In a bid to launch his career, Pablo Mari traveled to where he believes the best defenders are created. The 28-year-old left Arsenal and the Premier League on loan last month to join Udinese until the end of the season, seizing the opportunity to experience Serie A for the first time.
“In Italy, we see that’s where the best centre-backs in the world are born,” Mari told ESPN. “For me, that’s my field. In the end, I’m a central defender, I’m a tactical player so for me playing in Italy is a pleasure.
“When I was really, really young, the players I watched were [Alessandro] Nesta, [Fabio] Cannavaro. Now you look [Giorgio] Chiellini, [Leonardo] Bonucci: they are more or less the best central defenders in the world. Of course you have [Virgil] Van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, [Gerard] Prick. Getting to this level is [Matthijs] De Ligt, we now have very good centre-backs playing in Italy.
“I don’t like to compare their appearance and my appearance, but of course you can take something that they do very well and you can put it in you and try to be like you. They are more or less the center – the backs that I like to be when I grow up.”
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Now is the time for Mari to grow up too. The Spaniard speaks to ESPN via Zoom from Bruseschi’s training base in Udinese, where the staff were impressed with his professionalism, a feature that helped him secure this transfer in the first place.
Mari originally signed for the Gunners from Brazilian club Flamengo in January 2020 before making a permanent transfer worth £7million in July of the same year. A combination of COVID-19, injuries and the subsequent arrivals of Gabriel from Lille and Ben White from Brighton & Hove Albion has limited Mari to just 14 Premier League starts, the last of which came in August as Arsenal lost 2-0 at home to Chelsea. .
Although Mari became a peripheral figure as the January transfer window opened, his departure grabbed headlines as it came amid a row over Arsenal’s successful postponement of the derby of January against Tottenham Hotspur due to a lack of available players. However, Mari reveals the move had been discussed much earlier, the product of a conversation he initiated with Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta.
“In the winter, we made engagements together,” Mari said. “I explained to him my situation, my feelings. I haven’t played in the last six months. [He said] the plan over the next six months until June will be the same. I can play, of course, because maybe other central defenders get injured, there can be a red card or yellow cards, but it will be one, two, maximum three or four games. In the end, I don’t want that for me.
“[Arteta] was a very, very, very good person at that time. He told me “whatever you need, you deserve it”. You were a professional player until the end and you deserve it so anything I can help you with, I will.’ I’m so happy to hear that from a coach because it wasn’t an easy time for me.”
It is a measure of Arteta’s coaching skills that he is praised by those above and below him at Arsenal, but quite another when a player who has found playing time if hard to find remains enthusiastic in its praise.
“I have to say he’s one of the best coaches in the world because when he makes the game plan… I never see him like that,” Mari said. “How he finds solutions for us and makes the game easier: I’ve never seen anything like that. It means he’s an amazing coach. Giving you the tools to play a game easier is amazing because when you go out on the pitch you already have in mind the kind of things you need to do to play easily.”
So how did he help Mari specifically? “He gave me the tool that if I can take three or four seconds before the ball comes to me, I will have those three or four seconds to think about the next action,” he continued. “For me, that was key because I have the time [now]. He was the only coach who gave me this tool and made football easier.
“I play more easily and I can see another type of option that before I never saw because before I never had time with the ball. So now, in this moment, I put in my head another level because of [Arteta].”
There is no option or obligation to sign Mari permanently in the deal between Arsenal and Udinese, so he will return to north London this summer regardless of his performance in the coming weeks. His existing contract with the Gunners expires in 2024: given the strength of his relationship with Arteta, could he still be a success at Arsenal under his fellow Spaniard?
“For me, of course, it’s possible,” he said. “I never close that door. It continues to be my dream, to play for a big club in the world and for Arsenal of course. I played there for two years, I have another two [on my] Contract.
“Of course it would be my dream. But in the end, I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, I can’t predict what will happen next year. Is he there? Yes Of course. I would like to be there? Yes, of course, but I don’t know what will happen. I want to focus on now, in the present, on what I can do now to enjoy football again and to feel like a professional footballer again.”
Mari’s journey has been complicated. Born in Almussafes, a small town just over 20km south of Valencia on the east coast of Spain, he almost gave up football at “around 11 or 12” after a growth spurt that left him grows about five inches in one summer.
“More than the impact of the rapid growth, it was the pain I had at that time because in my hips it was cartilage, not bone,” he said. . “Every time I came back to play football with my colleagues in the team, when I shot, I broke a bit of that cartilage.
“I remember the last time I had the injury – because it happened four or five times – I said to my dad ‘this is the last time I have this injury. If I start again, I quit football because I can’t take this pain every day. And that was the last time. He never came back.”
He joined Mallorca as a teenager with the advice of his parents ringing in his ears, words that served him well in later years. “I was 13 when I said to my parents, ‘Goodbye, I’m going to another town to play football’,” he continued. “They said ‘Yeah, go ahead, be happy, enjoy…but if you decide to go that route, you have to be a pro from now on. Never give up. In the times when you’re on top and the times when you’re down, you have to fight, you have to be professional, you have to work hard every day.'”
Mari is a Mallorca academy graduate but has only made two senior appearances. Three years at Gimnastic de Tarragona followed before joining Manchester City in 2016, never to play a game for the club or even meet Pep Guardiola. Loan spells at Girona, NAC Breda and Deportivo La Coruña preceded a move to Flamengo in 2019, where he became the first Spaniard to win the Brazilian title and Copa Libertadores. It was there that he caught the eye of Arsenal’s technical director, Edu, who brought him to the Emirates Stadium.
However, Mari’s career at Arsenal failed to take off. The COVID-19 pandemic was a factor: the Gunners won their first two games with Mari in the squad, an FA Cup fifth round tie at Portsmouth and a Premier League home game against West Ham United , before the pandemic brought English football to a standstill in March 2020. He started the first game after the restart, at Manchester City, but suffered a serious ankle injury which ruled him out for almost six month. Gabriel and White, a £50m summer arrival from Brighton, have since usurped him in the pecking order.
Arteta could have kept it, but he chose to reward Mari’s dedication and ‘never give up’ mentality. A fifth loan spell, this time at Udinese, offers a new challenge.
Going on loan is not easy because you have to adapt very quickly to be part of this club, quickly,” he said. “Of course the people around you, they help you in that. Here I am so happy that the club, the coach, the staff, the teammates, they are so friendly and they help me from the first day until now and hopefully until the end of the season. You’re growing as a person, more than a player, and that’s a very good thing for the rest of my life.”
Mari has made four appearances for Udinese so far, including in Friday’s 1-1 draw with AC Milan and, as he prepares to turn 29 in August, Mari feels he is now ready to peak.
“For a centre-back, I’m going to be in the best moment of my career because when you’re young, maybe physically you’re really good but you don’t have the mentality to be ready,” he said. “I’m in balance, I have both very good things. Even at 29, I think I’m still young for a centre-back, but I’m in a good moment.
“I’m so happy with the new things that are coming and I think I’m ready to take it. At the moment, [my ambition] is to give everything I have inside, try to do my best to help the club and the team. After that, anything can happen. I don’t set a limit. The worst thing you can do is set a limit.”