Back in May 2018, I wrote a column called ‘The Mystery Box’. It came at a time when it looked very likely that Mikel Arteta would be appointed as Arsene Wenger’s successor just two years after he finished his playing career as club captain. At the time, Arsenal were very close to appointing the Spaniard before getting cold feet and opting for his compatriot Unai Emery.
Once the Emery reign dissipated into enmity, Arsenal were forced to bash the Arteta button in lieu of more attractive options on the market. I was largely behind the appointment and it is interesting to read back on why that was. “I find myself struggling to reconcile equal and opposite feelings as momentum behind Mikel Arteta’s seemingly imminent appointment gathers pace,” I wrote.
“I have huge reservations over the appointment of a novice like Mikel Arteta, yet I really want it to happen. After 22 years of Arsene, of observing and absorbing his every mannerism, his every verbal tick, his modus operandi, his tactical persuasions and of watching Arsenal crash in the same car in a slightly different way for seasons innumerable now, we are left to face up to the total opposite.”
Arteta wouldn't be my choice, I don't think. But I do think it's probably the most exciting option, if you get my drift. After 22 years of knowing your manager inside out, suddenly, you get the mystery box.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) May 15, 2018
I reflected on this because now, two years into Arteta’s reign, that feeling of mystery feels even more poignant than ever, in a strange way. When Arsenal bashed the Arteta button, they were appointing potential, they weren’t appointing the coach he was but the coach that they hoped he could be.
Also, it must be said, they were taking a gamble and not an especially calculated one. They knew the player well, of course, as a club captain and as a player whose journey into coaching was starting well before the end of his playing career. However, let’s not pretend the appointment wasn’t also driven by circumstance.
The managerial market in December 2018 was thin gruel. Everton were going through a managerial change at exactly the same time and ended up plumping for Carlo Ancelotti. It’s not difficult to imagine a parallel universe where Ancelotti ends up at Arsenal and Arteta coaches the other Premier League club where he was also captain.
Ancelotti ended up being an underwhelming appointment for Everton before he was surprisingly reappointed as manager of Real Madrid. Had Carlo taken over at Arsenal the same sequence of events would have been very likely, he would have responded to Madrid’s booty call no matter how well things were moving at Arsenal.
Given the state of the squad and the size of the “project” in December 2019, it’s difficult to imagine any manager moving the needle rapidly. The Arsenal job was always a slow process of rebuilding. That said, the club continued to make short term moves with agent friendly signings like Willian, Cedric Soares and then signing Pierre Emerick Aubameyang up until his 34th birthday.
While at Everton, Ancelotti brought in 29-year-olds Allan, James Rodriguez and 27-year-old Abdoulaye Doucoure – he was hardly building for the future on Merseyside. All of which is to say that Arsenal probably wouldn’t be in a much different position had they appointed Ancelotti and allowed Everton to become Arteta’s managerial training pants.
Arsenal will have known when they appointed Arteta that he would make mistakes while he learned the job – how could he not? You can’t appoint a novice and expect the finished product. However, this brings a number of questions to the surface, all of which Arsenal fans and, more importantly, the Arsenal executive team will be wrestling with in the wake of a pair of pretty shoddy defeats.
How long do we wait for Arteta to realise his coaching potential? What sort of improvement are we expecting and at what rate? What is his potential? Was it misjudged? There was really very little to go on other than his reputation as an assistant to Guardiola but, really, his reputation as a coach started long before that.
Arsene Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino also offered him coaching roles when he retired, what did they see in him before he had so much as clutched a clipboard and blasted a whistle? Was it just the way he talked? An aura he had? Or was it grounded in something more concrete? Even if he is a gifted coach, how do we know that that will translate into handling the top job?
Football history is littered with coaches who were happy designing training drills and being a confidant to players but fared less well under the glare of the spotlight. Don Howe’s work as assistant to Bertie Mee is often cited by players in the 1970-71 double team as the magic ingredient of their success.
Mee led while Howe coached, and that combination yielded excellent results. In fact, many players from that period also cite Howe’s departure for the manager’s job at West Brom as a key reason for the 71 double team breaking up. Yet when Howe took the top job at Arsenal just over a decade later, he could only steer them to 6th and 7th placed finishes before resigning, joining Wimbledon as an assistant manager and helping them to win the FA Cup in 1988.
Howe brought through some key youngsters but results were ultimately patchy – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?! Arteta’s lack of history as a coach means the mystery over his potential remains. When Jose Mourinho starts citing refereeing conspiracies and complaining that all his players are crap, you know it’s time to break the chain.
With Arteta, there are no priors, so it’s more difficult to get a read on when his potential is supposed to develop and how quickly. It’s also more difficult to assess (for some, anyway!) against the backdrop of a squad that needed to be demolished and rebuilt. Were he a more experienced coach, I think he would be under more pressure from the club hierarchy.
Emery didn’t last this long with similar (better, even) results. Had Arsenal appointed Ancelotti in December 2019 and were he still here now, producing these results, I think he would be toast. Ancelotti is a known quantity and if he can’t turn your team around in two years, he’s probably not going to. We can also see that his coaching career has been on a downward trend for the last few years.
Arsenal’s “good run followed by a bad run” habit muddies the waters further, I guess, as we try to gauge this team and manager but after two years, maybe you start to consider that this is how it is likely to be for the foreseeable future. That this is just the way of teams that finish eighth. The club don’t want to pull the trigger too early for fear of having the next big thing in coaching without ever juicing that potential.
More realistically, I think the managerial market is still rather thin gruel, especially now Conte and Rangnick are occupied. Arteta probably has KPIs to get Arsenal back into Europe this season and then meaningfully challenge for the top four the season after that, at which point his contract expires. But Arsenal also can’t afford to wait forever for potential that might be a mirage.
How they handle this delicate situation will be defining for the club in the medium term, at least. The squad is certainly in a better place than it was when Arteta took over and I don’t think the appointment has been a disaster by any means. Yet at some point, the club will have to weigh up their faith against the evidence, which I imagine they will review most earnestly this coming summer.