Sunday, March 3, 2024

Inches

I don’t know if Mikel Arteta has watched Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday – I suspect he has – but the movie’s most famous scene instantly came to mind when I watched the Spaniard’s press conference yesterday.

Asked about the impact of luck on the title race, Arteta said:

“You need luck in the right moments. Why that luck comes is really important, how you think about it and what’s going to happen. It’s another part of this sport; sometimes it’s about inches and those inches need to go your way.”

In the mind of Tony D’Amato – Stone’s fictional NFL coach, played by Al Pacino – the inches are everything. Because the inches add up. In life and on the pitch, every action counts.

With his team facing the prospect of play-off elimination, he paces around a silent locker room baring his soul. He’s got painful real-life confessions to make and a message to pound home. Is it hammy? Sure. But it’s also one of Hollywood’s most iconic monologues.

As it reaches its crescendo, I particularly love this bit…

“The inches we need are everywhere around us.They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch, because we know when we add up all those inches that’s gonna make the fuckin’ difference between winning and losing! Between livin’ and dyin’!”

Superficially, there are very few similarities between D’Amato and Arteta. The former is living with the perception that he’s washed up and overly reliant on traditional methods, and the latter is a young buck, bubbling with innovative ideas. I’m almost certain Mikel hasn’t pissed away all his money or chased off anyone that’s loved him.

At the same time, thanks to All or Nothing, we’ve witnessed how the Spaniard creates a sense of empathy and a connection with his players. With carrot or stick, he doesn’t mind getting emotional and he’s happy to tap into his past experiences to make his point.

But the point is almost always the same. If we’re going to win the league we have to do it as a team and it’ll be day by day, game by game, inch by inch, point by point. He’s been consistent in that message since he arrived and he continues to beat that drum.

Asked to explain what it means to live game by game, he said:

“Talking about it, being demanding to each other and creating an environment where nothing is more important than what is actually going to happen today. When that happens, everyone understands that you are present in the moment, and that is all you can control.”

He’s always talked a good game but with every passing week, Arteta looks more and more confident in himself.

When he arrived at the club, he was like a driver who’d read a car manual but had never been behind the wheel. He understood everything in theory, and he sounded convincing when he explained it out loud but it didn’t automatically make him a good driver. It also didn’t help that the manual belonged to an F1 car and at the time we were a bashed-up old Volvo. Now, we’re most definitely a well-oiled machine.

As I wrote in yesterday’s blog, it’s hard to believe the progress we’ve made in the space of two years. Arteta has previously admitted we’re ahead of schedule in the five-stage ‘process’ but when asked yesterday if he always felt Arsenal could challenge for the title this season, he said:

“Yes. You go day by day. There is so much that happens every single day, every month at a football club. You cannot really look [further ahead]. The aim when I took the job was to bring the club back to where it belongs, fighting for and being around every single trophy that is possible [to win] at the highest level. That’s what we are trying to do.”

20 years ago, Arteta won the first and only league title of his career while on the books at Rangers. It was secured on goal difference on the final day of the season thanks to a stoppage-time penalty.

Who scored the decisive goal? Yep, you guessed it.

Only 21 years old, Arteta took charge of the situation and after a deep breath slotted home calmly to spark jubilant scenes at Ibrox*.

As Rangers celebrated, great rivals Celtic were left to rue missed chances in their own match. Henrik Larsson hit a post with 10 minutes remaining and Alan Thompson, having scored one penalty, missed a second. While the Hoops still ran out 4-0 winners over Kilmarnock, they couldn’t match Ranger’s 6-1 victory over Dunfermline.

Asked yesterday what he learnt from that season, Arteta said:

“Just stick to what you do every single day, be at the best that you can be every single day and never give up because there’s always another opportunity and another moment, and especially in football you have to be ready when that opportunity comes in.”

After all, the inches matter.
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Right, I’ll be back tomorrow with a preview of the West Ham game. By that point, City will have played Leicester. Do yourselves a favour…watch Any Given Sunday instead.

Enjoy your Saturday.

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*For more on Arteta’s role in Rangers’ title triumph, check out this great article by Jordan Campbell for The Athletic (£)

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