Per Mertesacker: A new Arsenal contract is my 'highest priority'

Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker has made it clear he wants to stay with the Gunners next season amid speculation about a return to Germany.

Mertesacker, 32, is in the last year of his contract and the centre-back is out for the first half of the season after injuring his knee in the summer. He could struggle to make the team even when fit after Arsenal brought in fellow German Shkodran Mustafi, who has since formed an impressive partnership with Laurent Koscielny at the back.

But while the former Germany international said last month he would be open to returning to Germany next year, with Hannover and Werder Bremen having been linked with moves, Mertesacker said his first choice is to stay at Arsenal.

"A new Arsenal contract has absolute priority for me. But no dates have been set [for talks]," Mertesacker told Spox. "Arsenal has the highest priority for me. Everything else is pure speculation, and I won't join the discussion."

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has a long-standing policy of only giving one-year extensions to players once they get past the age of 30 and confirmed earlier this season that Mertesacker's future would be evaluated on a "year-by-year" basis.

Mertesacker took over the captaincy from the retired Mikel Arteta this summer, but has yet to get on the pitch since then due to his injury.

Arsenal are doing well without him as they are currently second in the Premier League standings and lead their Champions League group ahead of Tuesday's game at Ludogorets Razgrad.

"The team has matured a bit," Mertesacker said. "We played a few convincing matches, but there were also some hard-fought last-minute wins. The competitiveness at the top of the league is certainly unique in Europe. And it's unmistakable the fans want the title, but it might be harder to win it in England than elsewhere."

Wenger's future is also still uncertain as the Frenchman's contract expires next summer and he has yet to sign an extension.

Wenger came under heavy criticism last season when Arsenal failed to win the Premier League title, with some fans and pundits still sceptical about whether he is the right man to take the club forward.

Mertesacker, however, gave his full backing to the Gunners boss.

"To me, Arsene Wenger is way above any public criticism. A coach who has been with a club for 20 years, and has developed and shaped the club decisively -- where do you find that today?" Mertesacker said.

"You have to look at the bigger picture and he deserves the highest respect here. Criticism in the media is rushed these days, it's too closely connected to the results and sadly it's often not that knowledgeable.

"You beat Razgrad in a midweek fixture, and three days later you receive fundamental criticism for a draw at home to Middlesbrough. How much have the team, manager, and club really changed for such a different perception?"