HALF AN HOUR into the North London Derby, everyone knew something exciting was happening. Something was up and charging in the air. It was not just the roar of the fans or the score on the board. It was something more than that, something that could be felt, seen, spoken of, almost touched. It was clear and crisp like a Sunday sky, visible to all: this was a match between two teams—one on the rise and the other in a bewildered, flapping decline.
This victory did not start here. It did not even start at the beginning of the season when a weakened Arsenal stumbled through the first few games of the season. This sweet vindication can be traced all the way back, back to when Arsenal hired a certain rookie manager halfway through the season in December, 2019.
IT HAPPENED LIKE this. When Arteta turned up for his presentation in a dark turtleneck and coat, walking with the crisp, purposeful gait of a young billionaire protagonist in an Harlequin romance story, many pointed out the similarity to Pep Guardiola. Paul Scholes declared it disrespectful, an overly grandiose gesture intimating a messiah complex. Who did he think he was? “I don’t think he will be the right man,” he added.
Arsenal were in the direst form of their recent history. Their former coach—a man who spammed the Europa League with Sevilla and spammed the French League with PSG—always spoke about being protagonists. “My idea is to be protagonists,” he would say, a good soundbite that, by being broad and non-specific, collects all the qualities of good soundbites: “protagonists,” “attacking football,” “pressing,” “xG,” “atmosphere,” “change,” “brexit,” “shortages,” “Anthony Joshua,” “social media,” everyday mumbo jumbo that could mean anything or nothing at all.
Arsenal had gone from Wenger’s thoughtful press conferences that sometimes felt like intimate evening dinners at some posh, uptown restaurant to textbook peptalk, a decline that preceded performances. Fans had inferred that “protagonists” meant something positive—it had to mean something positive, but, as a Forbes headline put it after the news of his sacking, Unai Emery was never the protagonist.
Mikel Arteta, for all the signs and symbol, the suave and suede shoes that foreshadowed his appointment, did not come with an hopeful pep talk. He didn’t even try to rouse the club, to coax it out of slumber. It was simply a quieter, dutiful speech, unexciting, the words of a man without frills. There was a glint in Arteta’s eyes when he spoke, though, something dark and speckled with light, like a bottle of wine held up to sunlight. He seemed resolute, full of resolve, something only captured by the gentle intensity of his words: “I will burn every drop of blood to make this club better.” Little did the Basque native know that over the next 12 months, as a virus bloomed in his body and across the world, Arsenal would fall into a period of deep despair and everyone would need plenty of resolve.
FOR ARSENE WENGER, football is meant to be an art, some sort of intimate romance between the ball, the players and the fans. This philosophy has captured the attention of the world and the minds of a few generations of Arsenal supporters. But Mikel, despite graduating from La Masia, playing for Wenger and setting the cones for Pep Guardiola, had a less romantic approach to football. Football is an education, a science, something to be approached at with method and careful manipulation. You cannot try to play ‘romantic football’ against the likes of Manchester City with Mohammed Elneny up against Ilkay Gundongan. You cannot imitate the big bullies of the European game and press for 90 minutes with Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulus as your centrebacks. It makes no sense. The numbers say it will rarely work. Even the very names make the idea untenable.
What you can do, instead, is to try to phase in a new attitude, a new culture, a new devotion to hard work and effort. Root out the rats. Bench the subversives. Burn the infidels. Raise the standard, the commitment, the running and the sweat. This is not an art school anymore and every single one of you slack-wristed abstract painters need to get down to sawing and buzzing and drilling right now. The foundation, for Arteta, must be quite solid and the temperature just right or there is no point in trying at all. Not very romantic but very practical. Maybe exactly what a decaying institution needed.
This is, in all honesty, not too far of a throw off from the Wenger that David Dein hired, the Wenger that came from Japan with a big, grizzly coat, taller than everyone, taking charge all over the place. No more beers for you after games! No more fizzy drinks after training! Cut out red meat and eat these strange cuisines from Japan. Stop smoking in these premises. Sleep for a minimum of eight hours. Chew properly before you swallow or you won’t play at all. Lads, it’s Tottenham. We must keep the ball and pass the ball. Do not shoot from 30 yards. Find the third man and travel together. Damn the newspapers who have never seen a passing triangle before.
This cutting approach has dividends in the long and short term. It is the right approach if you want to renew an institution. However, if enough players balk and there are too many rats, too many holes in the ship, you will have a most dreadful time of it. However, Arteta did not have the most dreadful time of it, at least not at first. What came first was different. What came first was hope.
THE FIRST THINGS were the non-negotiables: the attitude and commitment to work. The basic decency and respect for your team mates and the staff. Sharing responsibilities on the pitch. Simplicity and professionalism. No hiding. Absolutely no hiding at all
“I don’t want people hiding,” the young manager said in one of his earliest interviews. “I want people taking responsibility for the job. Anybody that doesn’t buy into this is not good enough for this environment or culture.”
Culture was the word of the day. It is a real, complex phenomenon in football clubs that nobody cares or talks about, least not the fans who just want to see their teams win. And, in any case, how could Arteta, a 36-year-old coach in his first job halfway through the season singlehandedly change the culture of an organization that was so much bigger than him?
Arsenal had a real culture problem. Insiders knew. The atmosphere in the dressing room, training ground and elsewhere was sub-optimal. The news leaks only give a small indication of how things were. Alexis Sanchez at training and then on the pitch. Mesut Ozil picking which matches to play. Both of them and Aaron Ramsey finagling the club out of hundreds of millions worth of transfer fees. Laurent Koscienly, the supposed club captain, disgracefully refusing to travel with the team in order to push through a move to Bordeaux (where he subsequently mocked the club in his Vine-quality announcement video). Rumours of Arsenal players having a league-famous attitude that affected transfer negotiations. Mohammed Elneny singling out his teammate on social media. Things had slipped out of Papa Wenger’s old hands and they slipped even further with Emery.
Bad culture is a ruinous thing. It spreads like oil through the fabric of an institution, affecting even new faces and new phases. Arteta had to change the club culture to have any hope of success. The odds were long and rotten but Arteta was up to the task—a remarkable trait and achievement for one of the youngest and most inexperienced managers in Europe. How Arteta changed the culture and atmosphere at Arsenal football is a story for another day, but the long-short is that he raised the standards, found the slackers and promptly threw them out of the team. The turnover of players under his management has been remarkable. “We have a completely different squad now,” Arteta said at the end of this transfer window. “It’s unheard of. The amount of changes in the past two years is almost 30 players. Now we have to make it work, we have to glide it together, build relationships, chemistry and understanding. We have to do that really quickly.”
Arteta bought Gabriel Maghalaes and Thomas Partey in his first window. Both of them were as professional as you could wish for. Even Willian was well-known for having no frills. In the next major window, Mikel Arteta brought in Takehiro Tomiyasu, Benjamin White, Martin Odegaard, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Nuno Tavares. Two of these were captains for club and country. Tomiyasu fitted perfectly into the stereotype of hardworking Asians. Benjamin White played every single minute for Marcelo Bielsa, another culture-altering manager. Not only did Arteta target quality, he also targeted character. These signings, like a much-needed blood transfusion, have transformed the health of the club.
IN THE FIRST few minutes of the derby, Benjamin White put in a perfect slide tackle on Heung-Min Son that set the mood for the day. You knew something was up from then. These boys were up for it, ready to outwork and outrun Tottenham. Eventually, they overran them. The fans could feel it. They liked these boys. Even the former corporate box that was the Emirates stadium felt like a new, rip-roaring ground. Arteta had transformed that, too.
By the end, Arsenal were well on top, the celebrations were well-deserved. After being applauded by the fans and applauding them back, Arteta went into the dressing room, his dressing room, and gathered everyone together. This moment had to be preserved. It sets a marker for the future. Everyone grinned and the camera clicked. A certain Japanese player was not there. Myth has it that he was still on the pitch, refusing to let Son Heung-Min go home.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 3-part series looking at how Mikel Arteta has changed Arsenal Football Club. The next part will examine his talent identification and management. Thank you for reading.
AI is an analyst and writer. He aims to unite StatsBomb data with Don DeLillo. He loves The Arsenal and is working on his first novel.