Wednesday, April 17, 2024

So four, so good

In my footballing lust for Declan Rice yesterday, I missed the fact that December 20th marked the fourth anniversary of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal tenure.

Initially appointed head coach, he later became manager, but it was that day he took charge, and spoke very openly and clearly about what he wanted to do. He told the press:

I want to do things my way but by convincing them that’s it’s the right way for everybody to live better. Everybody has to respect each other first of all, and I want people who are accountable for what I’m asking for them to do. Anyone who doesn’t buy into this, or that has a negative effect or whatever, is not good enough for this environment or this culture.

If it sounded hard-line, it’s easy to forget he also spoke about needing to earn people’s trust, and how he needed to understand what they needed, or what they felt they were lacking. He continued:

If I get to reach that point, then I can help them. Then they will trust me and then they will follow me.

When he spoke about non-negotiables, he didn’t just make that a catchphrase. He made sure that his words were backed up by actions. Ask any of the litany of players who were here and now are not, none of whom have gone on to better things. The day after his initial press conference, I wrote:

Watch out those people at Arsenal who think Arteta is Mr Nice Guy, with nice hair and a nice smile. I’ve written about this before here, but he is someone who has an edge, who isn’t out to win popularity contests, and if there’s somebody not living up to the standards he expects, it will not be tolerated. That can only be a good thing where too much of late has gone on because we’re just too soft to deal with the issues properly.

A lot has happened in this four years. Faith has been tested along the way, and I do wonder if, in time, someone will write a good book on the Covid-19 period when the randomness that already exists in football was ramped up because of the conditions games were played in, the impact on players, staff, fans, and so on. Imagine taking on a job as big as Arsenal for your first managerial gig, before having to deal with a global pandemic just a couple of months later. If I recall correctly, it was Arteta testing positive for Covid after our Europa League game against Olympiacos that sparked the shut-down of football. If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else, but I wonder if that ever occurred to him or weighed on his mind.

We don’t need to go through the whole lot of it, but I don’t think I’m even exaggerating when I say that was only the tip of the iceberg. Here we are four years later, and he has done much of what he said he was going to do. The culture at the club itself, which had been let slip before being preyed upon by sharks and vultures, has been reset and rebuilt. The team is top of the table. The connection between the fans and the team has been forged again. Even when the club put its foot in it with the Super League stuff, Arteta helped ensure no real damage was done to the team.

Most importantly though, this is a team that is once again where we want it to be. Here’s what I wrote the day after his appointment:

When I hear other people at this football club speak about where we are and what we’re going to do, I’m not sure I necessarily believe them because we’ve heard it all before. I believe Arteta though. I believe that the things he says are exactly the things he wants to do. He’s not saying what he thinks we want to hear, he’s telling us what he’s going to do and how he’s going to do it.

It’s like a light in the darkness. We’re moths to Arteta’s flame in this difficult period in the club’s history. He has a massive job on his hands, on the pitch and off it, because unless he gets both those things working in tandem, he won’t succeed. It remains to be seen how quickly his influence will be felt, but if you wanted someone who was going to shake things up; not tolerate the slackness and half-heartedness at all levels; be ruthless and demanding; and look to return Arsenal to a level that is genuinely competitive again, then I think we’ve got the man to do it.

Ultimately what I’ve always wanted is a team that is competitive. Obviously I want the trophies too, winning the title after so long must be the ambition, and the big success in Europe is something Arsenal has been waiting for too long. But having a team you like, that you know is honestly doing its best and is capable of going the distance, is far preferable to one that is marooned in mid-table, or finishes top four or top six miles off the top ever year. Which, when you write it down, sounds kind of arrogant, because lots of clubs would give anything for that kind of existence.

However, we are very privileged to be Arsenal fans, supporters of a club which can realistically dream of more, including winning the biggest prizes. I think Arteta fundamentally understands that privilege too, which is why he demands so much from everyone, not least himself. He doesn’t take it for granted, nor should we, and while there are always going to be nay-sayers because of the nature of football fandom, I think he has done a brilliant job to get us to this point. There’s still more to do, he knows that as much as anyone, but when you compare and contrast where we are now to where we were when he took over, it’s night and day.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. Have a good one, and we’ll bring you a pre-Christmas Arsecast a bit later this evening.

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