Redemption and Mikel Arteta
The 2019/20 season has been one full of unprecedented events. Three managers, a pandemic, a captain falling out directly with the fans. The last of which came at the end of October 2019. When Mikel Arteta returned to Arsenal in December, he spoke of a ‘clean slate’ for all his players. Granit Xhaka has grabbed this opportunity with both hands, and in the short time Arteta has been Arsenal boss, has gone from having ‘one foot out the door’ to really appearing to be an integral cog to this Arsenal side.
It was against Crystal Palace that Xhaka was substituted to the sounds of cheers ringing around the Emirates. Xhaka’s response was to take his time coming off the pitch and then gesticulate to the fans before visibly telling them to ‘f**k off’. He ripped the Arsenal shirt off as he walked down the tunnel and most thought he’d never put it back on. He was stripped of the Captaincy and gave a half-hearted apology, met by a very mixed reaction. He would make one final appearance for Unai Emery, in his final game, but rumours of a January exit to Hertha Berlin were gaining momentum and looking inevitable.
Mikel Arteta arrived back in North London in December and immediately sought to repair the relationship. He spoke to Xhaka and convinced him to stay to the end of the season at least. Xhaka has never looked back since that moment and has been imperative to Arteta’s team. Under Emery, Xhaka was playing as a base defensive midfielder, exposing his lack of mobility. Arteta chose to partner the midfielder with another who has had his own redemption story of sorts, in Dani Ceballos. The two complement each other perfectly, each strong where the other is weak.
It is difficult to name a bad performance for Xhaka under his new boss and an Arsenal stay now seems guaranteed. Xhaka was commanding and resolute in Arsenal’s midfield as they won their 14th FA Cup Saturday, and an Instagram post made after perfectly summed up the transformation. One side shows the Palace game, the shirt being torn off. The other, Xhaka beaming to the camera, as the FA Cup sits below, gleaming just as bright. The comments filled with red heart emojis, marking acceptance and love.
David Luiz is another who has seen a turn-around since the arrival of Arteta. Moments of insanity and mistakes have littered the Brazilian’s season, but he delivered two incredible performances in the semi-final and final of the FA Cup to bring home the trophy. The performances and character he has shown will have surely helped justify Arteta’s decision to give the defender a new contract, one which raised eyebrows when announced. Speaking after the Man City semi-final, Luiz was solemn. He spoke about the criticism he had received from the media but spoke of survival. ‘Every day, you’re going to defend your team.’ He pounded the Arsenal badge as he said it. He too, gleamed to the cameras, as he posed with the FA Cup.
Aside from media criticism, redemption can also be found within the club. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a Hale End graduate, started off in great form upon Arteta’s arrival. He was playing in an inverted right-back role, fitting him perfectly. He was suddenly dropped, however and struggled to make the match-day squad. The reason was a disciplinary breach. Arteta was tasked with changing the culture of the club and introducing harsh discipline was always going to be necessary. With Maitland-Niles still struggling to appear for the club even after the Covid-19 break, rumours started circulating of a summer move and a loss of trust between player and manager.
The young Englishman was not prepared to give up on his boyhood club just yet, however. After good work in training, Maitland-Niles was reintroduced in the FA Cup semi-final, tasked with keeping one of the league’s trickiest wingers in Riyad Mahrez, quiet. Against all odds, Mahrez had minimal impact on the game, struggling to beat the full-back. As the full-time whistle blew, Arteta ran onto the pitch and pulled a clearly emotional Maitland-Niles into a hearty hug, lifting him up for a few seconds. The interaction sent Arsenal fans into frenzy on social media, the hug being a clear sign of a breakthrough in their personal relationship. After the game Arteta spoke highly of the 22-year-old. His performance, he described as ‘magnificent’. He spoke of a change in mentality and attitude and added ‘I believe in him.’
In the FA Cup final, Maitland-Niles was again given a starting place, in the same position. Again, he was fantastic. Like Luiz and Xhaka, Maitland-Niles posed with the trophy, a moment he likely would have dreamt about as a kid. There is no doubt the young man has a role in Arteta’s squad and his recent performances are a true testament to his determination to succeed.
To say these stories of redemption are all down to Mikel Arteta, would simply be unfair to the players who have carried them out. However, what the Arsenal boss provides, is an opportunity. An expression Arteta has used commonly, is ‘being on the boat’. The boat, in this instance, is Arteta’s squad. To board said boat, one must show they are willing. In the case of Matteo Guendouzi, Arteta has exhibited how he can expel those who are not.
Arteta gives every one of his players the opportunity to impress through training, and if you are on the boat, you benefit. His communication and understanding of the game is second to none. The positional play of Xhaka and Maitland-Niles show that. He knows how to get the best out of his players, for example, despite commonly playing right-back, Maitland-Niles produced arguably the two best performances of his career as a left-wing-back under Arteta.
By creating an environment of determination and hunger, Arteta has revitalised this Arsenal squad. With the first trophy under the Spaniard’s belt, ‘the boat’ can now begin to move and the only direction in sight, is forward.