Meet the real Shkodran Mustafi: Arsenal's rock at the back who's thriving under Wenger

The defender sat down with Goal's Arsenal correspondent Chris Wheatley to open up about life at the Gunners, why he chose Germany over Albania and how religion helps his football

EXCLUSIVE

Shkodran Mustafi is only 24 years old but speaks with the authority and maturity of a footballer 10 years his elder. The Germany international has taken to life at Arsenal with ease, and is yet to experience defeat since arriving from Valencia this summer.

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Mustafi is intelligent, grounded and opinionated and when quizzed about his childhood in Germany over lunch at his favourite north London restaurant, it becomes apparent that the way he was taught to enjoy football by his father has helped mould him into the player he is today.

"The place where I grew up [Bad Hersfeld] is a small city in the middle of Germany," Mustafi tells Goal. "The next big city is Frankfurt, which is one-and-a-half hours drive away. I grew up there with my brother, my cousins and all my family in the city, which was really nice.

"The main thing for me was that I had no pressure. My father played football himself because he liked it but you have a lot of fathers that say 'I never made it so my son has to make it'. I never had pressure - that was the good thing.

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"When I wanted new football boots, he bought me the football boots as long as it was financially possible because there were not always the greatest times. He tried to take me everywhere, to my games and for training, without any pressure. He never bought me new boots and then said 'you have to score 10 goals, otherwise I won't buy you them anymore'. I've seen parents put too much pressure on their kids and I think that takes the fun out and kills their career."

Mustafi, who was born in Germany to Albanian parents originally from Macedonia, speaks five languages and regularly visits his extended family in Albania when he can. Despite being approached to play for the Albanian national team, which he admits made him feel "special", Mustafi committed himself to Germany and became a world champion in 2014.

"It’s more about making a decision and sticking to it," says Mustafi of deciding his international allegiance. "I made the decision to play for Germany because this country gave me something and helped me during my youth.

"You have to be grateful you can live in a country that has good schools and hospitals and offers you the best opportunities to live the best way of life.

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"When I got a call from Albania I spoke to the coach but had already made my mind up. I felt special at that moment because my parents grew up there and I identify myself with that country as well, and always go to see my family from there, but for me there was no point to change [my mind]."

Capped over 60 times by Germany's youth sides, Mustafi has gained a wealth of experience before hitting age 25. Mustafi left Hamburg's academy for Everton's in 2009, but did not make a first-team appearance at Goodison Park. He went on to play in Italy for Sampdoria and Spain with Valencia, which helped him to understand contrasting footballing philosophies and tactics as well as maturing as a person by becoming independent and learning new languages.

"For me especially, [playing for the national team] helped me a lot because I went away from Germany when I was 17, to Everton, and it didn’t go as I expected," he reflects. "I expected to play more senior games and at a higher level, but then I found myself playing in the reserve team and it was not the highest quality of football so it was really important to play those international games.

"When it came to playing out from the back, it just got worse and worse [in England] so it helped me playing those [international] games to maintain the important things in football - playing out from the back, being confident on the ball and making things happen from the back. It gives you confidence, being an international player; it makes you feel special in some way."

Taking an interest in the tactical side of the game is not necessarily a given for today’s professional footballers, but Mustafi is a student of the game who prefers to analyse his own performances rather than watch others play. In Arsenal's recent Premier League game against Middlesbrough, only two players had more touches of the ball and he pressed so high up the pitch he spent much of the game in a midfield position.

The likes of Manchester City defender John Stones have received criticism for appearing to 'overplay' and risk conceding possession in dangerous positions, but Mustafi is a firm believer in the importance of centre-backs building the play.

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"There’s no overplaying anymore," says Mustafi. "I personally like the way John Stones plays because I think he’s a great defender. I think it is about playing, because when you don't have the ball you are the last block that can stop the ball and building up again you are the first block. Then the game continues with the creative player you have up front.

"Especially playing for Arsenal, you have to play because the game today demands you to play. Even the right-back, left-back and goalkeepers are now asked to play from the back. Big teams want goalkeepers who are not only good on the line but good with their feet as well.

"If you want to keep playing you have to have the quality to play out from the back. It gives the team so much quality because if you just tell the striker 'you have to get the ball from the goalkeeper and you have to make everything on your own', he’s going to say 'OK, I can do that for one or two games, but 40 games?'

"It’s going to be difficult. You have to give them a hand and we want them to give us a hand as well in defending because if everyone is running at the back four, you can stop a few attacks but at the end it’s going to be too much."

That improvement in technical quality and the building of attacks by teams across Europe has made Mustafi's job out of possession even more challenging.

"Football is so quick now, you have to make decisions quicker, play quicker, be faster and because you don’t have much time to make decisions, you have to be intelligent and read the game," he adds.

“Where could the next pass be? It becomes more and more important. That’s what we’re doing good at the moment, but sometimes you have to change the way you play because suddenly you don’t expect a team like Ludogorets, for example, to come to the Emirates and keep the ball. Obviously you have to react; you cannot just say 'we are at home, we have to press' and then you press and find yourself always running backwards.

"That’s the intelligence of football; to see when to be compact, when to counter-attack or, if you see that you’re in the opposite half, you try and win the ball. It's reading the game and getting a feeling what is the best thing to do right now. It becomes more and more important because the football is so quick and you have no time to make decisions."

Having already played in Serie A and La Liga, Mustafi is now playing in a third major European league. He is a staunch fan of the English game, but believes improvement is still needed if Premier League clubs are to compete with their modern continental rivals - especially tactically.

"I understand the English mentality and they are so strong mentally," he says. "Even if you are winning three or four-nil, the teams are not dead - they just score one and they become alive. This is something I really like about English football, that they just go on until the last minute.

"But I think the tactical aspect is also very important. Sometimes if you are better, even if you are mentally strong and have the better players and the better quality, tactics are something you have to work on.

"Tactics, for me, means having one idea throughout the whole team. If you look at Atletico Madrid a few years ago, no one cared about the team because they don’t have big players but then everyone knows their role on the pitch. You can have the best players in the world but if you don’t play as a team, you’re not going to win.

"Sometimes reading the game and being tactically clever on the pitch gives you less work to do on the pitch defensively, and then if you go in the offence you have more power to keep going and running at teams."

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Mustafi was fortunate enough to join friends at Arsenal in Per Mertesacker and Mesut Ozil, but there are certain things that his compatriots have not been able to help with as he adapts to life in north London.

"That’s the difficult part of changing a team," Mustafi explains. "Settling into the team is the easiest part because I knew Per, Mesut and a few others, but when you come to a different city, until you find a house and get settled... then every time you get settled in the house suddenly you realise 'I have no forks, I have no knives' and then you think you have everything.

"You want to drink water and then you have no glasses and you think 'I have to buy glasses'. Arsenal really help you, but they cannot decide where you want to live. They are there when you need them but this kind of stuff you have to do on your own, of course."

On the pitch, things have been much simpler, with the Gunners currently on a run of 15 matches without defeat and Mustafi forming an impressive partnership with Laurent Koscielny.

"I think it’s a credit to the whole team," he says. "What we're doing good is reading the game, being intelligent. We've won a lot of balls in the opposition half and made many recoveries.

"It feels great to be unbeaten so far but you have to think [although] now everything is going great, then suddenly you lose one game [and] then it's forgotten. You have to leave that behind you and focus on winning the next game, otherwise everything we did before is worthless. We have to keep doing the good things we're doing and keep improving."

The sensitive subject of religion is something that Mustafi has no problem discussing. He is a practising Muslim, just like Ozil, and cites his faith when referring to his philosophy of never taking his position as a professional footballer for granted.

"Sometimes we forget about everything," Mustafi says. "As a human being, now you have something to eat, then you want something to drink, you have a coffee, after the coffee you want a dessert - you always want more. Sometimes the religion teaches you to be thankful for what you have, be thankful for being a footballer.

"Even if you play bad, be thankful that someone gave you the opportunity to play and just enjoy it - and it takes so much pressure off you because sometimes you are so desperate to become the best player, then the Ballon d’Or, then the World Cup and you put so much pressure on yourself.

"For me, my religion takes it all off because it teaches you to be thankful for what you have; then you’re going to get more. Helping people and football, which is team sport, you have to help your team-mates on and off the pitch.

"It's all about respecting other people. Especially in this business, you have to keep being yourself and try to help people, even if sometimes you have a lot of stuff to do.

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"Sometimes you're just there and everyone knows you as Mustafi but no one really knows who is Mustafi. You just see 90 minutes and you don't know who this person is. Religion helps me to be me, not being the Mustafi that everyone knows and everyone expects me to be.

"Trying to be who I am and make the things as good as I can on and off the pitch, it takes so much pressure of you. I grew up in a family where religion has always been an important thing. Religion is the same in football; if you’re not believing in what you’re doing, then it's useless because you're going to be bad."

Mustafi recalls a conversation he had with a team-mate during his time at Everton about abstinence from alcohol, which he has stuck to throughout his career and believes he has benefited from.

“It started when I was 17 at Everton and I went out with my team-mates and everyone knew me as the German because I was playing for Germany. 'You’re German, how is it possible that you’re not drinking?' I said, 'No, I'm Muslim and I'm not drinking' and he asked me, ‘Why are you Muslim?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, my parents are Muslim and I grew up in a Muslim family'.

"Then I got home and thought that was a good question, because I'd never asked myself. It's something that your parents teach you but you never know whether it's good, bad, why am I not drinking, why am I not eating pork, why do I have to pray five times a day. I started to read the Qur’an and asking them questions - 'what is the thinking behind that?' - and it became more and more interesting. It's helped me a lot."

When not playing or training, Mustafi likes to wind down by spending time with family and friends and says he never struggles for something to do thanks to the combination of media commitments and home DIY taking up his time as he settles in to life in England.

"Playing every three days, you don't have a lot of time," he adds. "I'm so tired that I'm happy to have a few hours at home recovering, talking to friends, FaceTiming and stuff.

"Sometimes after training you have photoshoots, interviews. Now, I’m moving in and buying a few cabinets. It takes you all day to fix them and then you look at the time and think 'the day's gone again'. It's not like I'm sitting at home and thinking I've got nothing to do, there's always something to do."