Friday, May 24, 2024

Believe in me

“I told you, I told you. Believe in me, my friend. Believe in me.” The words of Mikel Arteta to club doctor Gary O’Driscoll seconds after the final whistle blew at Wembley on Saturday. What has been clear from the very beginning is that Mikel Arteta is no ‘Head Coach.’ He is a manager. That is not to say that there isn’t a devolution of responsibility at Arsenal.

Arteta himself has made that very clear, he has challenged the executive branch of the club on several occasions and made it clear where certain responsibilities lie. This practice has become more and more commonplace for head coaches in modern, elite football. The lifespan of the head coach is so short and the business so cut-throat that you can scarcely blame them for gently chaperoning blame elsewhere.

However, what has been clear from the very beginning is that Mikel Arteta does not see himself as a pawn in a structure, at the very least he is aiming for primus inter pares status and probably more. He arrived at Arsenal at a time when the club was so fragile that they could scarcely push back on the cult of Arteta.

Something similar happened for Herbert Chapman when he arrived in the 1920s [to be clear I am not equating Arteta and Chapman]. When Henry Norris, Arsenal’s executive monolith, was banned from football permanently in 1929, he left a void which his successor Samuel Hill-Wood was only too happy to allow Chapman to fill. The board granted Chapman’s every request, from smashing the world transfer record for the signature of David Jack, to revamping Highbury’s East and West Stands, to allowing Chapman to redesign the kit to make the players more visible to one another.

Sixty years later, the board backed George Graham as he sold established stars like Tony Woodcock, Kenny Sansom and Charlie Nicholas and replaced them with academy players and lower league purchases. Arsenal was in desperate need of modernisation when Arsene Wenger arrived in 1996 and he was more or less given carte blanche to bend the club to his will.

Modern clubs are large organisations that require hierarchical management structures but having an elite coach is like having an elite player- it always creates a kind of dependency. Pep Guardiola is not a ‘Head Coach’ at Manchester City. Jurgen Klopp is not the ‘Head Coach’ at Liverpool. They have extensive teams that work underneath them; but they are monolithic to the eyes of the outside world.

Arteta sees himself as a cult figure too. We still don’t know for sure that he is good enough to merit such a status. What he has earned is the right to try. It is a ballsy, borderline arrogant move to walk into your first ever managerial job at a massive club like Arsenal and mould it into your image; but this is not a job for the awestruck.

Mikel took a big risk with his post-Liverpool interview in July, “The gap is enormous. The gap in many areas we cannot improve it in two months. But the gap between the accountability, the energy, the commitment, the fight of the two team is now equal.” He subsequently denied that his comments constituted a challenge to those above him; but the intention was obvious.

Subsequently Arsenal have beaten Manchester City and Chelsea to win the FA Cup and winning changes the story, it’s that simple. When Arteta made that post-Liverpool pronouncement he still only had a handful of top-level games to his managerial career. Putting a trophy on the sideboard strengthens his position and enhances his reputation.

It was a risky move to make such pointed comments but a move that was underpinned by extraordinary self-belief. We could all sense that Arsenal were pointing in the right direction again under Arteta’s stewardship even if the results weren’t always amazing [and they still aren’t, Arsenal lost to Aston Villa a fortnight ago]. We could see it in the redemption arcs of several players.

We could see it in the increased tactical coherence in the performances even when the performances were subpar. Arteta could hardly have failed to offer an improvement on Unai Emery in terms of communication but his oratory skills have been exceptional. Giving good press conference copy is of limited importance, really. That’s not the point.

The reason his communication skills made me feel hopeful was not because of how his words resonated with me, it made me feel hopeful because of how they might resonate with the players. The day after Arteta’s appointment I travelled to Goodison Park for the last game of Freddie Ljungberg’s interim spell in charge away at Everton.

Mikel held his unveiling press conferences on the day before this game. It’s difficult to explain but our train carriage, crammed with Gooners, just hummed with conversation for the entire journey. It has been so long since that has happened for an away match that I forgot that excitement and anticipation were ever part of the away day experience.

I had expected Arteta’s appointment to be divisive and debatable [and, let’s face it, with good cause]. Division, rancour and debate have become so deeply ingrained in the Arsenal support in recent years that it had become a reflexive condition- a shared neurosis. Yet the train carriage hummed as groups of Arsenal supporting friends talked over one another to express their optimism.

I had forgotten what that felt like, it was as though an irritating, distant buzzing sound that I had learned to tune out had just disappeared. Everyone was won over by Arteta’s initial utterings, his promise of culture change of non-negotiables, of suffering together. His language was slightly overwrought; but it was by necessity.

Uniting a divided fan base so immediately was no mean feat but healing the rift in the stands is not Mikel Arteta’s job. I allowed myself to think that if he can heal a fractious fan base this quickly, what can he do with these players? Arteta hasn’t done a perfect job by any means. There have been mistakes, poor performances and times when a front three that the club have paid £180m for has been stunted.

However, one by one we are observing redemption arcs in previously doomed players. Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dani Ceballos. As the players celebrated on Saturday, Arteta gripped each one of them in a bearhug and on every occasion it was reciprocated. You can see that he has forged a closeness with the group, that he has secured that most sought after of managerial trinkets- buy-in.

That is a significant achievement when you consider Arteta’s lack of experience and when you consider that, on several occasions, he has told us all what we can see with our eyes- that there is not enough quality in this Arsenal squad. Publicly questioning the quality of your players, no matter how accurately, is another very risky move but one that Mikel has been rewarded for.

He embraced players that he probably plans to sell and players that likely know it, but it didn’t prevent them from holding him tightly as they celebrated a trophy together. The trophy gives Arteta additional cache. It says to the dissenters, looking on from their holiday villas, “here’s what you could have won.” Most importantly now, for Arteta himself, it says to those around him and above him, “I told you, I told you. Believe in me.”

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