Wednesday, June 19, 2024

He Knows Exactly What We Need

‘For me to play at this club you have to be the best in your position. When you lose that, I think you should be away from this place. I have probably been here too long. In the last few months, I probably didn’t deserve to be here. For me, the standards you need to play for this club, it cannot be eight out of 10, it has to be 10 out of 10.

‘When you cannot deliver that, it is not good enough. Sometimes people get away with it. Inside myself, my gut wasn’t clean and when you are like this, I prefer to make the decision myself.’ These were Mikel Arteta’s words in the wake of his final game as a player for Arsenal in May 2016.

As a pre-manifesto for his stint as manager, which would begin three-and-a-half years later, he has lived it to the full. I have long been drawn to Arteta as a communicator, as I set out in this week’s Arsecast, I think there has been a distinction between how his communication style has resonated with Arsenal supporters compared to the wider media and public.

In press conferences, he is perfunctory. There is little levity and sometimes he could give Johnny Tightlips a run for his money when it comes to dispensing information. However, when he has something to say, I think Arsenal fans feel and hear it, even when the ‘outside world’ doesn’t. I often look back at his unveiling press conference as Arsenal’s manager in December 2019.

‘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…We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest. If you don’t have the right culture, in the difficult moments, the tree is going to shake, so my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live, and if you are going to be part of this organisation it has to be in these terms and in this way.

‘We need the fans. We need to engage them, we need to be able to transmit with our behaviours, our intentions, what we want to bring to this football club. I think that’s the only way, where we give them a little bit, they give us a little bit, and suddenly we feel that connection, because when you plug these two things together, it is so powerful.’

Again, if we look at those words as a manifesto, Mikel Arteta has delivered on it emphatically. Arsenal’s most successful managers, Herbert Chapman, Tom Whittaker, Bertie Mee, George Graham, Arsene Wenger, all had something of the benevolent dictator about them.

Arteta’s clarity and drive has made him a difficult character for the wider media to warm to but for Arsenal fans, more closely tuned to his utterances, a lot of us see a unifying figure, even if his delivery is not always warm and cuddly. I compare it to what I want from a Prime Minister.

I don’t want the Prime Minister to be relatable, that would be terrible. I want to hear that they work 20-hour days and sweat spinal fluid for the cause. That’s what I want from the Arsenal manager too, the feeling that they will push every margin in service of the club and that they will be good at doing it. I have that feeling from Mikel Arteta.

I have said and written many times before that Arteta’s tenure has felt a little like the first stanza of George Graham’s Arsenal premiership, where high profile but underperforming players were brutally culled (not literally, of course) in favour of a mixture of academy products and young, hungry players from lower down the footballing ladder.

For Lee Dixon read Ben White. For Steve Bould read William Saliba. For Alan Smith read Kai Havertz. For Rocky Rocastle read Bukayo Saka. (And, for Aaron Ramsdale read John Lukic…) While Arteta didn’t literally reprise club ties and blazers for away trips as Graham did, metaphorically, Arteta reminded the club of its standing and its foggin’ standards.

When a football club commissions Amazon or Netflix or whoever to produce a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary, it’s risky in the sporting sense. But Arsenal’s version of the ‘All Or Nothing’ documentary, released in 2022, I think fostered an even greater connection between the supporters and the manager.

Seeing Arteta’s intensity, drive and even some of the weird and wonderful ways in which he was willing to push every margin resonated and gave him a humanity that maybe we don’t see in press conferences. It’s fair to say some of his decisions last summer tested the fan base a little.

Replacing the well-liked Aaron Ramsdale with David Raya and signing a (relative) Chelsea misfit in Kai Havertz had many craning their necks and questioning the sagacity of the manager’s judgement. To borrow Arteta’s own words, the tree shook earlier in the season with regards to both those decisions.

Those signings have bookmarked the journey that Arsenal have been on this season, they took some time to gel but once they did, the team became even more formidable, more disciplined off the ball, harder to break down. When asked what made Arsenal such difficult opponents, Luton manager Rob Edwards said, ‘They don’t give you anything.’

PSV coach Peter Bosz marvelled, ‘They attack with 11 and they defend with 11.’ The work rate in every single phase of play from every player makes this team very easy to connect with. The assessment of how Arsenal improve next season (there are five Premier League games where they failed to score and they couldn’t score away at Bayern Munich) can be analysed in the coming weeks.

On Sunday, we probably need something close to a miracle from one of Arteta’s mentors David Moyes but getting to the final game of the season with the (a) Premier League trophy in the stadium is a remarkable achievement. Evidence of progress from last season shows clearly in the numbers and the eye test.

In a summer where Barcelona and Bayern Munich have already abandoned new manager searches due to scarcity in the market, where Liverpool are losing their long-time North Star, Arsenal are very fortunate to have a world class coach and one who has a long history of connection and affection for the club.

As I advance in years (40 next week!), I increasingly understand the temporality of things. George Graham lost his way, Arsene Wenger lost his way, Bertie Mee lost his way. Nothing ever lasts forever. In a way, the decline of the late Wenger years, initially, made me wary about feeling affection for the Arsenal manager again.

Now, I look at it differently. Mikel Arteta won’t be Arsenal’s manager forever. The journey we have all been on will one day stop and give way to a different journey, for better or worse. That makes me even more determined to cherish this feeling of trust and affection for the current Arsenal coach. You don’t always have that feeling as a football fan, so when you do, grip it firmly. Because these are the good times.

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