We have Bournemouth tomorrow and Mikel Arteta will meet the press a bit later today. It’s quite interesting to consider how uneventful the press conferences are these days. It wasn’t too long ago when the questions would be, if not problematic, a little more difficult – but I suppose that is the nature of things when you’re mid-table versus top of the table.
Over the last three and a bit years, we’ve got to know Arteta in a deeper way. The relationship he had with the club from his time as a player was a foundation for that, but it’s always pretty surface level with players. What you understood was that he was ultra-professional, demanding of himself and others, and that played out in his decision to call it a day. He knew he couldn’t do it at the level he required of himself anymore, and even though it clearly pained him to hang up his boots, that’s exactly what he did.
Being a manager is different though. Since he arrived Arteta has been pretty up-front and honest, and while there are always caveats in this line of work, much of what he has said publicly is what he has done. Put some of us in front of a microphone and pack of journalists and we probably could talk a good game, but following through on that is another thing. He has talked the talk and, over time, demonstrated he can walk the walk as well.
Go back to his first interview, when asked about his football philosophy, and he said:
We have to have passion, we have to be dominant, we have to be aggressive. We have to play in the opponent’s territory as much as we want. I want the ball, I want to attack them as much as possible, I want to prevent them from attacking me as much as possible.
That’s the basic and then after we can grow from there. Then we can create an identity that I have in my head for this football club.
It made perfect sense given his background as a player, but there have been times when it was difficult to see how that was going to happen. Remember all the discussions about how rigid our play was, how we lacked a bit of variety and spontaneity in our attacking play? I certainly do. Now look at what we do and how we do it. I’m sure we still have some way to go – in his mind at least – but we’re in a place now where tweaks to specific positions and individual players, as Tim outlines really nicely here with regard to Gabriel Martinelli, can transform a player’s form and contribution.
Part of the reason this season is so enjoyable is that we play good football. Being top of the league doesn’t hurt, obviously, and I suppose there’s often a direct correlation between the quality of your football and your league position, but having lost ours somewhere along the way, there’s the identity he spoke of. We feel like the kind of Arsenal we all want again.
Another interesting aspect is sometimes Arteta says things that are very clearly aimed at his players. For a man who is absolutely committed to the sanctity of the dressing room, there’s often some public messaging too. There’s no doubt he’s had these conversations with his squad in private, because you don’t set ground rules via a press conference, but emphasising certain things in public has been a feature of his time here.
There are always things you can’t say, incidents you can’t talk about, situations that you skirt around for obvious reasons. The Omerta of the training ground and the dressing room is something he values very highly, but when you’re a young manager there are going to be people and cliques and situations which test that.
“If they want on the boat, they are more than welcome and that’s always my mindset,” he said after Matteo Guendouzi was dropped from the squad. Guendouzi, if you recall, chose to post a picture of himself on a sunshine holiday the day Arsenal won the FA Cup. He didn’t get back on the boat.
During that dark period in November/December 2020 there were some leaks about a bust-up between Dani Ceballos and David Luiz, plus stories about a delegation of senior players allegedly going to the club with ‘concerns’ about the manager. He said:
“I will find out where it is coming from and if that is the case, that goes completely against what I expect from each other, the privacy and the confidentiality that we need, and there will be consequences.”
If you look back, it doesn’t take much investigative work to see who he might have had suspicions about. Suffice to say, none of them are at the club now. Instilling discipline in an environment where previously players felt emboldened to behave how they wanted without much fear of consequence is a difficult thing. But if, from the outside, we knew that standards had to change, to be raised, you can be quite sure the players did too. He didn’t surprise them with a pop quiz one day. It was clear from the start.
During difficult times, when we’ve been poor and/or played poorly, Arteta has always pretty much always acknowledged that – without throwing anyone under the bus. When we’ve played well, he’s acknowledged that too, but never in a way which lets anyone feel comfortable.
The exciting win over Leicester last season, which really felt like the moment you knew something was happening with this team, was met with comments about ‘We haven’t done anything yet’. Fast forward to now, and we still haven’t done anything (tangible), but it looks very much like it’s within our capability.
Which is to say, as he speaks to the press later this afternoon, there’s a lot to be said for being a straight talker. I don’t think you can create what he has created without it. People, I suppose understandably, rolled their eyes a bit when he spoke consistently about building the connection between the fans and the team again. He did it. It’s there. We can all feel it, whether you’re at the games every week, or on the other side of the world.
Arteta talks, but Arteta also delivers. Whether this season ends the way we want or not, there’s no denying that.