MIKEL ARTETA IS DOING WHAT ALL GOOD MANAGERS DO
Piers Morgan doesn’t get much right, particularly when it comes to Arsenal. Last week, however, in the midst of a Twitter feud with Evan Cooper about whether Mikel Arteta was right to usher Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out of the club, Piers came close to saying something correct. And then he kept talking and missed the point. But before the final seven words of the tweet below, he managed to utter a nugget of truth: “A manager’s job is to manage great talent & get the best out of them”.
At the core of it, a football manager’s main objective is to take a given group of players and extract the highest possible performance out of them. They must make the most of the resources available. Inefficiency is a death knell for managers at these elite levels of the game.
For that reason, it wasn’t too long ago that Arteta found himself in real jeopardy of making his first managerial position untenable. At the end of last season, Willian, well out of his prime and yet on a fat paycheck, had achieved nothing more than a light cardio workout in the vast majority of his matches for Arsenal. Thomas Partey, the marquee deadline day signing of the 2020 summer transfer window, appeared injury-prone and inconsistent. Aubameyang’s first year of his bumper contract extension had not gone according to plan, either. Arsenal once again finished in eighth, and failed to qualify for European competition for the first time in a quarter of a century.
In response to an immensely disappointing first full season on the job, Arteta took drastic actions. Contracts of underperformers (including Willian, Aubameyang, and Sead Kolasinac) have been terminated, saving the club millions in wages wasted on players with whom things simply weren’t working out. Instead of hoping to teach old dogs new tricks, the Arsenal gaffer spent £150 million on six young, hungry footballers in the summer of 2021. He brought aboard set piece coach Nicolas Jover with the aim of tightening up the defense and maximizing the team’s goal output.
For much of his tenure, Arteta has been criticized of not being able to make the most of the team he has, of always requiring investment. And to be fair, the Spaniard did need plenty of financial backing to get where he is now. But the team he took charge of in December 2019 was broken, filled with unproductive personalities and players lacking the requisite ability to play elite football. Arsenal, as is the case with all clubs aiming for the stratosphere of European football, required investment.
In this day and age, managers should not be judged on whether they necessitate funding in order to compete. Rather, they should be judged on how they make use of that funding. In his second full season as the Arsenal manager, Arteta has so far justified the financial support lent by KSE.
At the beginning of the current campaign, the prospect of finishing in the top six was viewed as big ask for this team. Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Benjamin White, Nuno Tavares, Albert Sambi Lokonga, and Martin Odegaard were widely viewed as an expensive set of backups for an underwhelming first XI. But now, with ten matches left in the Premier League season, Arsenal have a 67% chance of qualifying for the Champions League according to FiveThirtyEight, and most of those signings to thank for it.
Benjamin White, a player who still faces uninformed criticisms over his ability to physically compete in the Premier League, has partnered phenomenally with Gabriel to form one of the most reliable center-back duos in the top flight. Aaron Ramsdale currently sports the second-most clean sheets in the league and, similarly to the likes of Alisson and Ederson, has given his team security in passing out from the back and another line-breaking passer in Arsenal’s defense. Takehiro Tomiyasu, a relatively unknown footballer in England, provided shutdown defense and aerial prowess at right-back while also contributing going forward. Martin Odegaard has quickly established himself as one of the leading playmakers in the Premier League, with a clearly elite talent ceiling. Even Tavares and Sambi, although clearly more players for the future, have shown promise when they have appeared.
But it isn’t just the summer signings whom Arteta has done a fine of job of getting the most out of. Bukayo Saka has developed into one of the best players in the Premier League under the Spaniard’s tutelage. Emile Smith Rowe has become a first team regular, with he and Saka currently the leading scorers for their club. Gabriel Martinelli has evolved into a dangerous wide forward, now able to change gears when running with the ball, mastering playing out on the flank, and consistently earning the praise of Jurgen Klopp.
After going big for and ultimately failing to acquire the sure thing at center-forward that was Dusan Vlahovic in January, Arteta opted to stick with the players he already had to get his team performing at a top-four level. He made the switch from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3, deploying Granit Xhaka as an eight alongside Odegaard. This has kept the Swiss midfielder out of trouble defensively. Although he clearly isn’t suited long-term to the role, Xhaka has performed admirably and combined well with players on the left flank.
The shift to a 4-3-3 has brought the best out of Thomas Partey, who at one time looked like yet another transfer flop for Arsenal. Now with the base of midfield all to himself, Partey has come into his own. Over the last several weeks, the Ghanaian has consistently done everything you’d want from an all-action midfielder: winning the ball back in the center of the park, progressing the ball excellently through passing and carrying, and arriving late at the end of moves. While that final part has not resulted in any goals from open play from Partey, his shot selection has vastly improved to the point where it feels possible that he can score from long range. He has become one of the most pivotal players in the squad.
Outside of the regular starters, Arteta has even managed to get a tune out of players on the bench who were a source of concern just a couple months ago. The manager has carved out a role for Rob Holding, substituting him on to form a low block late in matches where Arsenal have the lead but have relinquished dominance over the match, and turning the English center-back into a harbinger of doom for sides chasing a goal against the Gunners. In the absence of Tomiyasu, Cedric has deputized admirably. The Portuguese right-back, whose inclusion on the team sheet used to precede negativity on the timeline, has provided security through a string of tricky matches. Bernd Leno has been reliable when called upon. Even Eddie Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe, though more inconsistent than the others, have still come along to save the day, such as in the 2-1 comeback win against Wolves at the Emirates.
In a way, Arteta has even gotten the most out of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Yes, the Gabonese forward is no longer at the club. But since his departure, both he and Arsenal have enjoyed upticks in form. At Barcelona, Aubameyang finds himself in a setup that plays more to his strengths and allows him to pop up at the end of attacking moves to tuck a goal away. Back in north London, Arteta is more free to rely on Alexandre Lacazette, whose contribution in buildup better suits the rest of the team that the Spaniard has assembled.
The result of all this is an Arsenal that are performing probably near their maximum capability, and certainly at a higher level than most expected when the season started. With ten games to go, a return to the Champions League looks a real possibility. That is down to Mikel Arteta doing what all good managers do: managing great talent and getting the best out of them. If the gaffer can continue on in this fashion, even those who can’t see the forest for the trees will eventually realize that Arsenal’s current manager is developing into a good one. Well, that’s the hope anyway.
If you enjoyed this article, follow me on Twitter @dopegooner.