Mikel Arteta And Man-Management in Modern Football
In the lead-up to the match against Southampton this weekend, Mikel Arteta revealed that star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was set to miss out due to a “disciplinary breach” which set fans and media alike running down speculatory rabbit holes. Ultimately the breach, revealed by the Athletic, was due to Aubameyang returning late from an approved personal trip to France earlier in the week and a mix-up in COVID-19 related protocols. This is not the first time Aubameyang has been dropped due to tardiness, as he was dropped before the North London Derby last season. Fortunately for Arteta, the result this weekend was the same as last season- an emphatic win at home despite the absence of Aubameyang. Unfortunately for the fans, however, this situation brings a disappointing cloud covering what was an enjoyable performance and result.
This new development begs the question: What does it take to be a manager in modern football, and does Arteta have what it takes?
The modern football landscape has become more globalized than ever. With that, many big clubs’ best players become ‘larger-than-life’ superstars, often gathering more of a social media following themselves than the club they play for. With their superstar talent often comes a superstar ego. More than just tactics, it is the modern manager’s job to manage these superstar egos so they can perform on the pitch. Famously, the day after Chelsea won the Premier League, Antonio Conte told star striker Diego Costa that he would never play for Chelsea again. This is the ultimate example of a manager managing a player, who he was not a fan of, and one who had a big ego, throughout the season successfully. Now I am certainly not suggesting that Arteta should handle Aubameyang in the same way- Arsenal are a much classier institution than Chelsea and should treat its players with a greater level of respect no matter the outcome.
Arteta has spoken repeatedly about the ‘Non-Negotiables’ since his arrival and has shown throughout his tenure that there is a bar that must be met off the pitch to be considered for selection on the pitch. Arteta has also made it very clear that it doesn’t matter who you are, you must meet this bar and is not afraid of making an example out of one of the bigger faces in the locker room. At face value, this makes sense. Every player must do the bare minimum- show up for training (on time), act like a professional, etc. Everyone in a regular workplace must meet this minimum bar, so why should footballers be any different? Animated superstar footballers, like Aubameyang, are not like the rest and do require a special set of rules. However, to me, the difficulty lies in what has happened previously with Arteta and Aubameyang.
If this was the first time that Aubameyang had been tardy, and Arteta dropped him straight away- then maybe the punishment would have been a bit harsh. However, if this was maybe the 4th or 5th time in recent months that Aubameyang has been tardy for sessions, then Arteta has definite cause for dropping the striker without hesitation. Ultimately, I am strongly
Following this weekend, much of the criticism with Arteta has been how public he went about dropping Aubameyang. When asked in the press conference leading up to the match, Arteta came out and straight away said the reasoning was due to disciplinary issues. Some viewed this as Arteta throwing Aubameyang under the bus publicly, rather than dealing with the situation internally and covering for his players. This strategy is not always successful either. Arsene Wenger famously covered for his players, making up illnesses and “back problems” to keep the spotlight off any disciplinary issues. However, near the end of Wenger’s reign, this strategy got a bit out of hand, and most fans were all calling for an increased level of discipline and transparency within the dressing room. Further, Unai Emery ultimately lost the respect of the dressing room after he tried to make an example out of players, only to then cave in and bring them back into the team when results were going poorly.
While there have been questions of Arteta’s off-the-pitch man-management abilities, Arteta has shown an ability to manage on-the-pitch issues quite well. Despite a woeful performance against Everton, Arteta kept the same starting XI against Southampton and gave the players the opportunity for redemption. Similarly, Arteta kept Nuno Tavares and Sambi Lokonga in the squad for Newcastle after their poor performances at Anfield. Arteta has shown that he recognizes that in a young squad mistakes will happen on the pitch- and although poor performances are not ‘acceptable’ as long as you meet the off-the-field criteria, you will be given a chance at redemption.
If you want to listen to a more in-depth discussion about Arteta and Aubameyang, check out the latest episode of the Avenell Roadcast here.