In 2004 you made the switch from Wimbledon to join the Gunners' academy. Did you find there was an ‘Arsenal way’ of doing things upon your arrival?
There was a vast difference in the intensity of training and the standard of facilities. Obviously when you move to a Premier League club, you notice that they strive to be the best in everything they do. It's down to the little things, from the way you're treated, right down to the training kit. It’s a class above.
You started your career in midfield before settling at left-back. How do you explain this career evolution? Do you sometimes feel like a frustrated winger?
I used to when I was first given the role, but that was only because I thought it was temporary as both Gael [Clichy] and Armand [Traore] were injured. I was 17 when I made my debut and I'd never played at left-back before in my life, but after that game the manager told me that he wanted me to play there and he’s helped me develop ever since. I'm only 23 so I'm still learning my trade, but the more I play, the more experience I get – and so I feel more at home there.
Was there anyone besides Arsene Wenger who helped you cope with the psychological pressures of professional football?
When I was younger I did a lot of work on dealing with the transition from the reserves to the first team. We have a guy here and he wanted to speak to me before I made my first-team debut. He’s obviously spoken to a lot of people before and has a good idea of what’s going on in your head, so it’s always good to get his help. We can also talk to him about matters off the pitch because life’s not just about football and I have other things going on, so it can help you learn to concentrate when you need to?
Has it been difficult shifting in and out of the team after several injuries in recent years?
I've had a lot of support from experienced players that have suffered similar injuries. Players like Tomas Rosicky don’t just help me when I'm injured, but also when I'm fit because it’s easy when you’re playing to ignore the things you have to do to remain healthy. Instead of going home early, these players will stay with you and work on the things that help with injury prevention.
The club has been criticised for the influx of foreign players in the squad. Is this a problem or do you share Wenger’s view that "You’ll get your chance if you’re good enough"?
For me that’s what it comes down to. We have Carl Jenkinson, Emmanuel Frimpong, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey, so I think the young British players are getting better now because they’re learning what it takes to play at the top. I think as long as we can improve, there won’t be any further criticism about foreign players.
Do you see yourself as a veteran compared to the likes of Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain?
I don’t with Jack, because I played with him for a few years before the first-team, but I do with players like Ox, who’s only 19. It’s crazy when you think about it. I feel old compared to him now so I try and help him on and off the pitch as much as I can. It’s also important to let him do his own thing because you don’t want to interrupt anything special. You have to let him make his mistakes in order for him to grow.
Is there one particular trait that sets Wenger apart from other managers?
He has built a reputation for signing players for a modest fee and turning them into great players. I don’t think many people in England had really heard of Thomas Vermaelen before he arrived and yet he became an instant fan favourite at the club. He has an eye for noticing the potential in promising players.
His new right-hand man is Steve Bould, another Arsenal legend. Is there anything you’re doing differently this year as a result?
I wouldn’t say differently. He has his own view of the game and he goes through a lot of detail after matches. He makes sure everyone understands their unique roles and we’ve worked on a number of things, including how to face attackers and moving up the pitch as a unit.
Former Academy and reserves coach Neil Banfield has been promoted to first-team coach this year. What sort of impact has he made?
He's more involved with the midfielders than the defenders, but he gives you little bits of advice when he can. Obviously having worked with the reserves before, he knows the players who he thinks can make the step up. He was an important part of my development, as well as the likes of Jack and Emmanuel.
Speaking of young players, you used to live with Henri Lansbury: what was that like? How much time did he spend in front of the mirror? Be honest!
He’s a nightmare to live with! At first he was quite fun, but after a while he had to go. I think we lasted about eight months in total. He’s so messy and his room was always dirty, despite the fact he was quite vain about his appearance. He used to be obsessed with his hair but that’s changed now he’s had it all shaved off!
Finally, are there any pranks in the Arsenal dressing room that you enjoy?
If someone brings in a rascal item of clothing then it gets hung up on the ceiling of the dressing room. They can’t get hold of it unless they get Sean, who has access to a ladder. It takes a lot of effort to go up and get it, which means players usually think twice about what they’re going to wear!
Interview: Ben Welch,Portraits: Shamil Tanna, November 2012. This is online-exclusive material but for the January 2013 issue FourFourTwo went behind the scenes at Arsenal, speaking to the men that matter as they reveal their master plan for success at home and abroad, including Arsene Wenger, Ivan Gazidis, Thomas Vermaelen, Santi Cazorla, Kieran Gibbs, Ken Friar, OBE and Liam Brady.
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