“What I have learned mostly is that you have to be ruthless. I have so much respect for this football club that if I did not feel ready I would not be sitting in this chair. The first thing I have to do is change the energy. The players have to accept a different process, a different way of thinking. If we don’t have the right culture the tree is going to shake.”
So said Mikel Arteta in his unveiling press conference. Getting down to brass tacks, the Spaniard instantly identified cultural renovation among his uppermost aims. It is widely accepted that Arsenal were in need of a major cultural shake-up. Some have been moved to describe London Colney as a ‘creche’, while Petr Cech gave a brutally honest comparison between the culture at Arsenal and the one he experienced at Chelsea.
“At Chelsea, even when we drew at home against a big team, it felt like a funeral in the dressing-room. It was so bad. It felt impossible that we didn’t win. But then I came to Arsenal and as much as Arsene Wenger hated losing, he always stayed a gentleman whatever the result. If we won or lost, he just kind of carried on and that was something I’d never experienced before. So as strange as it might sound, I think at Arsenal there is not enough pressure.”
Unai Emery also recognised this and set about trying to change the culture at the club. One of his initial ideas was to insist big players travel for group phase Europa League games. Personally, I thought this was a good idea, transmitting the message that players no longer had ‘privilege days’ or points in the calendar where they could drop their intensity because they knew that a Europa League match meant a duvet day.
Emery subsequently tried to assert himself with players in other ways that were not successful. It’s difficult to get a total read on situations when one is not privy to the daily goings on at London Colney, but I think we can assume that Mesut Özil was not a blameless party in his public feud with Emery. However, it’s a battle that Emery eventually lost.
He probably lost credibility by other means, such as mixed tactical messaging, the fact that he was quite a poor communicator anyway [he’s certainly become more articulate in recent weeks when explaining away his shortcomings] and his handling of a simple administrative procedure like selecting a captain was excruciatingly poor.
Emery tried to assert himself by sidelining Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil, but lost legitimacy by turning to them once more when results demanded it. Last January, I wrote a piece comparing Emery’s decision to take on Mesut Özil with Bruce Rioch’s decision to ‘swing for the biggest dude in the prison yard’ in Ian Wright. Rioch and Emery both lost their battles and, ultimately, their wars.
Emery was right to try and correct a lax culture at Arsenal, he just didn’t have the gravitas to pull it off. We will see whether Arteta can issue that correction soon enough; it is too early to hail his project as a success. It is interesting that Arteta addressed the culture, or ‘the energy’ as he referred to it, in his opening gambit as Arsenal Head Coach.
His work in instilling a renewed sense of democracy at the club is there for all to see [even if, as I said, it is too early to hail that work as a success]. In that opening press conference, he also talked about everyone beginning with a ‘clean slate.’
“You’re not going to be judged on things you’ve done in the past, whether they are negative or positive,” he said. “This is evolving every day and I’m expecting you to perform and be in the right mindset every single day for me. If you do that, you’ll have a chance to play. If you don’t, you won’t.” The clarity of his message is in stark contrast to Emery’s increasingly disengaging word salads.
Arteta has been true to his word too. Few players cradled more baggage upon his appointment than Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi. Fast forward six weeks and both are currently first choice picks. Arteta immediately re-engaged Xhaka, a player who had made his desire to leave the club clear. I was at the manager’s pre-Bournemouth press conference a few weeks ago and his soliloquy on Shkodran Mustafi took me by surprise a little.
“Mustafi after that [the mistake] he tried to play every single time, he went for every challenge, he put his body on the line. He was down afterwards, yes, but he reacted. And if he does that, he will overcome the situation.” In truth, Arteta was invited to stick the boot into Mustafi in that conference but instead decided to highlight the player’s resilience. Mustafi has been picked for every game since.
It seems Arteta is trying to create a total democracy, true to those defining words in his opening press conference. “If you do that, you’ll have a chance to play. If you don’t, you won’t.” His actions have given gravity to his words. Academy players have not been treated differently, as Arteta communicated recently, “Players are going to start games if they deserve to play and they perform at the level of this football club, whether they are academy players or not.”
Bukayo Saka has kept his place in the side, Eddie Nketiah has started two of the last three matches. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been left out of the last two match day squads. In that pre-Bournemouth press conference, Arteta was decidedly lukewarm about Dani Ceballos who had, at that point, struggled for opportunity under the new boss.
Matteo Guendouzi came out of the team initially, too. A thoroughly assured performance against Bournemouth in the FA Cup saw him selected for the proceeding league game at Burnley. This weekend, however, the Frenchman was omitted from the squad with the manager citing a poor attitude. Ceballos was the immediate beneficiary, “He completely changed his behaviour and trained like an animal,” Arteta said of Ceballos after the victory over Newcastle.
Tellingly, he created an immediate link between how Ceballos trained in Dubai and his subsequent performance. “I thought he was the best player on the pitch.” Nicolas Pepe was an unused substitute at Burnley, but played a starring role against Newcastle, “It’s the way he was applying himself defensively in a few moments, he was top drawer,” Arteta said after the match. “That’s what he wasn’t doing in the past and when he does that, the rewards in the other box come.”
The clarity of the messaging and the consistency of its application are as tangible and easy to follow as breadcrumbs. Behave well and work hard and you’ll play, don’t and you won’t. The manager is still in something of a honeymoon period of course, and the ‘not Emery’ sheen is still just about visible. Whether the players continue to follow the message, or whether they rebel en masse or eventually tune out remains to be seen. But nobody can protest that they don’t understand the message or its intention.