Mikel Arteta is in his third full season as the Arsenal manager and, in many ways, it feels more like the second. When I look back on his first 18 months in charge, I am not sure I necessarily see all the building blocks of what we see now collecting in those 18 months. I sense there is, or will be, a rewrite of that part of his tenure as part of the inevitable slow and steady climb.
There was quite lot on Arteta’s plate, to say the least, so it stands to reason that it has taken time for Arsenal to arrive at this juncture where, for now at least, they are playing the best football in the Premier League. It’s not my intention to entirely re-litigate that first season and a half here but it’s fair to say plenty of mistakes were made- as you would expect from a rookie coach.
The question was always how many mistakes the Arsenal board would accept before they felt it was less a learning curve and more a sign that they had erred in their judgement of Arteta’s capabilities. That point didn’t arrive and I think we can all be thankful for that now. In fairness, I think the pandemic led to a lot of football clubs making some odd decisions.
I am not sure the Aubameyang contract, a second year of Dani Ceballos on loan, David Luiz having his contract extended in 2020 or rejecting Wolves’ offer for Ainsley Maitland-Niles happen without the financial uncertainty of the pandemic being baked in. However, there was a line in the sand in the summer of 2021 when the transfer policy was redirected towards younger, hungrier players.
Arsenal fans could sense that something was stirring and reviewing that window now, Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Martin Odegaard and Aaron Ramsdale all feel like essential captures. The team has blossomed further with the arrival of Gabriel Jesus to reignite a forward line that required greater urgency and quality.
The mood at Arsenal, certainly in the stands, is as vibrant as I can remember. It feels a lot like the early days of a relationship when every message, every exchange feels vital and life affirming- before you start asking the taxing long-term questions about where this is all going and whether you both want the same things.
I think the parallels between what Mikel Arteta has done at Arsenal and the early days of George Graham are numerous. Graham clashed with established internationals like Kenny Sansom, Graham Rix and Tony Woodcock, ushering them out of the door and replacing them with younger, hungrier players more willing to follow his direction.
Graham also sprinkled some of the club’s best academy talent, like Paul Merson and Michael Thomas into the team, even making 21-year-old Tony Adams captain. Graham was a former Arsenal player who felt standards had slipped at the club that he knew as a player and sought to reintroduce them. Sounds familiar, right?
The current period also reminds me of that first season under Arsene Wenger in 1996-97. There is a slight distinction in that Wenger took over with the season already started and largely retained the personnel he inherited (with the exception of a rangy young midfielder named Patrick Vieira). However, the football was revolutonised.
Arsenal looked urgent, swashbuckling even. They finished 3rd during that opening Wenger campaign and nobody really had an inkling about what would follow in 1997-98. Again, it was that early relationship period when you don’t really ask those questions about the long-term, you just absorb that feeling of vitality.
After a couple of seasons of mediocrity and football that was often difficult to sit through, Wenger instantly liberated the team and there was a sudden buzz around Highbury, the feeling that we were in good hands. That’s very much how it feels at the moment too. In time, there is a tricky medium-term question for Arsenal that might begin to gnaw at us and chip away at our happiness.
With the presence of Manchester City in the league, what is the actual ceiling for this team? A league title just feels like an unlikely target while City are able to spend the sort of money they can and have a set up that can harbour Goliaths like Guardiola and Haaland. Even though the Gunners currently top the table, few are viewing this as a title race.
Ultimately, Arsenal would be trying to beat City to the title with their former assistant manager and a pair of players, in Jesus and Zinchenko, that City were happy enough to sell to N5. Arsenal beating City to the punch with so many of their hand-me-downs would be hilarious, of course but it is still unlikely.
On Sunday, Arsenal defeated Liverpool and it felt like a passing of the baton in many ways. A young, intense team with a fully engaged crowd behind it beat an out of sorts Liverpool team featuring five players in their 30s. The visitors have enjoyed an amazing five-year spell, where nearly every single recruitment decision has been perfectly executed, with a generational coach and a rare chemistry that brewed on the pitch.
Domestically their reward has been a single league title (though of course they won the Champions League). I am minded of Jurgen Klopp’s quote while coaching Borussia Dortmund, “We have a bow and arrow and if we aim well, we can hit the target. The problem is that Bayern has a bazooka. The probability that they will hit the target is clearly higher.”
A league in which Guardiola’s Manchester City operate is close to a closed shop and if Arsenal’s trajectory continues (which is very, very far from granted) that fact might begin to grate. For now, however, Arsenal and their fans are in those cherished early days, where a piece of unwittingly smudged make-up looks endearing and every chime of the Whatsapp message tone brings a flurry of anticipation.
In the words of Jacques from the Simpsons, “Here’s to the most beautiful moment in life. Better than the deed, better than the memory. The moment… of anticipation!”