Very early into his appointment, Mikel Arteta made a careful, well-thought observation about the kinds of players needed in the Premier League. This quote, laced with nuance, was soon going to prove prophetic.
“For City, or any top side, it’s obviously great to have players who will give you control of the ball, control of matches. But in the Premier League, it’s vital to have guys who’ll offer massive amounts of intensity and athletic aggression in key one-v-one moments. If you don’t have that, then, for however much you construct intricate interior play, the big beasts of the Premier League will eventually press you and rob the ball from you.”
Arteta’s observation was of particular note to Arsenal supporters who were paying attention. For far too long, Arsenal had been riddled with players who really couldn’t keep up with the big beasts of the Premier League. This was a remarkable descent from the heights of the Invincibles. At one point, the midfield enforcers were Francis Coquelin (who admittedly did a good job of it for a while) and Lucas Torreira, both under 6ft. Meanwhile, City and Liverpool acquired Fernandinho and Fabinho, two 6ft+ Brazilian lighthouses as well as defenders like Kompany and Van Dijk.
Athleticism was the base on which Jurgen Klopp built his own red army and in Mikel Arteta’s first major window at the club, he got Gabriel Maghalaes and Thomas Partey.
The Gabriel Maghalaes story is a curious one. He never played for an academy until he was 15 years old and when he did, he was considered surplus to requirements. However, Gabriel, a homely young boy who cried whenever he missed home and cried whenever his team lost, eventually overtook Marcao in the pecking order at Avai for one major reason: he took education as seriously as he took his football, a requirement for modern youth development programs in sports. Europe soon came calling and the 19-year-old went on to Lille. Lille loaned him out to Troyes but he was dropped into the Troyes reserves side and then he was sent out to Dinamo Zagreb where, initially, he also dropped into the second string. However, Gabriel’s everlasting ethic of personal improvement pushed him back up above sea level. His technique and decision-making went up tenfold and Dinamo were desperate to sign him but couldn’t cough up the money. The Gabriel that returned to Lille was a much better defender and he quickly struck an understanding with Jose Fonte in the starting eleven.
That kind of attitude and work ethic was what ultimately pushed him high up the list of transfer targets for Arteta. Left-footed, 6ft 3 inches, and a ‘um amor de pessoa [a sweetheart]’, Gabriel was the perfect individual and perfect teammate material. Arsenal quickly moved ahead of the competition to secure his signature. The Gabriel story contains everything Arteta wants in a player: quality, commitment, character, humility and mental fortitude.
In an interview with Sky Sports earlier this year, Arteta was asked about the importance of character when making a new signing.
“For me, it’s the number one question when we bring someone to the club,” Arteta said. “What is he like? How is he going to react in difficult moments?”
In another interview, Arteta outlined the importance of the right mix of characters to The Independent.
“Medium and long-term, it’s crucial. A team is formed by individuals who have the same purpose and to have the same purpose you have to trust each other. You have to be connected with each other.”
Although Thomas Partey was a more established player than Gabriel Maghalaes—a veteran even—he was also the perfect athletic, technical and professional specimen that Arteta wanted. And Thomas Partey had a similar journey to Gabriel, from the 2nd division in Ghana to Atletico Madrid’s B side, to loan spells at Mallorca and Almeria and lots of hard work done to convince Atletico’s legendary manager of his trustworthiness. The Thomas Partey story is one of an hard-earned climb to the top, despite immense talent.
A little inspection of Arsenal’s other acquisitions reveals similar stories. All have had to prove themselves in humbling conditions, all have had experience at lower levels, but most importantly, they all went through those periods without breaking character, without sulking or throwing up a fuss. Aaron Ramsdale at Wimbledon, Bournemouth and Sheffield. Takehiro Tomiyasu at Sint-Truiden and Bologna. Martin Odegaard at Sc Heereneveen, Vitesse and Real Sociedad. Ben White has played full seasons in all levels of English football, starting from Newport County in League 2. One thing stands out about them all: they all are hungry, hardworking, and extremely professional. Arteta has not only targeted quality, he also targeted character.
These signings have all proven to be popular with the fanbase. Mikel Arteta has incredibly overseen multiple transfer signings that can only be described as perfect in terms of their character, quality, age profile, and the fan connection to them. These are exactly the profiles that a rebuilding club needs. This is not just remarkable profiling from a 36-year-old coach hired halfway through a tumultuous season, it is ridiculous, maybe even miraculous considering the odds.
Talent identification is not the only thing Mikel Arteta seems to be really good at. His management of talent is also another. Take Arteta’s use of Kieran Tierney as the LCB in a back 3, a move which directly contributed to an FA Cup win. Or take his transformation of Bukayo Saka from a precocious eighteen-year-old utility player to a prodigious right winger for both club and country. In Bukayo Saka, Arteta turned a good asset to an indispensable one worth something close to 9 figures in economic terms.
From Granit Xhaka’s astounding 2020 form to Ainsley Maitland-Niles getting his debut for England, Arteta has consistently coaxed the best out of Arsenal’s players. Even the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz and Rob Holding have managed to seem better under his tutelage, from OK to very good, while Alexandre Lacazette returned to his best form since 2017. Nicolas Pepe also went from 15 direct goal contributions to 21, a 25% improvement in his output, thanks partly to how Arteta moved him from the right flank to the left mid-season. Gabriel Martinelli, meanwhile, has been carefully managed back from a significant long-term injury with a stark improvement in his physical condition and all-round game.
Under Arteta’s reign, Arsenal have also managed to sign up more than 7 u-21 players to new, long-term contracts. This was previously not a given, even under Wenger and it was how the likes of Serge Gnabry got away.
Some people have pointed to the signing or management of the likes of Willian, Saliba, Runarrson and Cedric as a speck on Arteta’s record. However, no manager can always get it completely right. Even Liverpool, with their very excellent recruitment record, have had some duds so far. With that said, it must be noted that Cedric Soares is likely a board signing, given the opportunistic circumstances that surrounded his signature. Cedric also shares the same agent as Edu and Willian. There have been rumors of a power tussle over transfers between Arteta and Edu as well as solid reports of Arsenal increasingly linked to an agent led recruitment strategy before the last window. Given what Kia Jorochooban (Edu’s, Cedric’s and Willian’s agent) has said concerning Arteta’s ‘project’, the fact that each one was not a first-choice signing as well as Arteta’s status before his promotion to manager, one may safely assume that Arteta was not the main driver behind the recruitment. Even Runarrson was notably brought in on the recommendation of the goalkeeping coach. Saliba, meanwhile, is a situation that has been unclear even before Arteta and remains somewhat puzzling, but reports indicate that he is planned for full integration next season.
“They spent loads and ended with nothing. I don’t think they have really improved their team and they still have a lot of deadwood at the club. They also had the biggest Premier League net spend if I’m not mistaken.”
Of course, agents were unhappy about Arsenal’s business in the last because these deals were not driven by them and didn’t involve any complicated alliances. It meant Arsenal spent a lot of money without the biggest agencies seeing much, if any, of it. They also conveniently forgot the fact that Arsenal signed 6 players, averaging just about 23 million euros per signing.
In a way, the fact that agents are dissatisfied with what is probably Arsenal’s best window in a long time is a good sign. It shows that Arsenal are not just getting players based on backhanded recommendations laden with ulterior incentives but through a responsible, needs-driven holistic approach involving data analytics and live scouting, a similar routine to Liverpool.
All in all, Mikel Arteta seems like an incredible manager at an individual and team level. Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling have all publicly credited Arteta for one aspect of their development or the other. Even if you are not enamoured with him, one has to find it all deeply impressive for a 36-year-old mid-season hire in his first stint at one of the most troubled and pressured jobs in England.
To wash it down, over the past few years, definitely since Per Mertersacker was made the head of the academy, Hale End has improved its status as one of the best-run academy programs in the country. Guess who identified and recommended Per Mertersacker to the club hierarchy?
Hear it from the man himself:
“I think Mikel actually said to them, ‘If you don’t want to lose a good person again, you know, offer this guy something!”
From transforming the internal culture at Arsenal to bringing a wonderful nose for talent identification and management, Mikel Arteta is walking in the same steps as Arsene Wenger. This is not an insane parallel to draw from the outside. Club insiders believe this, too. In the words of one:
“Mikel has that ‘Arsene’ way of getting you to want to follow him.”
Arsenal fans can only hope that this will prove to be prophetic again.
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.