Arsenal‘s home Premier League game against Norwich City on Saturday comes the day after the first anniversary of Mikel Arteta’s promotion from “head coach” to “manager.”
“That’s recognition of what he’s been doing from the day he walked in the door, but also where we see his capabilities,” said Gunners chief executive Vinai Venkatesham on Sept. 10 last year. It also sent a clear message to an Arsenal squad polluted by complacency and division that Arteta would be given the authority to dispense with those individuals he either did not require, or believed were not fully committed. Yet he barely masked the toxicity behind the scenes, publicly vowing to track down a mole leaking information after news of a training ground bust-up became common knowledge in November before making this statement in May, reflecting on the 2020-21 campaign.
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“The best thing has been to keep a team, a staff, employees and everybody together in those circumstances when you are not winning and when there are so many people, some inside and some outside, that are trying to hurt,” said Arteta, who subsequently confirmed the people “hurting” the club were no longer there. And it is this cleansing that explains why the 39-year-old is not under immediate pressure from within, despite presiding over Arsenal’s worst start to a season since 1954 with three consecutive Premier League defeats to Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Arteta’s judgement was backed further in the summer market as six players arrived for a cost of more than £140 million — an investment even the fiercest critics of owners Kroenke Sports Enterprises must admit was beyond expectations — and several players were moved on to new clubs having been identified as surplus to requirements. But now there are no excuses. Arteta has been in the job long enough to impose his methods and has received unanimous backing that stands as a remarkable show of faith in a man with no previous managerial experience.
Arteta has regularly cited the absence of fans during the coronavirus pandemic as a vital missing ingredient in creating the alchemy required to catapult the Gunners back into the Champions League. Yet it is these same supporters who are likely to turn up the heat on Arteta if results do not quickly improve, especially during a more amenable run of fixtures. A defining period awaits.
Arteta’s inexperience stands out among his Premier League counterparts, but less so when he meets with the senior decision-makers at Arsenal. Venkatesham is only a couple of years older than Arteta and although at Arsenal since 2010, he originally joined as head of global partnerships with no previous background in football. An affable, polite character who began his career as a City trader and later a strategy consultant at Deloitte, Venkatesham is no football expert by his own admission. That prowess comes from technical director Edu, 43, who previously worked in a similar capacity at Brazilian club Corinthians and the Brazil national team.
Arteta’s promotion meant he joined a triumvirate who make all major football decisions, supplemented by the advice of corporate lawyer Tim Lewis and new director of football operations Richard Garlick, formerly of the Premier League. It is a relatively new structure — Lewis joined the board in July 2020 while Garlick’s first day was in May of this year, as revealed by ESPN that month — and it actually serves all their interests to argue for more time.
“We need to create a solid foundation,” said Edu in an interview with Sky Sports last week, defending the club’s summer transfer planning. “I don’t want to see the squad in one season. I’d like to see Arsenal strong in one, two, three, four and five seasons. That needs strategy.
“To create a good foundation, you need time. I want to see the team play together and then let’s judge the team. After that, no problem. Judge us then.”
Arteta has been dealt an unfortunate hand, thrust into his first managerial role less than four months before COVID-19 shut down English football; the Spaniard was even the first high-profile figure in the game to test positive.
A myriad of issues followed, ranging from helping the club negotiate player wage cuts, the club making 55 non-playing staff redundant, head of football Raul Sanllehi’s sudden departure, Mesut Ozil‘s protracted exit, social media abuse suffered personally and by several of his players, and Granit Xhaka‘s difficult reintegration after telling his own fans to “f— off.”
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang likely caused Arteta plenty of sleepless nights by himself, contracting malaria, missing games to tend to his sick mother, taking months to sign a new contract, turning up late for the north London derby and later contracting COVID-19.
All of this was happening against a backdrop of persistent takeover talk and fans protesting at the ownership following the failed European Super League project. It’s no wonder Arteta describes the last 18 months as “unprecedented” and undoubtedly formed the basis of Amazon’s thinking in picking Arsenal as the subject of their latest “All or Nothing” series.
It’s also not difficult to imagine Amazon also made that choice because they could see the crossroads Arteta has now reached.
Ian Darke and Julien Laurens react to Arsenal’s moves of signing Martin Odegaard and Aaron Ramsdale.
Arteta inherited a squad in which discipline and professionalism had unravelled under his predecessor Unai Emery. Sources told ESPN that several players mocked Emery’s broken English around the training ground, and there was a significant level of confusion at both his tactical approach and selection process. Jokes were made at his expense.
“How many captains do we have?” said one player within Emery’s earshot, a reference to the Spaniard naming a five-man leadership group after Xhaka was stripped of the armband.
Arteta quickly set about restoring order to the dressing room and structure to the team, identifying players he believed were corrosive. Although he never confirmed who the mole was or which individuals were the focus of ire, Arteta’s confirmation in May that those players were no longer at the club made it clear, by a process of elimination, that he thought one or more of Ozil, Sead Kolasinac, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos were at fault as they all departed in January. Kolasinac’s return following a loan spell at Schalke — and subsequent inclusion in the team that lost 5-0 at Man City last month — is either further evidence of Arsenal’s inability to sell players or an indication he can be removed from the list of suspects.
Ridding the training ground of unhappy players fostering — and possibly breeding — resentment was deemed necessary, but the process wasn’t cheap. Ozil, earning £350,000 a week, received the majority of the money owed as a staggered pay-off over the final six months of his contract to depart. There were similar January agreements for Mustafi and Sokratis, all largely at Arteta’s direction as he used his reinforced status to break deadlocks that, in Ozil’s case, had run for some time before his arrival.
Exits continued to be difficult this summer, again compounded by COVID-19 making it a buyer’s market this summer.
ESPN revealed in February that defender Hector Bellerin had a verbal agreement to leave Arsenal this summer after being denied a move a year earlier, convinced by Arteta to commit for one more season. Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal attempted to secure three separate moves for Bellerin, including a possible swap deal with Barcelona for Emerson Royal. However, a source close to the deal (though not working on behalf of the Gunners) said the club’s approach to talks was “confusing,” and a failure to agree terms led to the late switch to sign Takehiro Tomiyasu from Bologna instead. Emerson ended up joining north London rivals Tottenham, while Bellerin completed a loan move to Real Betis, which does not even contain an option to buy.
There was also a failure to communicate clearly with fringe players, not least Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who expressed his frustration on social media by declaring “all I wanna do is go where I’m wanted and where I’m gonna play.” A move to Everton collapsed on deadline day when Arteta held talks as the window closed, reassuring the midfielder he is part of his plans.
Striker Eddie Nketiah was close to moving to Crystal Palace this summer, but the deal fell apart, although on this occasion the club privately insist the striker’s agent was responsible rather than any failing on their end. He has a year left on his contract and has been offered a new deal, but why would he sign it?
Incomings were complicated, too, as in fairness they often are at most clubs. A European agent working close to one of the players on Arsenal’s list of targets this summer described the club’s spending as “strange and expensive.” Sources close to both selling clubs expressed surprise at the amounts the Gunners were eventually willing to pay for £32m acquisition of Aaron Ramsdale from Sheffield United and the £50m signing of Ben White from Brighton. However, Arsenal devised a strategy they have seen to fruition, signing six players all either 23 or under: Ramsdale, White, Albert Sambi Lokonga, Nuno Tavares, Tomiyasu and Martin Odegaard.
The club have been brave in their approach, with KSE funding a rebuild as they said they would after the Super League collapsed in April. Arteta was instrumental in many deals, meeting players face-to-face to explain his vision for the future and their role within it. Edu dispensed with much of Arsenal’s old scouting network in favour of promoting their own analytical database, StatDNA, but make no mistake: these are Arteta’s signings.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens are impressed by Willian’s decision to terminate his Arsenal contract.
At this point, the work done in the market and behind the scenes has to be reflected on the pitch. Arteta’s 2020 FA Cup success proved has significant potential as a coach, able to execute a game-plan to counter superior opposition. It required a solid defensive foundation and clinical finishing — against Man City and Chelsea in the semifinal and final, Arsenal registered seven shots on target in total across both games, scoring four times — both of which has been badly lacking so far this term.
Midfielder Thomas Partey‘s imminent return from an ankle injury is viewed as a key piece of the puzzle, as will be the new signings settling in, Nicolas Pepe starting to justify his £72m fee and the continued development of Emile Smith Rowe alongside Bukayo Saka. White and Gabriel need to form the robust centre-back pairing Arteta claims they can be.
Arteta believes fan support is also vital and that is true, just not necessarily in the way he thinks. Social media is no barometer of real life, but Arteta’s critics point to a lack of progress since that FA Cup win and football which, frankly, has often been far from entertaining. The grumbles in his direction during their only home game to date, a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea, were audible throughout, and external pressure will quickly change the mood if things don’t improve.
It was understandable at the start of Arteta’s reign that he focused on making Arsenal difficult to beat but after so many changes, Gunners fans are entitled to expect a team capable of imposing themselves on opponents, beating sides on their own terms. A run of fixtures comprising Norwich, Burnley, AFC Wimbledon (in the Carabao Cup), Tottenham and Brighton through to the next international break is also largely in their favour.
We’re about to find out if the trust Arsenal have shown in Arteta is worth it.