Academy Manager, Arsenal, 2018–
Arsène Wenger didn’t need to convince me to come to Arsenal Football Club.
I knew about the history of the club and the passion of the fans, and I wanted to be part of that as soon as I knew he was interested.
But then, to have him on the phone, talking to me in German and demanding I join and play a role – a leadership role – under him, there was no question at all that I was going to go.
That conversation just confirmed so much I already knew about him and his charisma. But then, over the years I was at Arsenal playing under Arsène, I got to know just how great a person and a manager he was.
The whole time I was there as a player, he was the club’s rock. Whatever happened in training, on or off the pitch, you felt his incredible presence.
He had such resilience. Part of my time as an Arsenal player coincided with a slightly tougher period in Arsène’s career, but he never made it about himself.
Whenever we lost – I remember one 5-1 defeat at Liverpool in 2014, for example – in private he was clear to us that we needed to be better. He’d be quite open about that and give us specific things to improve and work on.
"To have a coach who really trusts you in those moments of failure gave me so much confidence"
Towards the press and the outside world, though, he took the blame. He protected the team, and by doing that he created an environment where we saw him suffer for us. It made us want to do more; to pay him back and try to find a way to give him what he deserved. We wanted to fight for him like he fought for us.
There were many times when he showed me how special he was as a manager, but two stand out – one from either end of my time playing under him.
In my first year at Arsenal, I was struggling with the speed, the quality and the physicality of the game in England. It was just the next level. I’d never experienced anything like it before. I also had some challenges with the language, too; I wasn’t so good at English in school.
I made quite a few mistakes on the pitch. But that was no problem for Arsène. He saw it as an opportunity.
He encouraged me to learn from my mistakes; to be intelligent in how I faced them to help me go to the next level. To have a coach who really trusts you in those moments of failure gave me so much confidence. That has really stuck with me today – a mentor or coach who stuck by me in difficult moments.
And then, towards the end of my career, I was injured and wasn’t playing very much. I wasn’t in the team, so I decided I wanted to disappear. I wanted to go on holiday and get away from football.
"he has been immense for me, both as a coach and as a mentor"
It was five weeks before the end of the 2016/17 season, and an FA Cup final that my teammates had got us to.
“I’m not valuable to the team at the moment,” I said to him. “I want to get away for a bit.”
“Listen, you are so valuable to the team, and you never know what might happen,” he said to me. “Keep doing what you are doing. You are the captain of this football club. We need you every single day, and the team benefits from you just being here.”
Then, all of a sudden we were hit with a load of injuries and suspensions. A few weeks later, I had to come on in the last league game of the season. One week after that, I started as captain in the FA Cup final against Chelsea.
I played the whole game, and we won 2-1.
These are the moments that really defined our relationship, and how much I benefited from Arsène then – and to this day – from his leadership and his skill as a manager. I’m fortunate to be able to call on these experiences as a coach myself now. I can live through those moments again, and see immediately how important it is to have a trusted leader.
"work ethic was what got me to the level I got to as a player. I’ve taken that into my coaching"
My time at Arsenal wasn’t the best time in the club’s history, but it’s easy to almost forget the credit Arsène deserves for securing Champions League football every season. With the big six, it’s really difficult to do that, but he did it year after year. And we won three FA Cups in four years, too.
He has been immense for the club and he has been immense for me, both as a coach and as a mentor. He was also the reason I went straight from playing into coaching.
Of course, he also saw me on the training ground for seven years, and he spotted something in me.
In my final year as a player at the club, the academy manager’s job was coming up. Arsène asked if I’d be interested in staying at the club to take on that role.
I took a couple of weeks to think about where I saw my future with my family, and we decided we wanted to stay. So, I decided to take this next step on my journey.
I was 33, so still fairly young, but I was ready to close the chapter of professional football after 15 years and enter the world of coaching with someone who trusted me, and who I trusted totally. A leader, a mentor, to help me to challenge the next generation. I think that was his plan. And he’d seen me on a daily basis for all these years, so I think that was why he picked me out.
"success to us can’t just mean players on the pitch at the Emirates. Not every player can be a Bukayo Saka"
He knew that I would dive head-first into learning, because I was a rookie – and I would still class myself as a rookie! – with the mindset of a young academy manager who needed to learn; who needs to work to improve every day.
So, I also have Arsène to thank today for my job as Arsenal’s head of academy.
I have always been hard-working, though. If you don’t have the biggest talent – which I didn’t as a player – you have to have other skills that set you apart from others. I had to do that as a player, and that work ethic was what got me to the level I got to. I’ve taken that into my coaching. When I was a player at Arsenal, and now as a coach at Arsenal, I think of every day as an interview. Every day I have to show my consistency to earn something at the end of it – whether that’s a job, a good reputation, a good contact or network, anything. That’s how I perceive it.
Yes, I had 15 years as a player, but I am defined by my actions on a daily basis. I only ever thought the fact that I won the World Cup as a player with Germany, for example, gave me credibility for two years. Of course, my job is linked to football and what I have done previously, but I wouldn’t have been the footballer I became without my personality and my values.
I work hard on myself to be the best academy manager I can be. It’s a job I’ve never done before, so I have to work hard at it. No matter what you’ve done in the past, you have to prove your quality and your consistency all the time. That sets the standard for others at the club, too.
I want to help inspire the next generation of Arsenal players and coaches. But success to us can’t just mean players on the pitch at the Emirates. Not every player can be a Bukayo Saka. We have to define success more broadly than that.
"We can make this the best coaching academy team in the world"
There are only 4,000 places for professional footballers in England. What about the rest? We need to prepare them to rise to any challenge in life, in football or outside the game. We want to produce the best possible people as well as players. I’m really passionate about that, because we have a responsibility for these young people.
As for the coaches, we make sure to stay ahead of ourselves with good succession planning throughout all the age phases. We have amazing coaches who are all looking for that next little step when a window of opportunity opens – and we always support them with that, because we know we have a plan in place. Hopefully everyone feels like they can progress here, and I’m really proud of the positive environment we have created.
On the occasions when we feel we don’t have anyone to step into a role, we look externally, and we work very hard to make sure we bring in the right people in terms of personality. Of course, there is a certain threshold of skills and ability for anyone coming into our academy, but personality and being a good person are at the forefront of what we do. That’s what we look for in our coaches.
The framework at Arsenal – the Arsenal playing style, the Arsenal culture – is already here. We feel very comfortable that if we get the personality fit right and the foundations are there in terms of the coach’s skills, we can support and challenge these coaches to be the best they can be. If they have a north star, a development action plan, we can help them achieve what they want to achieve.
We can make this the best coaching academy team in the world. That’s our ambition. Discipline, humility and respect can help us achieve that.
Being at a club like Arsenal, we are lucky to have great people around us, and I am fortunate to be able to talk to Mikel Arteta regularly. We’ve known each other a long time now, and we try to catch up on a weekly basis.
"I stepped back into the first-team environment for three weeks, and I was actually a bit overwhelmed by it"
Back when we were players together – we were captain and vice-captain at Arsenal – he was always trying to find ways to make us better. Obviously, at the time I didn’t really think about whether he’d make a good coach. Looking back, though, he was always thinking about the processes; always trying to problem-solve and improve the team. It’s no coincidence he has the club on such an upward trajectory.
Because we are so close, we can have very open and honest conversations. We trust each other and can get stuff off our chests. I can genuinely say I can do that with him. He can do that with me, too, and he knows that.
Speaking to people around you is so important, so we make sure to keep doing it. Having mentors – like I had with Arsène – is so important. Having people around you who you can express yourself to and get things off your chest to is crucially important. I would recommend to everyone reading this to have people close by who you can speak honestly to. You might not like doing it sometimes, but it’s super-important.
Obviously, Mikel’s main target is getting us back to winning trophies as quickly as he can, and he is intense in how he works to achieve that. But the first-team environment just isn’t for me.
I’m really happy where I am. After Unai Emery left and Freddie Ljungberg took over, I stepped back into the first-team environment for three weeks. It was actually a bit overwhelming going back into the day-to-day, weekends and judgement of it all.
I had it for 15 years as a player, and it was intense physically and mentally. I was more than happy to go back to academy management afterwards.
This is the place where I want to be.
Watch our exclusive on-the-grass coaching session with Arsenal Academy coach Josh Hinckson here!
Author: The Coaches' Voice