There were plenty of eyebrows raised when it was announced in July 2017 that Per Mertesacker would become Arsenal’s next academy manager.
First of all, he was still playing and would not take up the position until he retired at the end of the 2017-18 season. Perhaps more importantly, he had no experience of the role at all.
Given Arsenal had just pushed through a £50 million ($62m) development project aimed at improving facilities at the academy’s main Hale End base, as well as at London Colney, Mertesacker's appointment was viewed as something of a gamble.
But those who knew the man well were convinced he would be a major success.
A student of the game, the World Cup winner had always been tipped to continue in football once his playing days were over, although most assumed he would move into coaching.
However, the opportunity to try to shape not just the careers of the talents at Hale End, but their lives as well, proved too good to turn down.
“In my new role as Arsenal academy manager I will do everything I can to challenge the young players’ mindsets,” he said at the time. “I want to challenge them so that they are ready to take on new ideas when it comes to their body and soul.
“I want to convince them they have to do something to get to the top of the world and I want to be an example for them.
"For me, there wasn’t really a way up but somehow I made it there anyway because I did everything I possibly could to give me the best chances to succeed. Talent is what you make of your situation.”
Mertesacker has now been leading Arsenal’s academy for close to two years and has pushed through vast amounts of changes as he looks to build on the success Hale End has enjoyed in recent years.
Some of those changes have caught people by surprise, not least the decision to show Steve Morrow the door just before the turn of the year.
Morrow – who famously scored Arsenal’s winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday in the 1993 League Cup final – had been the head of youth scouting at the academy and was viewed externally as one of the best in his field.
However, Mertesacker, alongside newly installed technical director Edu, implemented a stringent review of the recruitment department at the academy and it was decided change was needed.
“You have to improve what you do every day and that’s Per’s mindset,” one academy source told Goal. “That’s why he had such a good career as a player.
“If you have leaders in the right places, it rubs off on people. You can’t settle on the past because you get judged on the future.
"Per knows that and he's been really good so far, especially being new to the role. He’s very good at what he does and he will only get better and better and better as he develops. He certainly knows exactly what he wants.”
As part of Mertesacker's revamp, a number of other figures within the academy set-up followed Morrow out of the door, including Kevin Beadell, Dan Rice, David Lee, Jay Leffe and Joe Sutton.
Mertesacker was determined to ensure that the club, which has seen numerous academy graduates progress through to the first team in recent years, would not rest on its laurels.
Ensuring that the very best talent was identified and brought into Hale End was viewed as key and so Mertesacker decided alterations were necessary.
Lee Herron, who had been head of football operations at the academy following his arrival from Reading in 2018, took up the role of head of talent ID, replacing Morrow.
Herron was tasked with leading the new talent ID department and building a new team to replace the figures that had been moved on.
That rebuild has now been completed, with Steve Brown joining from MK Dons to be lead talent ID co-ordinator and Ayo Durojaiye (U9s-U11s), Phil Antwi (U12s-U14s) and Conan Watson (U15s-U16s) making up the new recruitment team.
The challenge now for Mertesacker and the rest of the four-man leadership team at the academy – which includes Herron, assistant academy manager Luke Hobbs and head of coaching Marcel Lucassen – is to build on the successes of recent seasons.
Arsenal have blooded a number of academy products during the past few seasons, with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson all starting games on a regular basis since the start of 2019.
New head coach Mikel Arteta has already shown he is not worried about playing younger players, with Saka a near ever-present under the Spaniard and Nketiah preferred to Alexandre Lacazette in the games prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
That bodes well for the future, with the likes of Folarin Balogun, Miguel Azeez and Sam Greenwood already being tipped break into the first team in the coming seasons.
“We’ve got some good ones coming through, no doubt about that,” a source told Goal. “But you’ve got to keep nurturing them and bringing them forward.
“The club is in a very good position and the manager is very good. He’s a real modern manager and includes the whole club in what he wants to do.
“You’ve got to have talent first, but then you have to have opportunities and this manager will give those opportunities. Just look at the opportunities he has already given.”
The fact that Arteta and Mertesacker have a long-standing friendship, which was built when they were team-mates at the Emirates, is viewed as a major bonus at Arsenal.
With the club’s finances stretched following three seasons without Champions League football and the uncertainty caused by football’s current suspension only adding to the cash-flow problems, the need for exceptional young talent is only going to increase over the next couple of years.
That brings its own pressure, not just on Mertesacker and his leadership team, but also on the youngsters themselves, who are hoping to follow the likes of Saka, Willock and Nelson into the senior side.
And that’s why, since taking over in 2018, Mertesacker’s vision has been focused on producing "strong, young Gunners" who are equipped to deal with anything that comes their way – whether it be on the football pitch or off it.
“When we look at the mission of the academy, [which is] to create the most challenging and most caring youth academy in the world, then you can see from the statement that we want to prepare them for life,” said the German.
“On the one hand we want to be the best football academy, where we build youngsters up to play in the team, to play football, to play the game they love.
“But we teach them to do it with respect, discipline and humility and in these words already are a lot of things that indicate we want to do it the right way.
“We speak about physical health, but the mental part of it plays a huge part in that. How do we interact with each other, how do we keep that open forum alive, how do we develop our players, our coaches, our staff and raise their awareness about how we talk to each other?
“We have a range here of Under-9s to Under-23s. How can we learn from each other, how can an Under-9 learn from an Under-23 in terms of his journey, on the struggle and the adversity that will kick in?
“So, we do a lot of stuff that makes them more aware and hopefully happier to live a more fulfilling life.”
There is a strong history at Arsenal when it comes to producing their own. From the likes of Tony Adams, David Rocastle and Paul Merson, to Ashley Cole, Alex Iwobi and now Saka, Willock and Nelson, the list is endless.
And with Mertesacker now in charge, the Gunners have a man at the helm who looks well set to ensure the production line keeps on rolling.