Given what has gone before: the dog days of Arsène’s reign, the confused tactics and communication of Unai Emery, the appointment of a rookie coach albeit one who could boast a pedigree apprenticeship under one of the most respected and revered managers in modern football, it would have been difficult to find any Gooner who felt confident going into last Saturday’s FA Cup Final.
The fact that Arsenal won out through a pragmatic game-plan that unapologetically looked to exploit the opposition’s weaknesses was something we simply aren’t used to seeing. Of course beating Liverpool in the League and Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final in the space of just three days hinted that Mikel Arteta is a man with a plan; but the way that his charges took control of the Final after a ropey opening quarter of the match, suggested that this is a coach with real substance despite his relative inexperience.
Humbled in Baku by the same opponents just over a year ago, the Gunners were going nowhere at an alarming rate of knots, when the powers that be in the Arsenal hierarchy finally reached the same conclusion that us fans had a few months previously, and realised that Emery wasn’t going to be the man to take the club back to contention for Champions League qualification let alone anywhere near a tilt at the Premier League title. When they finally pulled the trigger at the end of November the Gunners had not won in 7 games and sat in eighth place in the League, at the time 19 points behind leaders Liverpool. Beyond the league position and the increasingly turgid displays on the pitch, it was Emery’s failure to address any of the obvious and long-standing flaws in Arsenal’s squad or performances that saw his tenure finally brought to an end.
While Arteta has been unable to lead his squad to any higher up the table in order to secure qualification for Europe, there have been most definite signs of progress. First and foremost was the way that the young coach spoke about the task ahead in his very first press conference, when he outlined what he felt was wrong: “The first thing is a little bit to change the energy. Last week I was here with Manchester City and I was a little bit down after the game when I felt what was going on. So we have to try to engage everybody, I have to try and convince the players about what I want to do, how I want to do it, they have to start accepting a different process, a different way of thinking, and I want to get all the staff and everybody at the club with the same mindset.” Being churlish for a second, it probably helped that we could all actually understand what he was saying!
From the very outset of his tenure as Arsenal Head Coach, Arteta set out his famous “non-negotiables” for a squad that was quite simply a mess, affirming categorically “I want people to take responsibility for their jobs and I want people who deliver passion and energy in the football club. Anyone who doesn’t buy into this, or that has a negative effect or whatever, is not good enough for this environment or this culture.”
It was however never going to be plain sailing when Arteta took up the reigns, a draw away at Bournemouth on Boxing Day in his first match was followed by a cruel defeat at home to Chelsea when Arsenal surrendered a 1-0 lead, just a matter of days later. The win over Manchester United, on New Year’s Day, Arteta’s third match at the helm, showed something different, something Arsenal fans hadn’t seen for a long time, namely resilience. 2-0 up at the break after a storming first half performance, it was the way the team were solid, defensively organised and held United at bay that really resonated. Up to that point Arsenal hadn’t beaten a team in the top half of the table all season, this performance was controlled and assured and echoed the almost forgotten days when the Gunners were as up for a scrap as they were capable of playing brilliant football.
That win sparked a 10-match unbeaten run in all competitions which also included progress in the FA Cup. More than the relatively positive results, it was the way that Arteta had reignited the side, just as he said he would, that really stood out. Granit Xhaka seemingly on his way out of the club after his rather public tantrum in October became a key part of the midfield engine room, Skhodran Mustafi, for the most part at least, looked more like a World Cup winning centre back and less like the accident-waiting-to-happen that he had become, he also gave Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos the kick up the backside he probably needed and integrated some exciting young players such as Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Gabriel Martinelli fully into the squad.
Defensively Arsenal became stronger, conceding significantly less goals than they had been under Emery, although the greater emphasis on defensive solidity did have an impact on the Gunners’ attacking play which seemed to lack creativity, thankfully for Arteta he still had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his ability to produce a goal from nowhere. All seemed to be moving in the right direction and progress was definitely being made…and then came lockdown!
In a surreal twist of fate it was Arteta himself testing positive for Coronavirus after the visit of Olympiakos that led to the fixture away at Manchester City being postponed and ultimately English football being shut down.
During the suspension of football it has been reported that Arteta put the time to good use, adopting the technology we all find ourselves using these days to understand his players on a human as well as a football level, and having them analyse sections of or full matches to help them to understand how he wants the game to be played. He has also, like his mentor Pep Guardiola and the undisputed best coach in the League, Jürgen Klopp, established himself as the de facto manger and leader of the club, playing a key role in encouraging the squad to take a pay cut through the pandemic, convincing club doctor Gary O’Driscoll to stay with the club during these turbulent times rather than leaving for Liverpool, and now demanding investment in the club in order to be able to take it where he firmly believes he can and where he is convinced it belongs. Not bad for a 38-year-old with less than a full season’s management experience!
The path hasn’t been completely smooth since Project Restart brought the Premier League back, the shambles at the Etihad followed by defeat at Brighton highlighted, if it were needed, the fragility of the hotchpotch of a squad that Arteta inherited as did the defeats at Spurs and Villa. Yet his man management skills have once again shone through, somehow he found a way of coaxing solid defensive displays out of the often circus-act-like David Luiz in the games that really mattered at Wembley; whilst the petulant Matteo Guendouzi and the frankly downright lazy Mesut Özil have found themselves completely ostracised, both victims of failing to adhere to his now infamous non-negotiables.
Winning the FA Cup and qualification for the Europa League groups stages don’t put everything right at a club that had very much lost his way, the ownership’s apathy and the executives’ seemingly new recruitment strategy based around the players of one super-agent, may well still impinge on what Arteta is trying to achieve. For now at least it feels like Miki has got us all in in the “boat” together and rowing in the right direction.