of the new generation of young German players he was part of a gradual transition then taking place under coach Jürgen Klinsmann. Within a year of his international bow Mertesacker had become part of a core of young players, a group who would form Klinsmann’s vision for the upcoming 2006 World Cup in Germany.

The twenty year old Mertesacker on his international debut against Iran

Merte and Metze

Having established himself in the international setup Mertesacker quickly formed a solid central defensive partnership with another promising youngster in Christoph Metzelder, and the pair would prove to be a vital cog in the Nationalmannschaft’s success in 2006. Although he was an unwitting participant in the post-match fracas that took place after the quarter-final victory against Argentina, the Sommermärchen of 2006 crowned a highly successful season for die Abwehrlatte, one that saw him leave the comforts of his home city club for greater challenges with perennial title-chasers SV Werder Bremen.

As had been the case at Hannover, Mertesacker would fit seamlessly into the setup at the Weserstadion, and in the Nationaltrikot his upward curve also continued. Along with Metzelder, Mertesacker would play an ever-present fixture in the side that progressed to the European Championship final in 2008 under new coach Jogi Löw.

The injury to Metzelder and his subsequent retirement from international football brought a sudden closure to the solid defensive partnership that had been a central plank of the team for more than two years, but in Arne Friedrich Mertesacker would form yet another effective partnership. When a very young German squad travelled to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 Mertesacker was one of the senior pros, and was again one of the team’s rocks. Seemingly resistant to fatigue, he played every minute of Germany’s games as they achieved yet another third-place finish.

Mertesacker had been a consistent fixture in Jogi Löw’s team for over seven years, and the combination of his clean play, quiet demeanour and professional dedication would see him make a lucrative move across the North Sea to English Premier League side Arsenal in 2011. Almost immediately he became a fan favourite, though at first he thought that the repeated shout of “Big F*cking German” from the crowd at Ashburton Grove was an insult. Happy in the knowledge that this was not the case, he quickly embraced his new nickname.

Mertesacker’s first Arsenal team photo session in September 2011

Injury struggles

Mertesacker’s career had followed an almost unbroken upward curve since his first break into the national side in 2004, but the beginning of 2012 saw the beginning of what was the first genuinely bad patch in his career. An ankle injury hampered both his domestic form and preparations for the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament, and in his attempt to recover there were a number of patchy displays.

Both Mertesacker’s form and the retirement through injury of former defensive partner Friedrich provided the Nationalmannschaft with their biggest defensive crisis for years, and as the tournament in Poland and Ukraine approached things were not looking promising for the recovering Arsenal defender. A horrific display against Switzerland where Germany suffered an embarrassing 5-3 defeat called Mertesacker’s place into question, and although he was included in the squad of twenty-three he failed to make the starting lineup in an international tournament for the first time in six years.

For many observers Mertesacker was on his way out, with young guns Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng and Holger Badstuber providing the vanguard for a new generation. But football can sometimes take strange turns, and “Merte” continued to fight had to bring himself back to the form that had made him a mainstay of the defence. A serious injury to FC Bayern München starlet Badstuber and some shaky displays from Hummels opened the door once again for Mertesacker, and as the coach continued to tinker with the back four the big defender slowly worked his way back into the reckoning.

If 2012 had been disappointing, 2013 saw the start of a resurgence for Mertesacker. Clearly trusted by the coach – if not by a number of fans who continued to doubt his form and fitness – Mertesacker remained in the centre of the defence as those around him were chopped and changed. In the early part of 2013 he started alongside a number of different central defensive partners including Hummels, Boateng, Benedikt Höwedes and Heiko Westermann – and the friendly against Ecuador in Boca Raton in June would see him wear the captain’s armband for the first time.

Combined with strong domestic form that saw him as the anchor of the Arsenal defence, Mertesacker would bring the year to a pleasant close by scoring the only goal in the Mannschaft’s 1-0 friendly triumph over England at Wembley in November. Towering above the English defence to head home the winner, his path back to complete rehabilitation was almost complete.

Skipper Mertesacker celebrates his winner against England at Wembley

Having answered his critics in the best way possible, Mertesacker had successfully reclaimed his position in the centre of the German defence, a situation that was massively improved by the shift of skipper Lahm into the midfield and Boateng out to right back. As the team made their final preparations for the World Cup finals in Brazil, the new central defensive partnership of the tactically astute Mertesacker and the gifted Hummels looked more solid than ever.

A solid display in the opening World Cup game against Portugal would take Mertesacker up to ninety-nine caps, though nobody would have known it. Likewise, he will no doubt make his one-hundredth appearance with minimal fanfare. A quiet, well-mannered man who has efficiently gone about his business on the football field, Mertesacker has done plenty off it as well. A footballer’s footballer who has never attracted media attention for the wrong reasons, much of his spare time is devoted to charitable work. He can also occasionally be seen on ESPN UK as a pundit, where he provides intelligent and thoughtful insights – in his second language.

Per Mertesacker, the thinking man’s footballer

Many have spoken about the likes of Lahm and Schweinsteiger moving onwards an upwards within the game’s hierarchy after they retire from active service on the pitch, but I will say this: watch out for the quiet, lanky man carefully making his way along the rails. Watch out for the Big F*cking German.

Die Abwehrlatte, the BFG, the Nationalmannschaft’s Tenth Centurion: Per Mertesacker

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