Come Back To What You Know

Like Frank Lampard and Chelsea, or Rogerio Ceni and São Paulo, Mikel Arteta and Arsenal just seems like one of those mutual managerial itches that needs to be scratched. Like a reticent student watching his housemates ingest an ungodly amount of MDMA, the curiosity is just too strong and Arsenal and Arteta have an overwhelming mutual desire to suck it and see.

The Spaniard is seldom linked with other jobs- other than a tangential link to the Everton position on account of his history there as a player. He has interviewed for the Arsenal position twice in 18 months now yet, as far as we know, hasn’t indulged the top brass of any other clubs with midnight liaisons at his Manchester abode.

I have spoken a little about Arsenal’s attraction to the mystery box of Arteta before. The field of other candidates is not enormously inspiring and there is an acceptance that a genuinely inspirational appointment might have to come from left-field. Arteta’s biggest attraction might just be the fact that he hasn’t had the opportunity to do anything to offend us yet.

Knowledge is, at once, the great blessing and curse of the modern football fan. We know everything about everyone. New signings lose their ‘fresh out of the box’ sheen very quickly because by the time they have made their debut, we have an extensive dossier on their strengths and, most tellingly, their weaknesses. This goes for managers too and likely explains why there is no overwhelming favourite for the job among the Arsenal faithful.

Ancelotti? We have already seen him manage AC Milan, PSG, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Bayern Munich. We know how he operates, how he is an adhesive agent for a gifted squad under-delivering on its obvious talent. We know he relies on building strong, friendly relationships with his players and that he tries to foster a relaxed environment.

Allegri? We already know he is not a great communicator, has a loose grasp of English, how he left AC Milan in 11th place and for all of his success at Juventus- it’s Juventus! (I am not saying these are my opinions per se, I am just paraphrasing the general consensus). By the time Unai Emery coached his first Arsenal game, we knew that he was going to use the 4231 formation he trusted at Sevilla, Valencia and PSG.

That feeling of familiarity abbreviates a manager’s honeymoon period, we know their weaknesses and we immediately scour for them, peeling back the layers of games for evidence of our deeply held suspicions. Arteta doesn’t come entirely lacking this baggage- there will, I think, be an expectation that he will produce a working facsimile of Pep-ball. Much of his reputation- based entirely on theory at this stage- is grounded in his association with Guardiola.

I don’t think anyone is expecting David Moyes to be his managerial inspiration. However, at this stage, we have no reasonable measure of Arteta’s strengths but, more importantly, we are not pre-fatigued by his weaknesses. Does he have a flaw in dealing with pressure? Is he the arm around the shoulder sort or a jackboot up the anus kind of guy?

What are his verbal ticks? Does he develop a nervous twitch in the dugout which forces him to fish around in his underwear and inhale the scent of his hand, Jogi Loew style? Nobody knows. By now, Arsenal are in such a state of disarray that their arms and legs have just about fallen off, so they may as well entrust the surgery to a rookie in the hope that he’s the next Dougie Howser.

Because if Arteta goes somewhere else and really does turn out to be European football’s managerial prodigy in waiting, he will immediately move beyond Arsenal’s reach. As Andrew outlined in his blog on Tuesday, the Gunners perilous state gives Arteta a weird sense of power. It’s probably why he was able to enact the ultimate pre-recruitment power move of having Arsenal’s executive class commute from North London to Manchester on Sunday evening for their not-so-secret rendez-vous.

Due to the Pep osmosis that has clearly rubbed off on Arteta, we are assuming that he is going to be a grand ideologue and that he can give the Arsenal squad the identity it has so desperately lacked for so many years. We are assuming that Mikel will be a ‘project manager’ and that he will brutally trim the fat from a flabby squad, chiselling it into his own urbane, immaculately coiffed image.

The mixture of Arsenal’s train-wrecked season and the stupefying curiosity as to whether the theory of Arteta the coach matches the reality will buy him a little time. Not much, but the rest of the season, one would imagine. Arsenal are in ‘blow it up and start again’ territory. Yet Arteta and Arsenal has been a mutual courting.

It’s true that Mikel rejected the opportunity to join the Gunners coaching staff upon his retirement in 2016, however, he seems to have only really made eyes for the Arsenal top job. It could be that his five years at Arsenal had a profound effect on him and that he cherishes the club’s “values”- whatever they may be.

During Arteta’s time at the club, Arsenal’s values were very much Arsene’s values. If that is indeed the case, he may well turn out to be just as much an Arsene acolyte as a Peplicant as a Head Coach. Arsenal’s current situation might be strangely attractive to a manager looking to start his career as the head honcho, but he wanted the job in 2018 too. He wanted to take the poisoned chalice as Wenger’s successor together with its slightly ageing, very expensive and very unbalanced squad.

There seems to be some specific draw to Arsenal for him. It’s certainly a ballsy move on his part. Few managers pop their cherry with a gig this big. Reputations are a long-time stained when a coach messes up a promotion into a big job and there will be plenty of “I told you so” merchants lying in wait should Arteta not prove to be the managerial second coming. Just ask Gary Neville.

Despite being bumped for the job at the 11th hour last summer, Arteta is seemingly unbowed in his desire to lead the club. It could have been an amicable rejection, of course. Arsenal might even have left the door ajar and promised to revisit his candidacy in the future and that might explain why he hasn’t publicly courted other roles. Whatever the truth, Arsenal and Arteta has a strong ‘Rachel and Ross’ vibe. It seemed inevitable that, sooner or later, he would come back.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto or like my page on Facebook.