Monday, May 16, 2022

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away

I have always found Mikel Arteta’s standing with Arsenal fans fascinating, dating back to his playing days when, of course, he was the club captain for three seasons. Arteta was neither overwhelmingly popular nor especially unpopular during his playing days which was quite the feat considering that he was a bona fide regular.

This during an era where Arsenal had a parade of marmite players who divided the fanbase, think Giroud, Walcott, Ramsey, Özil- good players whose value was debated ad infinitum. That Arteta crept under that radar despite playing so regularly was likely testament to the unglamorous role he carried out at the base of the midfield.

Given the level of interest in the position of captain at Arsenal, it is also remarkable to me that his appointment generated little to no discussion. As I explained last week, I think inconspicuousness is the hallmark of a good captain. His status as a team leader was, I think, accepted by consensus.

His last two seasons at Arsenal were injury ravaged and when he played his final game for the club- of his playing career- in 2016, he sobbed with a brutally honest assessment of his own shortcomings. “For me to play at this club you have to be the best in your position. When you lose that, I think you should be away from this place. I have probably been here too long. In the last few months, I probably didn’t deserve to be here.

“For me, the standards you need to play for this club, it cannot be eight out of 10, it has to be 10 out of 10. When you cannot deliver that, it is not good enough. Sometimes people get away with it. Inside myself, my gut wasn’t clean and when you are like this, I prefer to make the decision myself.”

Those quotes very much chime with the demanding coach that we now know. What was odd about the latter years of Arteta’s playing career was the constant discussion about Arteta the coach. The man himself even referenced it in that same emotional interview, “As well, what made me think it was probably time and the way I have been watching football in the last few months – or probably over a year – it was not as a player, it was more as a coach.”

How Arteta spoke as a player and as a captain left a big impression on me. I always considered him ‘an Arsenal man’- that most intangible, indescribable but immediately recognisable trait. As a player, he probably didn’t expect to be at Everton for as long as he eventually was.

He was linked with moves to bigger clubs that ultimately never materialised, before he got the chance to move to Arsenal aged 29. I think he had probably given up on the idea of moving to one of the Premier League’s traditional heavyweights and he was really, really grateful for the opportunity and really threw himself into the Arsenal experience.

Comparisons are rarely perfect, they are attractive due to their simplicity but I feel there is currently a parallel between what we are seeing now at Arsenal and the early days of George Graham’s reign. A former player appointed to the hotseat with a vow to cleanse the club of its ‘soft’ culture that had started to take on the appearance of a luxury spa for late peak stars.

Arteta’s opening pronouncements as Arsenal manager, to my memory, really united the fan base. I took the train to the dull 0-0 draw at Everton the day after his unveiling and the carriages were alive with conversation and enthusiasm over his press conference. After 18 months of failing to connect with Unai Emery’s word soup, Arteta had conviction and authority. In his words, at least.

I was particularly attracted by his words about the Arsenal job. “I am back home,” he said. “On the day I left, and I made a decision to leave this football club, I said to the people that I am going outside, I’m going to learn, I am going to get prepared and hopefully one day I can come back here.”

Arteta was never seriously linked with another managerial post. It always seemed clear that he was waiting for the Arsenal manager’s job specifically and I couldn’t help but be drawn in by a player that I really liked who really, really wanted to be the Arsenal manager- to whom it wasn’t just another job.

Now, it is fair to say that Arteta’s reign has been up and down in his 26 months in situ. I never fully tipped over into the ‘he really should be sacked’ territory like I did with Emery. I came close, particularly during the winter of 2020 when the football and the results looked directionless and ineffective (as well as, let’s face it, tedious).

I never fully tipped over to into ‘Arteta out’ territory because I think there is a supply and demand issue in the coaching world at the moment and thought that appointing a successor would be really, really difficult. Fast forward to 2021-22 and, at this moment in time, there is a real sense that Arsenal are moving in the right direction.

That is not to be complacent about how this season might finish and conscious of the fact that any team or coach is always a 0-0 home draw away from being totally useless again. This season, a young team spurred on by a large intake of fresh recruits, has been roared on from the stands.

It is well over a decade since I felt this sort of connection between the team and the supporters. Most of that is informed by a new collection of players whose shortcomings we are not weighed down by, some of it is informed by the post-peak pandemic landscape, which has seen a slightly younger and more enthusiastic streak in the in-stadium support.

The post-peak pandemic landscape is universal, however, and those bonds of affection are not universal across the Premier League. The players we are connecting with have been brought in by the coach and the Technical Director but I think we can see that the coach is the biggest protagonist of this recruitment approach.

What is interesting to me is that Arteta remains a relatively neutral figure in the hearts of the fan base. While there are always pockets of opinion, especially online, I have never had the sense of a *movement* for or against him. I am now getting the sense of a fanbase that is beginning to ‘trust the process’- or else I am making the mistake of regarding my own feeling as ubiquitous.

A lot of my scepticism has been chipped away during this season and I guess my question is, at what point does Arteta himself become a rallying point for this within the fan base? As a set of supporters, we are probably still scarred by our relationship with Arsene Wenger which, very generally speaking, slowly moved from adoration to scorn.

This also led to the premature chants of “we’ve got our Arsenal back” early in Unai Emery’s reign, which proved to be misguided. The supporters wanted to love Emery but did not meet a coalescing figure. Arteta’s reign has been up and down, despite his early FA Cup success, there is a contemporary feeling that Arsenal are on the right track.

Assuming that continues, at what point do we throw off the shackles and outwardly embrace him and his role in returning that sense of optimism to Arsenal fans that has been missing for so long? Maybe it’s healthy for us to maintain this sense of distance in this cutthroat era- as illustrated by Leeds’ reluctant, apologetic sacking of messianic figure Marcelo Bielsa.

I get the sense that a lot of us are still in a ‘wait and see’ holding pattern. If Arsenal return to the Champions League next season, Arteta will get a new contract (with a nice pay rise to boot!) and he will likely start to experience that explicit generosity from the fans. He has spoken up the importance of that connection many times this season and I am sure he is more than happy for his players to wear the garlands of it.

It’s a question for myself as much as it is everyone else- but at what stage does Mikel Arteta get a little bit of that love for himself?

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– or like my page on Facebook

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