On this day (assuming you are reading this on Thursday) four years ago, I sat on a train to Merseyside with carriages full of excited Arsenal fans. We were on our way to Goodison Park to watch one of the dullest 0-0 draws in the club’s history- and I saw some bad ones at the tail end of the George Graham era. On that day, Freddie Ljungberg took charge of a team and a club that looked totally beleaguered.
In that game, Ljungberg started Emile Smith Rowe (19), Bukayo Saka (18), Gabriel Martinelli (18) and Reiss Nelson (19). Joe Willock (20) was the first substitute used from the bench. Nicolas Pepe and Alex Lacazette were left on the bench (Pepe remained unused) and Mesut Özil was omitted from the squad on disciplinary grounds. Mikel Arteta watched the game from the stands and would be in control for the next game at Bournemouth.
Post-match, Ljungberg said, pointedly, “We put a lot of young players out because I wanted to reward players who had trained well.” He might as well have punctuated that sentiment with, “Good luck with this lot, Mikel.” Arsenal were in a funk comparable to the early 1980s and mid 1960s. The Wenger era dragged on for far too long, the Emery era dragged on for too long. Arsenal was a heavily tangled set of cables.
So why the jubilation on the train to Merseyside that morning in December 2019? Well, Mikel Arteta had held his unveiling press conference the day before. The carriages were alive with conversation. This hadn’t been the case on away trips for some time, it was much more typical to witness arguments, sometimes physically acted out, due to disagreements.
Arteta’s opening salvo felt vital and energetic. A lot of fans had tuned out of Wenger’s offerings over the last few years of his rein and Emery did not have the language skills to communicate his vision to the fans or the players. In truth, reading the transcripts of Emery’s press conferences felt like an exercise in decoding and his team looked muddled and confused.
He had butted heads with Mesut Özil but one never felt he quite had the cache to win that battle. His handling of the Granit Xhaka captaincy debacle genuinely put one of Arsenal’s senior players into such a vulnerable position that he publicly remonstrated with his own fans. Arteta’s opening press conference felt like someone had finally kicked the saloon doors down and promised to clean up once and for all.
“The first thing is to change the energy. Last week I was here with Manchester City and I was a little bit down after the game when I felt what was going on. So we have to try to engage everybody, I have to try and convince the players about what I want to do, how I want to do it.” Of course, ordinarily, appointing a novice like Arteta would have felt like a ludicrous decision for a club like Arsenal.
Fans had time to warm up to the idea, however. Arteta had long been mooted as a future Gunners coach and interviewed for the position in 2018- very nearly successfully. The club was also in a position where they had few other obvious choices. Also in the stands on that day at Goodison was Carlo Ancelotti, who was about to take the Everton job. There is a parallel universe somewhere where Ancelotti takes over Arsenal and Arteta Everton in December 2019.
Historically, the club’s best managerial appointments have been slightly left field. Bertie Mee was the club physio and a man the club hierarchy thought could introduce discipline to a talented but wayward squad. George Graham had done an excellent job at Millwall but Arsenal was a different kettle of fish altogether. Arsene Wenger’s appointment in 1996 was greeted with a mixture of ridicule and bafflement.
In all those scenarios, Arsenal were drifting, a little down on their luck and threw their lot in with a risky appointment. Four years on, the decision to toss Mikel Arteta the keys to the club looks inspired. Arteta was a former club captain but not really a club legend, in fact, he divided opinion a little as a player.
What has always been clear is his depth of regard for Arsenal. My working theory has always been that the Arsenal move came late in his career, at the age of 29, at a time when he probably felt the big move from Everton had passed him by. So when he arrived, he wanted to cherish every aspect of representing a club like Arsenal.
He was never seriously linked with another management job because he never applied for one. He applied for the Arsenal job in the summer of 2018 and again in December 2019. He has since admitted that he decided to go to Manchester City and work under Pep Guardiola following his retirement as a player as a kind of apprenticeship so that he could return to N5.
“I’ve been preparing for a few years for this challenge to come,” he said in that unveiling press conference. “I know the expectations, I know the level and I know the stature of this club, and what it deserves. So I’m ready for that challenge.” He only had eyes for Arsenal. There have been times where, again, to ape his words from that day in December 2019, the tree has shaken.
He hasn’t got everything right, the Aubameyang contract and Willian signing in 2020 were borderline disastrous. He could have lost his job in the winter of 2020 and he would not have been able to complain. He took on players like Özil, Guendouzi and Aubameyang with a firm hand and lived to tell the tale. Comfortably. None of those players excelled upon leaving.
It sounds easy to just take a hardline and not compromise with big players (and, young, brattish players) but it isn’t. You have to have the authority and backing of the fans and the rest of the squad to do it. Erik Ten Hag has used an iron fist with Jadon Sancho and now Raphael Varane and I don’t get nearly the same sense of authority and unity. There is a fine line between being a strong leader that people respect and have a healthy fear of and someone that people just don’t like.
Arteta has not been a warm and cuddly presence and I think that is why sections of the media struggle with him. He is not avuncular or witty in press conferences, he rarely cracks a smile and his eyes sometimes look like they could cut through bricks and mortar. Arsenal didn’t need warm and cuddly, in fact, it was the last thing they needed in December 2019.
His intensity means that, honestly, I am not sure I would enjoy a drink with him (imagine the withering look when it’s his round and you ask for a bag of dry roasted as well as your drink). But he has a firmness and a clarity that we see on the pitch with his team. The football, the atmosphere, the recruitment (especially since summer 2021) and the entire club has been entirely transformed under his gaze.
On Saturday, Arsenal again travel to Merseyside, this time to Anfield, and the talk on the train carriages will be about the Gunners’ title challenge. It hasn’t been a totally linear journey but Arteta has steered the club so far away from where he found them on that dreary afternoon at Goodison four years ago. He might struggle for love and affection outside the Arsenal bubble but the job he has done over the last four years has been genuinely remarkable.
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