You spent a long time at Bordeaux as both a youth and professional player. The club must hold a special place in your heart?
Yes of course, that’s definitely the case for me. The fact that I also came up through the ranks at Bordeaux and then spent a few seasons as a professional there, it’s something that I’ll always look back on fondly and with pride. I have some great memories. Bordeaux is where I made my first achievements, won my first titles, so they’re very special memories, like winning the France League in 2009 and the France League Cup twice. I think it will always be a big part of my life, as a human being, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that I have such fond memories of my time at Bordeaux.
The transfer to Arsenal was discussed as a possibility for a long time. What attracted you to come to the Premier League and Arsenal in particular?
Arsenal is a club that I've liked, that I’ve loved, since I was little. Why? I don’t know, I think that every kid has a favourite club. For me in France it was Bordeaux and abroad it was Arsenal. For other players it was Barcelona, or Real Madrid, but for me it was always Arsenal. So once I had climbed the ladder and turned professional at Bordeaux I had a dream to one day join Arsenal, if I could of course. So I did everything I could to work hard and one day join this club. So it’s a club that since I was little I've always dreamt about. The Bergkamp generation, Henry, Wiltord, Pires, Petit, Vieira, they’re all players who I admired and looked up to. Bergkamp in particular was a player I idolised. His goal for Holland against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup was phenomenal. He was such a classy player. I liked the manager too, I guess because he was France and was well respected in France. He was one of the main reasons why I supported Arsenal.
From your experience so far, please compare the main differences between the Premier League and the France Ligue 1 in terms of the style of play?
There’s a big difference between the Premier League and France league. The Premier League is much more physical, more athletic, it’s a lot faster, and above all it’s non-stop. Definitely... As soon as the goalkeeper has the ball in his hands I sigh with relief but I see that he releases it straight away to keep the game going, it’s so fast. That’s one of the main differences between the Premier League and the France league. It’s much more athletic, it’s faster, but I don’t think that it’s more technical, that’s perhaps on the same level as the France league, but on the other hand it’s non-stop, 100 miles an hour from the start of the match to the end.
Zidane was my hero. His style of play on the pitch was fantastic. He is such a cool customer and has a real aura about him. He is someone who I will always look up to.
There is often talk about foreign players taking time to settle into the Premier League but you seem to have adapted quickly…
I don’t know how I managed to adapt so quickly. In my head perhaps I thought it would take 4 or 5 months, or even a whole season to adapt, but it’s happened quicker than expected, which is great. I think that for almost two years I’d wanted to come here which would have also helped a bit. I think i'd subconsciously prepared myself for it during those two years, for London life and for English football. So I think that for two years all I wanted was to come here, so that helped me to adapt because I was so keen to be a success.
What is your relationship like with Arsene Wenger? It’s obvious he has been a fan of yours for several years so he has confidence in your ability.
We get on very well. I think that he’s given his time to me and helped me a lot. He put his trust in me, which for a player is fantastic, it’s essential, it’s fundamental. The relationship between the player and the coach can sometimes be banal, and sometimes there are things said in confidence but I think that I still have a huge margin for improvement and I believe that Arsene can take me to the top.
What are your memories of your Premier League debut against Liverpool in August? Were you excited before kick-off? Nervous?
It was a very intense match. The first big match of the season, the first major match in the Premier League, a league that I want to learn about and experience at first hand. The fans were fantastic, the atmosphere was great and Anfield is a great stadium. But it was a tough match, tough because we conceded a goal at the start of the match and then equalised at the end. I think the point did us a lot of good because you don’t want to lose your first match of the season. In any case I was pleased to get my first taste of the Premier League and I really enjoyed the match. I was nervous, I felt a lot of pressure, I wanted to play a big match, not mess up in my first match but it’s always hard to judge because you know it’s your first match plus it was against Liverpool so it was not going to be easy. It was my first match in the Premier League and against Liverpool so that just adds to the pressure. I tried to relax and let myself go despite the pressure, and to go with the flow and enjoy it.
You’re a striker so ultimately your success is measured in goals. it must have been great to score your first Premier League goal against Blackpool which was also your debut at the Emirates Stadium?
I was very pleased with that match. Being a striker of course you want to win the match but when you score you’re even happier. When you’re a striker it’s your “job” in adverted commas, to score, to be decisive, whether it’s with a decisive pass, an assist, or with a goal. So the fact that I scored against Blackpool at home and opened my account with a goal, I was very pleased. It was the last goal and made the score 6-0 so that was very pleasing. The fans were very happy when we walked off the pitch and I was very happy too.
Have you set yourself a target for the number of goals you want to score this season?
My first season, for me is a year of adaptation, to improve my football, but I said I would try and get more than 10 goals. So, given I had scored 10 goals in all competitions before christmas I think I have achieved my first objective ahead of schedule. I didn’t set the bar very high but I think it’s important to not set targets that are too high in your first season. Now I just need to build on what has been a good first half of the season.
As soon as I have any free time I have a go on FIFA with my little brother, and above all neither of us like to lose so sometimes we end up playing 2 or 3 matches, sometimes 10 matches!
Arsenal have not won the Premier League title since 2004. The impatience is increasing among fans. do the players talk about this?
A little, a little. We talk about it a little, but moreover we’re all conscious of it, the fact that the club haven’t won the championship since 2004. So we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that Arsenal get back on track and to renew their ambition to win the league. Above all though I think it’s important that if we don’t win the league we at least win some kind of silverware. The league this season is very tight so we have a chance but we also have possibilities to win the League Cup, the FA Cup and the Champions League. I think if we win one of those trophies the fans will be happy because Arsenal haven’t won any kind of trophy since 2005.
How are you settling into life in London and England in general? Is there anything you really miss from home, apart from family?
That’s what I was going to say. I like it here, I do miss my family, but other than that it’s perfect. I’m settling in, I’ve found an apartment here which is nice. So only my family is missing. But life is good here, I've got the training centre next door, great restaurants and other things to do. So I think I’ll be able to acclimatise, find some nice places to hangout, and now I’m starting to feel like a true Londoner.
Let’s talk a little about representing Morocco, the country from which your parents come from. How easy was it to choose to represent Morocco and not France?
It was very hard. Very hard because I had to make the choice quickly. Morocco didn’t give me much of a choice because I had to make a decision, yes or no. But I discussed it in depth with my parents and my entourage and the staff at Bordeaux at the time. And then my decision was clear-cut, I chose morocco to try and get closer to my roots, my culture, and to my family as well because I only knew Morocco from my holidays. I’d go once every 2 years and stay 2 or 3 weeks and so I didn’t really know it very well. So by choosing Morocco it’s allowed me to reconnect with my country and my culture. I was born and raised in France and I love France very much. I even played for France at the junior level but I am happy to be playing for morocco. I have played many games for Morocco and it always fills me with pride especially when I was made captain. One of my first football memories was being forced to watch the 1994 World Cup by my dad. He wanted me to watch morocco and they were obviously very pleased when I chose to play for their country.
For other players it was Barcelona, or Real Madrid, but for me it was always Arsenal. So once I had climbed the ladder and turned professional at Bordeaux I had a dream to one day join them.
Do you have any pre match rituals/habits?
Yes of course. I recite one or two prayers and I think about my mother very deeply and strongly. It’s a good way for me to relax before a match and to get into the right frame of mind.
Do you like playing video games?
Of course. Before I become a professional player I was an adolescent. I was always attracted by video console games, especially football ones because it's my profession. I enjoy it. As soon as I have any free time I have a go on FIFA with my little brother, and above all neither of us like to lose so sometimes we end up playing 2 or 3 matches, sometimes 10 matches! So it’s something enjoyable, we just enjoy it. A lot of people play and it doesn’t surprise me, because once you do, it’s like a drug, you’re hooked!
Who was your first footballing hero?
Zidane was my hero. His style of play on the pitch was fantastic. He was so graceful, skilful but above all he came up with important moments when it was needed. Off the pitch he was great as well. I met him a few times when I was at Bordeaux. He was playing for Juventus but he would often return to the club to attend functions or exhibition matches. He is such a cool customer and has a real aura about him. He is someone who I will always look up to.
And how important was Laurent Blanc in your football development?
I have learnt so much from all my coaches right from when I was playing as a kid to Arsene Wenger today. But Laurent Blanc at Bordeaux was the most influential because he was my coach for three years and they were the three years that were at a very crucial stage in my career. He told me many things but in particular that I needed to be more selfish as a striker. He told me strikers are judged by goals and that was what I needed to focus on. I don’t think I would be the same player if it wasn’t for him and he will always be someone who I can turn to for advice.
Click here for more Football and Sport stories
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook