Under the stewardship of Mikel Arteta, the increased intensity of Arsenal’s play has been the most obvious, visible difference in the team. In every press conference and interview Arteta has undertaken since his arrival, he has talked about upping the ante in terms of intensity. “I think energy is everything, in life in football and in sport,” Arteta said after his first game in charge against Bournemouth. “If we are able to generate this, it will give us a lift.”
Mikel warmed to the theme again after Monday’s victory over Leeds, in which the Gunners followed a sluggish first-half display with a far more energetic and intense second half effort, wresting back control of the game from the visitors and ultimately winning the game. “They can live their profession and suffer on the pitch like they did for 30 or 35 minutes, or they can enjoy and feel proud of what they do if they play like they did in the second half. It’s their choice.”
He hit on something very important in that quote. Asking the players to play with increased energy and, well, effort, isn’t about disciplining them, or punishing them for earning an obscene salary. It’s a logical means to an end, it’s the best way to control and therefore win football games. Elite footballers do not rise to this level without a freakish streak of competitiveness that a layperson like you or I just can’t relate to.
Professional athletes want to work hard. Despite running their legs off and finishing each game on their haunches, their lungs and muscles burning with the extra effort, the players look more engaged and far happier than they have done for some years now. “The fun is back,” Soktratis remarked after the victory over Manchester United.
David Luiz sunk the knife even further into the departed Unai Emery in the same interview, “It is better to sleep four hours happy than eight hours sad.” The remarks drew a lot of attention, some of it quite critical. Many were moved to ask whether the team had downed tools under Unai Emery and whether their professionalism deserved to be questioned for doing so.
It’s a very fair question. If they are working so hard for Mikel Arteta, why weren’t they doing so for the previous manager? Surely they are obliged to work hard? My first rebuttal to the question would be that I don’t think the players ever really lacked effort under Emery. They lacked intensity and direction, but not effort.
As fans, when we are unsatisfied with performances- and we’ve had plenty to be unsatisfied with over the last few years- we immediately grasp for the intangibles and accuse players of a lack of effort. Occasionally that is the case, of course. Usually there is a more nuanced explanation. Arsenal are more intense under Mikel Arteta because those are the instructions.
Emery’s teams do not play in this manner, they are much more focused on retaining shape and soaking up pressure. The players followed instruction under Emery, they didn’t go rogue. Granit Xhaka spoke of being ‘scared’ after the damaging 2-2 draw with Watford in September, a tacit criticism of Emery’s approach at 2-0 ahead. We can deduce that the players did not like or agree with the orders a lot of the time, but they followed them.
This isn’t just about working a bit harder; it’s about controlling games. Players don’t want to be exposed or to look bad, players at a club like Arsenal probably don’t want to fall back into their shape and try to soak up pressure. The approach fundamentally didn’t suit them. When they increase the intensity, as Arteta has asked them to do, they find more joy in their game.
Nobody could accuse Lucas Torreira of shirking under Unai Emery, nobody would say his effort or desire dropped. Yet everybody recognises the transformation in the player in the early weeks of Arteta’s reign. His job has been simplified, the plan is clearer, the player is more effective and therefore the player becomes more engaged, it’s a virtuous circle.
This is about more than shouting about running. Effort and motivation are not quite the same thing, even if they bleed into one another. It is the same in any job, you have probably had bosses that enthuse and motivate you and bosses that don’t. Your effort might not dip in the latter scenario, but your motivation does. You cannot cheat that or replicate it.
It’s the same for the supporters, we too lost our mojo under Unai Emery. It wasn’t just the players that greeted a stoppage time equaliser against Southampton with indifference back in November, the supporters did too- those that stuck around to see it anyway. Of course, supporters are paying punters and are therefore more entitled to lose interest, but the human psyche just doesn’t work that way. You can’t choose to believe in something that you don’t believe in.
The first half of the Leeds game suggests the message has not totally penetrated yet. “They responded, and they responded because they accepted that it is not what we want. Afterwards, obviously now they are much happier and it was a good lesson for us,” Arteta said afterwards. He is still building his case for the players to approach every game in the same way.
That has been absent from the club’s culture since well before any of the current crop arrived, it will take time to fix. The other valuable lesson from the Leeds game is to look across to the opposition. Marcelo Bielsa- probably the most influential living coach- has chiselled an inferior set of players into a hard-pressing, one-touch passing machine capable of competing with any team in the country in a given fixture.
Arteta emphasised the regularity with which Leeds suffocate teams, “They batter every team in the Championship, every three days. The way they play makes it really difficult and uncomfortable. Everything is man-to-man around the pitch.” It is that consistency he seeks from his own players and if a set of Championship players can do it, there ought to be few obstacles for Arsenal with the tools available.
It’s a simple equation really, unconnected to player salaries or lifestyles. When the team play with greater intensity, they are more likely to control games and more likely to win them. Players enjoy winning and having a plan they are invested in, which is why we have seen such a swift upturn in enthusiasm.
One can argue that players ought to be self-motivated, even if they are playing under a coach they don’t much like. I would argue we did see self-motivation under Emery- the problem is that that was all Arsenal had. Self-motivation alone is like stepping out of your house in your pants and slippers. You’re not quite naked, but it’s still insufficient attire.
Pretty much all elite level athletes have high levels of self-motivation, but if you’re taking on a team that has self-motivation and a plan they are invested in, they hold the upper hand. It works the same for all of us in our various professions. If you have a boss you don’t believe in, you probably still turn up, do your job and justify your salary out of a sense of duty. When you have a boss you are invested in, you go the extra mile because you’re happier and you feel safer.
Arsenal still need a bit of cajoling, but the early signs are that they want to do this. Despite a heart-breaking late defeat against Chelsea, they took on Manchester United three days later with the exact same sense of vim and vigour. After a slow first half against Leeds, they quickly responded to their manager’s ire and raised the level in the second half.
It’s about investment and belief in what they are being asked to do. Arteta has made tactical switches that have sought to accentuate strength and conceal weakness. In that framework, the players look less exposed and more engaged. Arteta has upped the physical ante for his players, but their response to this point shouldn’t be seen as an increase in effort, but an upturn in belief.