Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Come Together

Upon taking the Arsenal job just over two years ago, Mikel Arteta was very clear that he felt the club needed a cultural reset and that would be one of his big priorities. Some of the impact of this, in Arteta’s mind, would be external. Alluding to a 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City the week before he took charge, a game which Arteta watched from the City bench, he referred to a lack of positive ‘energy.’

“The first thing is a little bit to change the energy. Last week I was here with Manchester City and I was a little bit down after the game when I felt what was going on.” On that day, City easily pushed Arsenal aside in front of a mixture of the semi-interested and the absent at Emirates Stadium. After the rancour of the final years of the Wenger reign, Arsenal fans didn’t even have the energy to get angry anymore.

Arteta didn’t fix that straight away, of course. Though the extent to which he was able to get the crowd onside was obstructed by the pandemic and the need to play an entire season behind closed doors. At times during last season, you felt that Arteta was fortunate to be playing in front of red seats- it might even have saved his job during the winter of 2020.

Witness during Unai Emery’s penultimate game in charge, at home to Southampton. Alex Lacazette scores a stoppage time equaliser and the crowd, those who had stayed to the bitter end, barely moved from their seats in exclamation. Even the players didn’t celebrate, I recall a genuine tinge of regret that the goal might have rescued Emery’s job (he lasted just one more game as it turned out). Those optics can daub the writing onto the wall for an ailing manager.

Compare and contrast with another 2-2 draw at the Emirates 23 months later, this time with Crystal Palace. Once again, Lacazette rescues a point with a stoppage time equaliser. The result here was no more impressive than the November 2019 2-2 draw with Southampton. Look at the reaction of the players and the supporters on this occasion.

A renewed unity between a newer, younger and, it must be said, hungrier looking Arsenal side and the crowd has been observed regularly throughout this season. I wrote about it back in September, attributing it to a number of factors, including a renewed appetite for live football in a post-vaccination pandemic landscape, as well as a team that had undergone wholesale surgery in our absence from the stadiums.

@WestStandTone put together a really good Twitter thread earlier this week based on his experience at Anfield which also took up some of the themes of a refreshed and younger look to the away support. It might be a stretch to call it a ‘cultural reset’ to the extent that Arteta sought for his Arsenal team; but the team and the fans have undergone their own separate transformations at the same time and the confluence of those factors have worked in Arsenal and Arteta’s favour.

The manager has been very keen to talk up the contribution of the supporters and, while pretty much every club employee is careful to pay lip service to the paying public, I have always had the impression that an engaged support is a genuine marginal gain in Arteta’s mind. Even after the defeat to Chelsea earlier in the season, Sky Sports asked Arteta about supporters booing and he unequivocally shut the question down by praising the supporters and denying the presence of discord.

The interesting thing here is that the relationship between the team and the fans has improved without Arteta himself being a rallying figure, per se. He still divides opinion among supporters and his name isn’t really sung at games. None of this is to criticise Arteta, of course, it just feels quite separate from the coach and after the rancour of the later Wenger years that is probably healthy.

I attended pretty much every Arsenal game during Patrick Vieira’s nine-year tenure at the club and his chant, set to the tune of ‘Volare’, became the rallying cry of the supporters at the time. Whenever the team found itself in a tricky spot, particularly during a heated away fixture, the paen to the captain would tumble from the away enclosure.

In a sense, it became our war cry. Vieira was our reference point and I almost considered it a sort of plea for him to police the occasion. A kind of tuneful, ‘ok Patrick, this is getting a bit hairy, time to sort it out.’ On Thursday night at Anfield, as Arsenal defended a tidal wave of Liverpool attacks and I heard the away support recite the ‘Saka Smith Rowe’ chant it struck me that this is our new ‘Vieira chant’, the soundtrack of this young team and its supporters.

Incidents over the last few weeks, Arsenal’s nonsense charge for “failing to comport themselves in a manner befitting of true gentlemen” (or whatever the fuck the wording of that rule is) for a totally ordinary referee protest and the pearl clutching over the North London derby postponement- have increased this sense of fan and team unity in recent weeks. There is nothing like shared grievance to supercharge kinship.

While there has been a cultural reset of sorts in the stands, possibly not entirely attributable to the coach, the thrust of Arteta’s project was based on internal cultural reset. It hasn’t been a bloodless revolution; a couple of heads have been paraded on spikes at London Colney to warn off future transgressors.

It’s difficult to pitch the level of unity in a squad without being privy to the daily happenings at London Colney but the evidence on the pitch suggests the players have remained pretty on board with the coach. The various bloodlettings do not seem to have injured the overall team spirit. There are certainly questions over the financial sense of discarding players in such a manner.

There is no doubt that Arteta and Arsenal have torched the value of players they might have sold for good money on the market. The coach has also been guilty of indecisiveness with several squad players, flip flopping on their value to the squad until they became virtually worthless in terms of market value.

You could certainly make an argument that Arteta’s pursuit of a strong ‘culture’ has been at the expense of results. You might equally argue that there has been value in rolling with those punches. The issue with assessing the importance of ‘culture’, particularly from the outside, is that it feels very ‘chicken and egg.’ Does good culture beget good results or do good results produce good culture? There is probably an element of both.

Only in an alternative universe somewhere can we watch this team with Matteo Guendouzi, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil still as prominent actors within it and how the balances of that injection of quality, minus the proper ‘behavioural’ attributes would work and how the potential drawbacks and benefits would be realised.

What is clear is that, for better and for worse, Arteta and Arsenal have chosen a path and stuck with it and that clarity helps supporters when it comes to ‘buy-in’. As academy director Per Mertesacker said recently, “We had lost our way. We tried to make the connection to the top faster with costly commitments. We fell on our face with that.”

If the post vaccination landscape has helped Arteta in terms of fan sentiment, he is equally fortunate that Hale End has produced two generational talents for him at the same time to drive his project. In the summer of 2020, his actions showed that he really saw players like Aubameyang and Willian as the engine of the project and that proved to be misguided. (Though in fairness, Saka and Martinelli both signed new deals that summer).

There is a salutary lesson here in our consistent underestimation of talented young people (in sport, society and in corporate structures). In fairness, Arteta and Arsenal appear to have learned that lesson and often the mark of a good coach, especially a developing coach, is how you harness good fortune. However circuitous the route and whatever the factors responsible, Arsenal’s fan culture and player culture have collided in a good way this season.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto  – Or like my page on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Stillberto

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