Pablo Mari's journey to Arsenal and beyond: Praise for Arteta, lessons learned in Serie A

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In a bid to kick-start his career, Pablo Mari has gone to the place where he believes the finest 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 an opportunity to experience Serie A for the first time.

"In Italy, we see it is where the best centre-backs in the world are born," Mari told ESPN. "For me, it is my area. At the end, I am a centre-back, I am 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 at [Giorgio] Chiellini, [Leonardo] Bonucci: they are the best centre-backs in the world, more or less. Of course you have [Virgil] Van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, [Gerard] Pique. Coming to that level is [Matthijs] De Ligt, we have really good centre-backs now who play in Italy.

"I don't like to compare how they look and how I look, but of course you can take something they are doing really well and you can put it in yourself and try to do as your own. These are more or less the centre-backs I like to be when I grow."

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Now is the time for Mari to grow, too. The Spaniard is speaking with ESPN via Zoom from Udinese's Bruseschi training base, where staff have been impressed by his professionalism, a characteristic that helped him secure this move in the first place.

Mari initially signed for the Gunners from Brazilian club Flamengo in January 2020 before making a permanent move worth £7 million in July that year. A combination of COVID-19, injury and the subsequent arrivals of Gabriel from Lille and Ben White from Brighton & Hove Albion restricted 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 had become a peripheral figure by the time the January transfer window opened, his departure became headline news as it occurred in the midst of a row over Arsenal's successful postponement of January's derby 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 commitments together," said Mari. "I explained my situation to him, my feelings. I don't play in the last six months. [He said] the plan in the next six months until June is going to be the same. I can play, of course, because maybe other centre-backs get injured, there can be a red card, or yellow cards, but it is going to be one, two, maximum three or four games. At the end, I don't want that for me.

"[Arteta] was a really, really, really good person in that moment. He said to me 'everything that you need, you deserve that. You were a professional player until the end and you deserve it so everything I can help you, I'm going to do it.' I'm so glad to hear that from a coach because it was not an easy moment for me."

It is one measure of Arteta's coaching skills that he's lauded by those above and below him at Arsenal, but another entirely when a player who has found playing time so hard to come by remains effusive in his praise.

"I have to say he is one of the best coaches in the world because when he does the game plan ... I never see it like this," explains Mari. "How he finds solutions for us and makes it easy to play the game: I've never seen something like this. That means he is an amazing coach. To give you the tools to play a game more easily, that's amazing because when you go to the pitch, you already have in your head the type of thing you have to do to play easy."

So how has he helped Mari specifically? "He gave me the tool that if I can take three or four seconds before the ball arrives to me, I am going to have this three or four seconds to think for the next action," he continued. "For me, this was the key because I have time [now]. He was the only coach to give me that tool and make football more easy.

"I play more easy and I can see another type of option that before I never saw because before, I never had time with the ball. So now at the moment, I put in my head another level because of [Arteta]."

There is no option or obligation to sign Mari permanently contained within the deal between Arsenal and Udinese, so he will return to north London this summer no matter how well he performs in the next few 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 is possible," he said. "I never close that door. It continues to be my dream, playing for a big club in the world and for Arsenal of course. I played there for two years, I have two more years [on my] contract.

"Of course, it would be my dream. But at the end, I don't know. I don't know what is going to happen tomorrow, I cannot predict what is going to happen next year. He is there? Yes of course. I would like to be there? Yes of course, but I don't know what is going to happen. I want to be focused on now, in the present, what I can do now to enjoy again to play football and to feel again that I am a professional football player."

Mari's journey has been a complicated one. Born in Almussafes, a small town just over 12 miles south of Valencia on Spain's east coast, he almost gave up on football aged "around 11 or 12" after a growth spurt saw him grow about five inches in one summer.

"More than the impact to grow quick was the pain I had in that moment because in my hips, it was cartilage, not bone," he said. "Every time that I came back to play football with my colleagues on the team, when I'd shoot, I break 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 'it is the last time I have that injury. If I do it again, I leave football because I cannot support that pain every day.' And it was the last time. It never came back."

He joined Mallorca as a teenager with his parents' advice ringing in his ears, words that have served him well in the subsequent years. "I was 13 years old when I said to my parents 'Bye-bye, I go to another city to play football,'" he continued. "They said 'Yeah, go, be happy, enjoy ... but if you decide to take that way, you have to be a professional from now. Never give up. In the moments that you are on the top and the moments you are on the bottom, you have to fight, you have to be professional, you have to work hard every day.'"

Mari graduated from Mallorca's academy, but he made just two senior appearances. Three years at Gimnastic de Tarragona followed before joining Manchester City in 2016, only to never play a game for the club or even meet Pep Guardiola. Loan spells at Girona, NAC Breda and Deportivo La Coruna preceded a move to Flamengo in 2019, where he became the first Spaniard to win the Brazilian title and the Copa Libertadores. It was there he caught the eye of Arsenal's technical director Edu, who brought him to Emirates Stadium.

However, Mari's career at Arsenal failed to ignite. The COVID-19 pandemic was a factor: The Gunners won their first two games with Mari in the team, 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 halt in March 2020. He started the first game after the resumption, at Manchester City, but suffered a bad ankle injury that ruled him out for almost six months. Gabriel and White, a £50m summer arrival from Brighton, have since usurped him in the pecking order.

Arteta could have kept him around, but he opted to reward Mari's dedication and "never give up" mentality. A fifth loan spell, this time at Udinese, offers a fresh challenge.

To go on loan is not easy because you have to adapt really quick to be part of that club, fast," he says. "Of course the people who surround you, they help you in that. Here I am so happy that the club, the coach, the staff, teammates, they are so friendly and they help me since the first day until now and I hope until the end of the season. You grow like a person, more than a player, and it is a really good thing for the rest of my life."

Mari has made four appearances for Udinese to date, including in Friday's 1-1 draw against title-chasing AC Milan and, as he prepares to turn 29 in August, Mari feels he's now ready to peak.

"For a centre-back, I am going to be in the best moment of my career because when you are young, maybe physically you are really good but you don't have the mentality to be ready," he says. "I'm in balance, I have both things really good. Even at 29, I think I'm still young for a centre-back, but I'm in a good moment.

"I'm so happy for the new things that are going to come and I think I am ready to take it. In 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, everything can happen. I don't put a limit. The worst thing you can do is put a limit."