Examining Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal Revolution
Under Unai Emery, Arsenal were bereft of any identity. There was no coherent style of play, no vision and no connection with the fans. Although Arsenal sought an heir to Arsene Wenger, they instead appointed the ultimate anti-Wenger. Under Le Professeur, Arsenal became world-renowned for their expansive and beautiful style of play. And, despite struggles during his closing years at Arsenal, Wenger meant something special to each and every Arsenal fan. As Wenger said, “a style of play has to reflect the personality of a manager, you cannot go against your own beliefs.” To truly replace him, Arsenal needed to find a manager able to display such charisma and class as Wenger.
Arsenal’s search to find their managerial saviour bought them to Mikel Arteta. An unsung hero in the club’s recent history, and the captain of two FA Cup-winning sides. Arteta ticked every box to lead Arsenal’s rebuild. A man held in high esteem by the fanbase, who implements an attacking style of play and is regarded as one of football’s finest emerging coaches.
From early on, Mikel Arteta had a coaching career written all over him. Although not the most talented player, he possessed the nous and leadership which enabled him to fulfil his absolute potential. Even in 2014, he had a clear idea of what his philosophy would entail. In speaking to the club website, he professed:
“I will have everyone 120 per cent committed, that’s the first thing. If not, you don’t play for me. When it’s time to work it’s time to work, and when it’s time to have fun then I’m the first one to do it, but that commitment is vital. Then I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition. We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us. I’m 100 per cent convinced of those things, and I think I could do it.”
Although he is his own individual, it is difficult to not see the similarities with Wenger in the way Arteta speaks. He wants to be the protagonist in the game, rather than a “chameleon team”, as Unai Emery desired. Not much seems to have changed for Arteta in the past six years. Speaking in his first official interview since “coming back home”, he said, although he is “evolving his ideas”, he maintains that his team “has to have passion, be dominant and be aggressive and play in the opponent’s territory as much as we want.”
Arteta’s philosophy is largely derived from Johan Cruyff, as can be seen through him citing him as the man who made him fall in love with football. Pep Guardiola is another manager whose tactics have been inspired by the Dutchman, making it no surprise that the two Spaniards formed such a successful bond at Manchester City. Arteta has set Arsenal up primarily in a 2-3-5 shape in attack. This has catered for the strengths of the side and masked some pitfalls. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s lack of hold up play makes him unsuitable as a centre-forward for Arteta, but courtesy of Bukayo Saka’s overlapping runs from left-back, he is able to attack the inside channel. Furthermore, Granit Xhaka performs a vital function, covering for Saka’s ventures, and also playing a key role in playing out from the back.
What has been equally impressive in Arteta’s reign is his man-management skills. From the outset, he outlined clear criteria for what he sought in a player. With his desire to “create the right culture around the club”, he explained that “if you are going to be a part of this organisation, it has to be in these terms and in this way.” He also noted that he wants to have things his way, and “convince [the players] that it is the right way for everybody to live better.”
In recent months, the omission of Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been motivated by this desire to create the right culture. The 22-year-old is believed to have taken exception to his deployment as a full-back, drawing the ire of Arteta. This was evidenced by David Ornstein, who stated “Mikel Arteta isn’t particularly receptive to players indicating where they want to play. They will play where they’re told to play, and for the good of the team.”
Due to the financial ramifications of COVID-19, Arsenal resorted to pay cuts to ease their financial burden. Initially, the players had voted 13 in favour and 14 against for a 12.5% pay cut for the next year. However, after an Arteta intervention, the majority of the squad voted in favour of taking the proposed pay cuts. Such was the respect garnered by Arteta, that one source described the Spaniard to David Ornstein as an “extraordinary man”.
Over the course of the last six months, we have all found ourselves falling in love with Mikel Arteta and his project. While it may be a work in progress, the signs are there to suggest that he is steering us in the right direction. The fans finally feel valued, the players morale is high and beautiful football has begun reappearing at the Emirates Stadium. Although David Dein rightfully said Arsene Wenger “will not be a difficult act to follow, he will be an impossible act to follow”, in Mikel Arteta, Arsenal have the rightful heir to Arsene Wenger’s throne.