Arsenal’s Cultural Change Has An Impact Outside The Squad
It’s July 2019, and Arsenal sign 18-year-old William Saliba from Saint-Etienne. While excitement around the French defender’s talent was palpable, so was the worry that exposing such a precocious talent to the intense scrutiny of elite football may be a risk. What would happen if he made a mistake? Would an on-edge Emirates Stadium crowd, one notorious for being unforgiving and divided, be a safe space for him to blossom?
Patrons at Arsenal would have been accustomed to the uncomfortable sound of the crowd collectively losing its breath whenever Mustafi ran towards his own box. Jeering at players perceived to be error-prone or regarded as not giving their best was commonplace, and only a few months down the line, captain Granit Xhaka would retaliate by cursing the fans and storming off the pitch. Arsenal, and their fans, were in a crisis.
William Saliba represented the hope of a brighter, and more popular, future. Fast forward 3 years and 3 loan spells, and Arsenal’s new number 12 (for now) finally made his home competitive debut in Saturday’s game against Leicester. On the day before the match, Mikel Arteta spoke about the worthwhile risk of trusting young players.
“I always said that especially with the young and development portfolio of players that we have in our squad, you have to pay a bill. And that bill is that at some stage they’re going to make mistakes, they’re going to experience things for the first time and they have to go through that process.”
A mere 24 hours later, and that inevitable bill came due, as William Saliba headed the ball into his own net on his long-awaited occasion. What followed may turn out to be one of the defining moments in Saliba’s Arsenal career. The home fans immediately began singing his name, and loudly cheered every one of his next half-dozen touches. The show of support extended to the rest of the team, and with the Emirates Stadium in full voice, Granit Xhaka slotted the ball into the net to restore the lead.
The significance of that moment was not lost on Mikel Arteta, who after the game spoke of the effect it had on the team.
“What they’ve done today with William Saliba is something that in my career I haven’t seen and that shows the connection and to really be there when it matters and when it’s difficult for somebody.”
“I think it really lifted the confidence of Wilo and how he played the last minutes after that and for the team as well.”
One of Arteta’s most commonly used words in describing the project at Arsenal is “unity”, something wants to achieve at every level within the club. Harmony and togetherness within the dressing room, between the owners and the strategic decision makers, and importantly between the team, the club, and the fans. Generating that unity does not simply come from clear tactical instructions and belief in the project, it also comes from creating a strong culture.
In the three years since Arsenal signed Saliba and his first mistake in a red and white shirt was made, the culture within the club had been revamped completely. By introducing a set of “non-negotiables”, and ruthlessly disposing of players that did not abide by them, Arteta and Edu have redefined what an Arsenal player is. Insight from Amazon’s All or Nothing: Arsenal docuseries tells us that Arteta pays particular attention to enforcing high standards of performance and accountability.
When discussing the brewing Aubameyang problem with club doctor Gary O’Driscoll during a training session in Dubai, Arteta asks: “What do you do? Let it go, it’s okay, let it go? What happened in the last 10 years? Let it go…The next one the same, the next one the same.”
Players whose commitment standards do not match the expectations set by the manager, are disciplined. Crucial in the success of this cultural reset has been the transparency with which it has been carried out. The club’s communication has vastly improved, mostly thanks to Arteta but also as Edu and Josh Kroenke have been made more available to the media. The increased transparency has enabled fans to get on side, and realize that the days of overpaid and underperforming players are over. Players who train poorly, or whose commitment levels falter, or who simply are not good enough, are not Arsenal players for very long, even if it means taking a financial hit.
Coupled with a ruthless accountability culture at the club, is one of incredible support for those who are “on board”. While having raised the on-pitch standards, Arteta has simultaneously required that the group protect whoever happens to fall below them. All or Nothing: Arsenal reveals that once in the dressing room after Gabriel Magalhaes’ back-pass error against Wolves, Arteta turned to the players and said: “Gabi, you make a mistake, it’s part of football, mistakes. Now is the moment to help him, he’s made a mistake, now we have to help him guys.”
The fans did not need a team talk on Saturday to respond that way. With trust and unity restored, and a revamped culture within the club, the fanbase is more than willing to give its young, hungry players as much room as they need to grow. William Saliba’s blossoming career will certainly be stronger for it.