The Arsenal we know at the moment is incomparable to the one Mikel Arteta inherited in late December 2019. Before the turn of the year, there were a few members of the first team whose Arsenal career’s seemed all but over. Now, they are delivering standout performances on a regular basis. In addition, somehow, Mikel Arteta has turned Arsenal into a solid defensive unit. And most importantly, there has been a clear cultural shift. The overall squad attitude looks to have improved tenfold. So, how has Mikel Arteta inflicted so much change in such a short period of time?
Well, in spite of all the positivity, It would be wrong to suggest that there haven’t been hiccups for Mikel Arteta on his short managerial journey thus far. There was the embarrassing Europa League loss against Olympiacos. Then, post-Project Restart, defeats at the hands of Manchester City, Brighton and Spurs all served as necessary learning opportunities and reality checks for Mikel Arteta and his team. But still, overall, there has been more reason to smile than to scowl. Arsenal are yet to lose a home game in 2020 and have earned a place in a hugely important FA Cup Final. Clearly, things are looking up.
A key reason for the positive results is the major defensive improvement. Since Arteta’s appointment, his side have kept a brilliant 12 clean sheets in 26 games. It’s difficult to say exactly how Arteta has improved Arsenal so much in this area. However, a mixture of developing a cohesive unit at the back and finding a system which hides Arsenal’s often skeptical defenders’ weaknesses have obviously contributed to this change.
Prior to the pandemic-induced pause, the solidity derived from some brilliant leadership from David Luiz. Luiz and his fellow defenders were also superbly protected of by the likes of Ceballos, Torreira and Xhaka. Then, post-lockdown, those factors have remained constant (for the most part) and a change in system has helped Arsenal remain solid (for the most part). It’s quite astounding that such simple changes can administer such an upturn in performance.
It’s also astounding that the same group of players who looked so void of confidence during the latter days of Unai Emery’s tenure are now performing so admirably. The most distinguishable revivals have come from Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka. The way Arteta has helped Mustafi to turn his Arsenal career around is incredibly praise worthy. After his dreadful errors at the end of last season, nobody thought Mustafi had a future with the Gunners. But here we are, the German has been one of the first names on the team sheet throughout Arteta’s tenure and he seems to have partially eradicated his silly mistakes from his game. At the moment, the former Valencia defender is playing the best football he has ever played in an Arsenal shirt. Both Mustafi and Arteta deserve great commendation for this.
However, it can easily be argued that Granit Xhaka’s reintroduction is all the more impressive. After the ugly turn of events against Crystal Palace in October, many believed the Swiss international would never wear an Arsenal shirt again. He had reportedly agreed to move to Hertha Berlin and not many Arsenal fans were particularly upset by this. Nonetheless, Mikel Arteta persuaded him to stay. He ensured Xhaka that he was part of his long-term vision and the man who wears an invisible armband every time he walks onto the the pitch for Arsenal has become a pivotal tool within the Spaniard’s machinery. Arsenal’s results with and without their number 34 show just how important he has become.
Impressively, Mikel Arteta has also shifted the culture at Arsenal. Those “non-negotiables” which he referred to in his first few interviews as Arsenal head coach have now come into full effect. If a player isn’t willing to devote his blood and sweat to Arteta’s project, he doesn’t have a place in his squad. The last two Arsenal results are clear exemplifications of the positive impact the altering of the club’s culture has had.
Mikel Arteta brought in Steven Round into his backroom team to establish this cultural amendment. Certain players have benefited from this change. For others, it has been their downfall. By example, despite initially failing to impress Mikel Arteta, Ainsley Maitland-Niles decided that he was willing to give his all to the new regime. Consequentially, he delivered one of his best performances in an Arsenal shirt to date in an FA Cup semi-final yeserday. On the other hand, Mattéo Guendouzi’s behaviour doesn’t meet Arteta and Round’s high standards so he’s been dropped. The non-negotiable benchmark concerning conduct has been fully implemented.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a long way to go. There are a few players in this squad who are not good enough to be part of Arteta’s long-term plans. On top of this, it’d be great to see Arsenal develop into a side who can properly dominate games again. However, with his current players, Mikel Arteta knows he can’t send out his team to do this yet. He is adapting wonderfully well and he deserves great credit for that.
That being said, he’ll know better than anyone the way his side have played in the last couple of games isn’t sustainable. New personnel is required in areas across the pitch if the Spaniard’s team is to progress. Plenty of fans have clamoured for improvement in midfield and this would be a good place for us to start the rebuild, but this shall be a topic for another day.
The bottom line here is that Arteta needs to be backed. He’s shown us what an immensely talented coach he is by beating what he believes to be “the two best teams in Europe” in the space of a week with limited resources available to him. Just imagine what this innovative and progressive young coach can do if he can get the players that he wants. Ladies and gentlemen, the Mikel Arteta era has truly begun. Your move, Stan Kroenke.