Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Tough love

“I prefer players who ask for more than maybe they can take but if they believe they can do it, don’t put a limit on it.” These were the words of Mikel Arteta when Emile Smith Rowe signed a new contract and asked for the prized number 10 shirt.

I always found those public quotes interesting because of Arteta’s tacit admission that he didn’t necessarily feel that Smith Rowe was ready for the responsibility that comes with the number. I was surprised because I fully expected him to play that down at the time, it is, after all, only a number and coaches usually take pragmatic lines on this sort of thing, at least publicly.

Smith Rowe came into Arteta’s team in December 2020 and quickly became a key player for the team, reversing Arsenal’s fortunes after a dire run in which the team was bereft of creativity. His ability to play between the lines transformed the team.

After scoring against West Brom in May 2021, crowning a fine six months, Arteta was still circumspect in his public pronouncements. “He’s having an incredible season ever since he started to play in December. But he’s scoring his first Premier League goal. An incredible season for a No 10 of Arsenal means he needs to score 15 goals and give 10 assists.” (He managed 11 in 2021-22).

In the Amazon ‘All or Nothing’ documentary, Arteta opened up about Smith Rowe’s loan move to Huddersfield in the second half of the 2019-20 season. “When we sent him on loan, I said ‘I’m not going to watch your games.’

“I only want to hear what people say about you when you are there and how they are going to describe you, not as a player, as a person.” This very much chimes with what Folarin Balogun said of his loan move to Reims in France.

“Before I moved, Mikel said he wanted me to develop as a man. It was kind of like an open answer and for me to interpret what me meant by develop as a man. But by moving abroad, I’m starting to learn what he meant. It doesn’t just mean on the pitch but also off the pitch.”

None of this is revolutionary, of course. Plenty of young talent is sent on loan by innumerable Premier League clubs to help talented young players develop outside of their comfort zones. When I was 16, I took a weekend job on a market stall.

I wanted work that would enable me to spend my afternoons at the football- waking up at 5.30am on Saturdays and Sundays so that I could finish early enough to get over to Highbury was a price worth paying. But I was a very shy, introverted teenager.

I turned up for my first day fairly relaxed, assuming I would be eased into the role. Not a bit of it, after a basic 15 minute induction I was told to immediately start bellowing to nearby punters about the cut price promotion on fresh cherries. I was utterly terrified by the thought and believed, falsely, this would come much later after some gentle easing in.

I hesitated for what seemed like an age, I don’t think I have ever been so scared in all my life. But in my brain, something clicked, “you literally have two choices, you either do this and you do it now, or you get sacked 20 minutes into your first day, which is worse?” So bellow I did, unconvincingly at first but I soon grew into it.

It was a proper sink or swim moment. Now public speaking is a huge part of my living, it was probably the most valuable education of my life. Balogun and Smith Rowe before him had a similar type of sink or swim induction. However, I found Arteta’s tough love approach to Smith Rowe in particular very interesting.

Following Saturday’s defeat to Juventus, Arteta said of Smith Rowe’s injury rehabilitation, “He hasn’t been able to train in the last few days but hopefully he can start next week. He’s been out for a while now – he needs some time to get back to speed.

“We really need him and we’re going to welcome him with both arms, because he’s a really important player for us. We need him fit on the pitch.” I think there is a strong element of Arteta explaining that the club want to take their time with ESR and not to rush him back- this injury has been going on for close to three years now.

I may well be over analysing but i did sense urgency in those quotes, a form of challenge peppered into the syntax, “We really need him….we need him fit on the pitch.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say Arteta sounded testy but I do think his words were seasoned with some tough love.

That is in-keeping with his approach and his other pronouncements on Smith Rowe- but not just Emile, I think ‘tough love’ is a big part of his approach to younger players. No coach can have a one size fits all philosophy for player psychology but most will fall somewhere on the scale between stern and nurturing.

When Arteta subbed Nuno Tavares 34 minutes into the FA Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest in January, Arteta was not minded to mollycoddle the player in his post-match press conference. “I have to make the decision to try to improve the performance of the team when it’s not going in any other direction.”

Albert Sambi Lokonga has expressed frustration with his lack of playing opportunities on a couple of occasions, when asked about that publicly, Arteta was likewise not inclined to drape an arm around Sambi’s shoulders.

“He needs to prove that what he’s asking for, that he can produce on the pitch.” None of this is especially dictatorial or shocking, it is in-keeping with how Arteta talks about pretty much all of his players in public, he is an intense and serious character and he wants to implant that seriousness and intensity into his players.

Three years into the role, we probably know Mikel a little better, even if memories of his playing days are reasonably fresh. In the past, this light surliness in the way he talks about younger or developing players was probably misinterpreted.

Many of us, myself included, detected a frostiness from the coach towards William Saliba during his loan spells in Ligue 1. In January 2021, the club sanctioned a loan spell for the player at Nice and Arteta’s contemporary explanation makes a lot of sense.

“I was always very conscious when he came back (in the summer of 2020 from St. Etienne) that to start a relationship with a new manager, a new club, new team-mates where he is not having any game time is really difficult and I think it is damaging for the future.

“I want to protect the player that we signed and the future we have alongside him and the best way to do that is to give him minutes to play.” In essence, Arteta felt that distance from Saliba was healthy until he was ready to be a fixture in the team. Fast forward 18 months and Saliba very much is having started every Premier League match so far this season.

Many of us interpreted a deliberate cooling between Arteta and Saliba as a frostiness. Likewise, many Arsenal fans detected a forbidding attitude from the manager towards Gabriel Martinelli, which feels like a very long time ago now as the Brazilian prepares to sign a new long-term contract with the club.

Asked during the autumn of 2021 why Martinelli was not playing, Arteta explained the need for the player to remain realistic and patient, “Sometimes he doesn’t understand my decisions, but the only reason I make them is to help him. He has to improve when he doesn’t play. You have to know how to suffer when you are on the bench.”

It’s another example of Arteta’s tough love approach with his young players as he seeks to create an environment of accountability. I also found the manager’s comments after Gabriel Jesus’ cameo from the bench during a Europa League match at home to Bodo / Glimt fascinating.

The performance had begun to sag in the second half as Arsenal looked to cruise to victory. Arteta introduced Jesus from the bench and he immediately provided an outstanding assist. After the game, the manager was very clear that he wanted his players to be disciples of Jesus.

“It doesn’t matter how long he plays, when he plays, in which position. He always gives absolutely everything. He has won everything in the last five years, imagine what the rest have to do, so follow him.” It was a very pointed message and significant, I think, because Arsenal played a second string team that evening. It is clear to me that he wasn’t impressed with his team taking their collective foot off the pedal.

Towards the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign, some people scathingly referred to the club’s insulated culture as ‘the Colney crèche.’ Arteta has been minded to adopt a more ‘either shit or get off the pot’ approach and it is an approach he is not minded to soften for his young talents.

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