It is December 20th, 2019. A potentially very important day in Arsenal’s history. Mikel Arteta returns to Arsenal as a head coach. The club is in a mid season crisis. Arsenal have won just 1 Premier league game in the previous 10. As ridiculous as it may sound now, some were fearing we could get involved in a potential relegation battle. We were in such a rut that we just weren’t able to get out of.
In Arteta’s very first game, we saw him try and go back to the basics : 4-2-3-1, Xhaka-Torreira who work well as a pivot with Mesut Özil playing in front of them, opting to put Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left with Alexandre Lacazette as the centre forward and Reiss Nelson on the right. There were some positive signs in the way we built up, but you could see that there was something that we were lacking over and above just quality and balance – BELIEF.
When Arteta took over, Arsenal were buried deep underground. Before Mikel could imprint his philosophy on the team, he first needed to get us back to the ground. We didn’t have an immediate manager bounce, it was always going to be a process. In fact, Arsenal won just 1 out of Arteta’s first 7 Premier league games. But what I liked about Mikel was how confident he was after every single game. He tells it like it is, there is no masking of reality. It is easier to fix any problem when you know exactly what it is.
One thing that didn’t help Arteta initially was that he simply did not have enough time with the group off the pitch. Remember, Mikel came in at a time when fixtures were coming in thick and fast which means lesser time on the training ground to instill and execute ideas. The training camp in Dubai proved helpful in this regard. Despite Guendouzi’s ill discpline, the camp really brought the group together and gave Arteta the much needed time to reflect and find ways to improve performances in the short term.
One of his first steps post this training camp was to rejuvenate Dani Ceballos and bring him back into the side. We saw an immediate improvement in results within the league. Before Arteta contracted the coronavirus, leading to stoppage of the league, Arsenal had managed 3 back to back Premier league wins for the first time since October, 2018. Even if all these three were at home, they gave us momentum and something to smile about.
Before, we look into the games post lockdown, let’s just take a moment to understand things from Arteta’s perspective. He left his job as assistant to one of the best coaches in the world in the middle of a season to join his former club in crisis in what would be his first ever full time coaching role. Then few months later, he contracts a virus that has led to the demise of well over half a milion people around the world.
Despite all of this, as soon as he recovers, he goes on to help the board negotiate a pay-cut with the players to cope with the financial ramifications of the virus. Remember, we’re the ONLY Premier league side to do this. This tells you that in his first few months he’s been able to bring that togetherness to the group because in this day and age with all the agents exerting huge influence in football, it isn’t easy to convince players to take a cut, especially when the owner is a billionaire.
Arsenal got off to a dreadful start post lockdown. The 3-0 loss against Manchester City was expected, but we threw it away through our own unforgivable defensive mistakes. We followed this up with a 2-1 loss, capitulating away to Brighton. It seemed like all the good work we did before and during lockdown were undone. Capitulations had become a theme this season and as a fan, you never felt comfortable watching Arsenal try to defend a lead.
The subsequent game away to Southampton set the tone for the reminder of the season. Granit Xhaka was back from his injury, so we could return to the Xhaka-Ceballos pivot which worked extremely well earlier. Arteta had shifted to a back three to adapt to the quality of our squad that never looked comfortable defensively all season.
The 3-4-3 from an offensive point of view allowed Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe to be more tucked inside, almost like forwards which is where they can be most lethal. More importantly, the back 3 gave us the luxury of playing overlapping full backs knowing fully well that we do have cover at the back.
Arsenal looked secure defensively and were clinical in attack, even if we weren’t always winning on xG. We would go on to win the next three Premier league games. The win against Wolves for me was a turning point in how I viewed this side. Last season, we’d been absolutely run over, losing 3-1. We matched Wolves technically and physically, which isn’t an easy thing to do at all. We were cautious, but the players knew that they would get chances and its about picking those moments and making the difference.
The FA Cup run was magnificent. Playing Sheffield United away from home in a quarter final is a super tricky fixture. The way we were able to find a way to score a stoppage time winner even after conceding a late equalizer certainly gave us a morale boost. Arteta has made us a tough side to beat. We fight for every single ball, are well organized at the back and never ever give up. You look at the losses we had under Arteta, we’ve either made a blatant error or conceded from a set piece, things we need to address in the transfer market.
Everyone wrote Arsenal off from the FA Cup run when it became known we were to play Manchester City in the semi-final – after all, we hadn’t won a game against City for the best part of 4 years. But the swagger we played with in this game was unbelievable, I cannot remember the last time we played out from the back with such precision against a top, top side.
Don’t be fooled by City not winning the league this year, they’re comfortably one of the best teams in the world. This is a side that beat Real Madrid 4-2 over two legs. To win 2-0 against them and let in just one shot on target, unreal. To do this on the back of defeating Liverpool, unheard of at Arsenal in recent years. While we did end up finishing 8th in the Premier league, you could see the team had come a long way since December in the way we were playing.
The win in the FA Cup final wasn’t just us deserving it on the day, we have been showing signs of improvement for months. The team’s never say die attitude came to light once again. We go 1-0 down, but we fight, fight and fight. Aubameyang’s individual brilliance might have got us the winner, but it is also a consequence of us working our bollocks off, off the ball and picking our moments, allowing that quality to take over.
Under Arteta, we have beaten the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool – 3 of these wins coming in the space of a month.
Tactically, we’re a well drilled side. Luiz is a completely different player in the center of a back 3. Shkodran Mustafi had his best run of games without an error in an Arsenal shirt. Kieran Tierney is our Mr. reliable, never puts a foot wrong. Xhaka and Ceballos are showing great industry in the middle of the pitch. Lacazette has improved as the season has gone on, as has Pepe.
I’m not a huge fan of Aubameyang on the left, but you have to say that its given us an interesting dynamic – Those diagonals from Pepe to Aubameyang at the far post has become a feature in how we look to slice teams in the final third.
A special mention to goalkeeping coach Iñaki Caña for bringing out the best in Emi Martinez, what a fairy tale story that’s been, hasn’t it?
One of Arteta’s qualities that stands out, even from the outside is his communication. The level of conviction with which he says things tells me he is very confident and clear in how he wants to progress this club, a stark contrast to his predecessor who went from ‘protagonist’ to ‘chameleon’.
This has helped him persuade the likes of Granit Xhaka and head of medical services Gary O’Driscoll to stay at the club. He’s managed to take Ceballos’ game to the next level after lenghty conversations with the Spanish midfielder.
Arteta has also had his fair share of off the pitch issues to deal with – a question he always has got asked recently relates to Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Özil being left out of the squad. He’s been very clear with the former, there have been multiple incidents in the past as widely reported, but Arteta is very clear – you either align with him, or you’ll be shown the door.
The Özil situation is more complicated – I personally think it goes beyond just Mikel and the board is involved. But he’s had to leave out 2 players, in addition to the season ending injuries to Pablo Mari and Gabriel Martinelli. And despite all of this, Arteta has come out with flying colours.
Winning a trophy and getting European football given the circumstances is a brilliant achievement. It is so clear to see that a majority of this squad believes in Arteta. In every club, players usually have nice things to say about their manager, but at Arsenal numerous players within the group have raved about Arteta, wanting to be a part of vision for the club.
The players are covering for each other during games and are fighting for one another – you just have to watch the FA Cup final celebrations and you will understand that the team morale and bonding is excellent. Well done to Steve Round for doing his part in starting the culture shift at Arsenal.
As per The Athletic, Mikel Arteta explained to the Arsenal squad in a team meeting in June that ‘It’s no longer acceptable to say that on their day, they can beat anyone. It should, Arteta insisted, be their day every day.’ Mikel has brought back the belief, it is reflected in the results and fans are fully on board. Bukayo Saka has signed a new contract and its being reported that Aubameyang has agreed to stay too. All of this is a consequence of Arteta’s work at the club in his first half a season.
This is a coach Arsenal must absolutely back in the coming window. With the right additions, I’m confident we will be back playing Champions league football soon. All eyes on Don Raul and Edu now. In Mikel we trust.