Mikel Arteta has been Arsenal’s Head Coach for barely one week and it is easy to see why his budding coaching career has been so keenly followed. One can see already why Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola tussled for his services the instant he called an end to his playing career.
His every utterance in his first week in office has been, in my view, enormously encouraging. From his assertion that greater off-ball intensity is “non-negotiable”, to his early musings about reversing a club culture that has curdled, he is saying all of the right things. On one hand, he has taken a firm line on what he expects from players, on the other, he talks of getting to know and understand his charges.
“I would like to start to make some steps and start to understand the reasons why [the club has lost its way]. There will be reasons behind it, and a history behind it, and I have to try to understand quickly why this is.” The stock of the players is very low with supporters at the moment and a lot of fans would probably support Arteta if he wanted to horsewhip the majority of them out of the London Colney fire exit.
That is unrealistic, undesirable and not what good leaders do. Good leaders survey the landscape first and look at the reasons why individuals are underperforming. Emotional intelligence is an enormous part of leadership. If you scratch below the surface and discover the guy you’re managing is not suited to your requirements or is genuinely just a half-arsed wastrel, fair enough, but you don’t jump to that conclusion as a starting point.
In short, Arteta has passed the ‘theory’ course of coaching with flying colours. As we know, the theory is but a small part of the full picture. I hope the players have engaged with what Arteta has said as much as I and many other fans have, because I already have a strong feeling that if they listen and respond to him, they will not go far wrong.
There is an assumption, I think, that Arsenal have veered off-course because they are a squad of pampered prima donnas but I am not sure that is the case. I do think the confidence of the unit is badly compromised after Unai Emery’s random tactics machine gun was allowed to fire at them for far too long.
Arteta is right to talk about ‘quick wins’ in order to instil some fundamentals and there were signs of that at Bournemouth. It reminded me of a chat I had with Arsenal Women manager Joe Montemurro at the end of his last full-season in charge, in which his side won the league title. He took Arsenal over in a similar state of identity crisis.
He too arrived at the club in December (2017) and turned the team’s fortunes around quickly by stabilising the team and concentrating on reconnecting them with some basic principles. Nowadays, he slightly tweaks his system in pretty much every game and swaps comfortably between a back three and a back four. In those early months, however, he focused on stability and familiarising his team with his principles.
“To have a style of play that your players believe in, you need insurance policies,” Joe told me. “If you want your players to believe in your style, you have to give them something to fall back on, so they know that even if things don’t quite go for them in a given situation, they can still get something out of the game.
“Once you’ve got that base and that confidence, you can make switches. You can move between systems, play with more width or more inside depending on what the game requires. We spent the first six months solidifying the core and from there, we made adjustments and started to develop.”
It sounds like Arteta is starting on a similar basis and that principle is totally sound. Of course, whether he can convince the players of his ideas is the known unknown at this stage. His coaching theory is, to my eyes and ears, on the nose, but being the Head Coach of a team like Arsenal is about more than just coaching technique and style.
The people management side is the biggest unknown for Arteta. We have heard stories about his meticulous one-to-one technical coaching at Manchester City, however, he has never had to deal with the intricacies of a want-away player, nor has he had to totally own the progress of an unmotivated player.
We don’t even have theory when it comes to how Arteta will handle this side of club management, but Arsenal will test his chin very early in his reign. I happen to think the situation with Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, for instance, is quite straightforward. He turns 31 next summer and even if he were inclined, I don’t think Arsenal can countenance giving him the size of contract he would command.
He would be an enormous loss, but at that age, the club will have to look elsewhere soon enough anyway and simply aren’t in the financial league where they can award a huge salary to a 31-year old. There is little in the captain’s performances to suggest he will down tools, so Arteta can just focus on juicing him for all he has until the summer.
However, the scenario with Granit Xhaka is more finely balanced. That the Swiss wants to leave the club as soon as possible is very clear and that Newcastle and Hertha Berlin are the only teams to have been seriously linked with him shows you that he is not a player that would be missed in the long-term if Arsenal are serious about reversing their decline.
Replacing him in January, however, will be potentially tricky and the player is already reported to be upset by the contradictory external and internal messaging from Arteta. I don’t really hold Arteta responsible for that, I think Xhaka is probably at the stage where he will use any reason he can to manufacture a quick exit. Yet it remains a delicate situation and one Arteta won’t have been exposed to before.
Likewise, he opted not to pick Nicolas Pepe at Bournemouth. In fairness, Pepe could still have been struggling with the knee injury obtained at West Ham, but Mikel is the third Arsenal coach this season to have sat the player down on the bench, which suggests there are issues behind the scenes that require careful management.
Leaving aside Mesut Özil’s on-pitch performance, the player has become involved in a sensitive geopolitical situation with China recently, which is a sentence I don’t think I ever saw myself typing on this website! In fairness, management of that PR storm will be handled above Arteta’s head.
Eking performances out of a player in his 30s on a very comfortable contract is the challenge for Arteta and one that, again, he has never really been exposed to before. The initial signs were good at Bournemouth, where Arsenal seemed to have a plan to funnel the ball to Mesut in space, rather than just fielding the player and leaving him to his own devices.
Arteta is the Head Coach, after all, and I think better, more structured coaching will go most of the way to lifting the stench of ennui from Arsenal. However, he has some high-profile character assignments to complete in the coming weeks and these aren’t theory examinations either. Buena suerte, Mikel.