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Mikel Arteta: The Soul to Success

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On the road to success.


While wallowing in the heartbreak from the defeat to Manchester City, I decided to distract myself by picking up a book and reading Phil Jackson’s
Eleven Rings: The Soul to Success.

For those unfamiliar with Phil Jackson, he holds the NBA record for the most NBA championships as a player and coach – famously known for leading Chicago Bulls to six rings between 1989 and 1998.

Something that stood out has been his similarities to Mikel Arteta – or at least Arteta’s similarities to him.

Circle of Love

Jackson used the term “Circle of Love” to describe the mysterious alchemy that joins players together and unites them in pursuit of the impossible. He likened it to the experience of a warrior in the heart of battle and refers to the story of Sebastian Junger, a journalist who embedded himself with a platoon of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan to learn what enabled these young men to fight in such horrific conditions. 

Junger recalls one soldier telling him he’d throw himself on a grenade for any one of his platoonmates. When Junger asked why, the soldier replied, “I love my brothers. It’s brotherhood. Being able to save their life so they can live, I think it’s rewarding. Any of them would do it for me.”

Coincidentally, Gabriel uploaded a post onto his social media after the defeat which read: “Proud to be part of this team!!! Amazing spirit ! We will keep working together , fighting until the end !! For this team I will run until I die !!” 

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I don’t want to over-egg the pudding. Athletes don’t risk their lives everyday like soldiers in battle, but in many ways the same principle applies. It takes a number of critical factors to be successful – including the right mix of talent, creativity, intelligence, toughness, and, of course, luck. But if a team doesn’t have the most essential ingredient – love – none of those other factors matter.

Us-vs-Them

Something else that caught my attention after last weekend’s result is the rediscovered hatred towards Arsenal by rival fans. Most surprising was seeing Manchester United supporters flock to Twitter to celebrate Rodri’s winner.

Ultimately, no one fears you if you’re not a threat to them and there is now a sense of unification between Arsenal supporters and players against a common enemy – the opposition.

In the groundbreaking book: Tribal Leadership, management consultants Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright lay out the five stages of tribal development:

Stage 1: shared by most street gangs and characterised by despair, hostility, and the collective belief that “life sucks.”

Stage 2: filled primarily with apathetic people who perceive themselves as victims and who are passively antagonistic, with the mindset that “my life sucks.”

Stage 3: focused primarily on individual achievement and driven by the motto “I’m great (and you’re not).”

Stage 4: dedicated to tribal pride and overriding conviction that “we’re great (and they’re not).”

Stage 5: a rare stage characterised by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that “life is great.”

In recent years, the connection between the club and fans has felt like a divorced relationship, where all you want is for Mum and Dad to just get along. During this period, Arsenal would’ve fluctuated between Stage 1 and 2. But, Arteta’s Arsenal seem to be on the trajectory towards Stage 4 – developing an Us-vs-Them culture.

At the end of last season, Arteta made unprompted criticism to the media for manipulating his words: “Nothing is broken. Inside, nothing is broken,” he told Sky Sports. “They [the media] try to put things on me that I never said.”

One of the biggest contributing factors to the frustration of rivals has been the shithousery on the pitch. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “shithousery”, it is the underhanded conduct or gamesmanship in sport with the intention of gaining an advantage.

Every Arsenal supporter will agree it has been a breath of fresh air to watch a team that has become a lot less naive and unwilling to be pushed over – while attempting to influence the referee and force them to question decisions.

In his book, Phil Jackson references this quote from Rickie Lee Jones: “You can’t break the rules until you know how to play the game.” Now, I wouldn’t go as far to say Arsenal “break the rules”, but instead find loopholes within the rulebook to gain an advantage. The next step now is to raise the threshold of what we can and can’t get away with – similar to Manchester City under Pep.

One recent incident that ruffled the feathers of West Ham fans was when Gabriel Martinelli went down with cramp off the pitch near the dugout. Arteta instantly recognised this gave West Ham an advantage because the game couldn’t be stopped for medical treatment unless the Brazilian was on the pitch.

Arteta took matters into his own hands and pulled Martinelli off the floor before letting him fall back down on the other side of the white line. This degree of gamesmanship from Arteta and Martinelli angered a number of football fans on social media. But, circling back to the quote: “You can’t break the rules until you know how to play the game.”

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When gamesmanship goes wrong, it can leave you with an egg on your face. Last season, Arteta performed the same trick when Thomas Partey tweaked his hamstring in the North London Derby. 

Partey went over to the bench in discomfort when Tottenham were on the counter-attack. Arteta grabbed the Ghanian and pushed him back onto the field, by which time, it was too little too late. Harry Kane extended the lead in the same move.

Arsenal have improved in many aspects this season, and calculated gamesmanship seems to be one of those things.

Jackson Eleven

Jackon credits the “Jackson Eleven” as his fundamentals to success. At least ten of these points share similarities with the culture Arteta is building at Arsenal: 

Lead from the inside out:

For a long time, Jackson believed he had to keep his personal beliefs separate from his professional life. In his quest to come to terms with his own spiritual yearning, he experimented with a wide range of ideas and practices – from Christian mysticism to Zen meditation and Native American rituals.

Eventually, he arrived at a synthesis that felt authentic and at first, he was worried his players might find his unorthodox views a bit too wacky. But he learned the more he spoke from the heart, the more players actually listened.

The Athletic reporter, Amy Lawrence, visited London Colney at the beginning of November and noticed a new facelift with a lot of “visual stuff.” The visuals were there to make those who work within the walls of Arsenal appreciate what it means to represent a club with such a huge history.

Most notable was the addition of an engraved tree. Lawrence writes: “For Arteta, it symbolises the roots and trunk that form the club, the branches represent the staff, and the leaves are the players who grow thanks to all below that is supporting them.”

Arteta has spoken a few times about this tree. In an interview with Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport, Arteta says: “the image I show is a tree. A tree with roots and we have to look after those roots every single day. If we don’t do that, then the rest won’t come up and it won’t be sustainable over time.”

Bench the ego:

We’ve all worked with someone who has an ego as big as the room you’re in. 

However, the leaders who achieve the best from their players are the ones who know when to wait in the wings and share the spotlight with each person on the team. This encourages each individual to go beyond their call of duty.

Speaking with the media in December, Arteta said: “I don’t establish my authority by being dictatorial or trying to be ruthless. I just ask for one thing. It’s respect and commitment, that’s all.” 

Those who undermine the level of respect and commitment required will be shown the door. Matteo Guendouzi, Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are recent examples of this type of behaviour not being tolerated during Arteta’s tenure.

Let each player discover his own destiny:

On one hand, it is a manager’s job to build player self-esteem – helping them to reach their moment of self-discovery whereby the coach can stay out of the way and let the team do what they instinctively know how to do.

Ramsdale spoke candidly about this on Ben Foster’s Fozcast: “The boss just puts his arm around me and says ‘it’s up to you now, go do it for us.’ He puts his arm around me all the time and speaks to me. He makes me feel 7 feet.”

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Whereas, on the other hand, it is also understanding when to afford a player his or her second chance. If a player makes a mistake, Arteta will let them play the next game and discover their own destiny.

The most recent example of this was when Nuno Tavares had a run of games, starting when Tierney picked up an injury – but Tavares kept his place when Tierney returned to full fitness. Tavares started at Anfield and he made a mistake that led to Liverpool’s second goal. Yet, the Portuguese left back kept his place in the next game against Newcastle.

When asked about this, Arteta explained that he wanted to show that he still has faith in the young full-back: “It was a tricky one and after what happened at Anfield and some individual errors that we had, we have to be very careful with the messages that we send to our players,” he said. 

“I encourage my players to play with courage, to take risks, to make decisions, and to be on the front foot. When they do that, if for any reason things don’t go our way or somebody makes a mistake, that’s when you have to show trust in the player because you want to build confidence and resilience.”

More times than not, the player will bounce back. And, this is exactly what happened. Tavares rewarded Arteta’s faith with an excellent performance and assist against Newcastle.

The road to freedom is a beautiful system:

Similarly to Arteta, Phil Jackson joined the NBA in 1987 as an assistant coach. His colleague, Tex Winter, who became his mentor, taught Jackson a system known as the triangle offence. Critics called it rigid, outdated and complicated to learn. None of that was true. In fact, the triangle is a simpler offense to most NBA runs today and it automatically stimulated creativity and teamwork.

The system empowered players to offer each other vital roles to play, as well as a high level of creativity within a clear and well-defined structure. The key was to train each player to read the defence and react appropriately. This allowed the team to move in a coordinated manner.

Not only is this reminiscent of the relationship between Arteta and Guardiola, but it also sounds frighteningly familiar to today’s Arsenal. Arteta ball is stuck in limbo between being labelled as rigid or ‘Total Football’.

Pressing is an important part of modern day football and Manchester United have shown in recent weeks it is a waste of energy if you’re not instructed how or when to press. However, Arsenal seem to press in a coordinated manner – similar to a pack of hunters pinning their prey into a corner – waiting to pounce.

Whereas, building from the back and transitional play is also structured and well-rehearsed within this group. Each player is specified for their role and knows how to react in almost every situation. 

Arsenal reaped the rewards of following the system for their first goal against Southampton earlier in the season. In a moment of real quality, the Gunners played out from the back bravely – creating the opener with quick one-touch/two-touch passing before Bukayo Saka was released on the wing and his cut back was met by a powerful strike by Alexandre Lacazette.

Turn the mundane into the sacred:

At the beginning of preseason, Jackson would say to the team “God has ordained me to coach young men, and I embrace the role I’ve been given. If you wish to accept the game I embrace and follow my coaching, as a sign of your commitment, step across the line.” 

In essence he gave each player a choice to be coached. This isn’t an empowerment card, but instead an attempt to establish who is onboard and who isn’t. 

Here is where Arteta’s – somewhat overused – “Trust the Process” phrase comes into play.

One Breath = One Mind:

According to Jackson: “Oneness is not something you can turn on with a switch. You need to create the right environment for it to grow, then nurture it carefully every day.”

When football went behind-closed-doors, Arsenal fans felt disenfranchised. It became difficult to build or maintain a strong connection with the club. Arteta spoke about the significance of supporters in his project: “I always said to build a project without the people we play for is going to be impossible, because they are the biggest pillar.”

The Spaniard has worked tirelessly to build unity and fuse together the players with supporters: “Without unity, you can’t achieve what we want to achieve,” Arteta says.

“Unity means every person that works in the organisation. It’s our way of playing, it is our way of transmitting our values, our way of connecting with our fans, our ownership. Everybody, uniform, thinking in the same way, with the same purpose, without any individual agendas, without any egos, just ‘That’s the task’. That’s what we want to get, and I am going to push the boat very, very fast.”

The Emirates often receives a bad reputation. But the effort of fans and players to change that atmosphere this season hasn’t gone unnoticed. Arsenal are trying to build a fortress and have won 10 of their 13 games at home in 2021/22 – only losing to last season’s Champions League and Premier League winners, while rescuing a draw with Vieira’s Crystal Palace.

Arteta spoke about the impact reintroducing fans has had on the team: “When they [supporters] are with us, the team grabs that pillar and we can become really strong.”

The key to success is compassion:

It is rare for a fanbase like Arsenal, who expect to win almost every game, to applaud the team with such pride after defeat. The last time I remember it happening was in Arteta’s second match in charge when Arsenal narrowly lost 2-1 to Chelsea at home. Before then, you might have to rewind to the League Cup Final loss in 2007 when Wenger put a lot of trust into Young Guns.

Arteta often alludes to the idea that all anyone can do is give their all. If you give your all, you win the hearts and compassion of those around you. Players become compassionate towards each other for giving 100%, while supporters treat players with compassion when they appreciate there wasn’t much more each individual could do.

Reiterating Arteta’s basic demands, all he asks is for his players to uphold respect and commitment. The more players show they care, the more fans will fight for the cause – win, lose or draw – therefore instilling trust in this process.

Keep your eye on the spirit, not on the scoreboard:

Jackson in his own words said: “Once I had the Bulls practice in silence; on another occasion I made them scrimmage with the lights out. I like to shake things up and keep the players guessing. Not because I want to make their lives miserable but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.”

Ultimately, sport – particularly football – is a results business and this is what will buy more time. However, this epitomises what occurred on Saturday against Manchester City. It was hard to prepare for such a one-sided performance from the referee team, but the spirit of Arsenal players was apparent for the full 96 minutes. And, you can’t ask for much more than that as fans.

Sometimes you have to pull out the big stick:

To pull out the big stick could mean many things. So, this is more of a subjective strategy. In his book, Jackson said: “I used discipline not as a weapon but as a way to instil harmony into the players’ lives.”

While listening to Arsecast Extra Episode 448, I discovered a sports theory that derived from the NBA. During the same decade Phil Jackson and his Chicago Bulls were dominating, Patrick Ewing for the New York Knicks made his own headline.

American Podcaster, Bill Simmons popularised the Patrick Ewing sports theory, which posits teams improve drastically when certain star players are absent or leave the team. Given Arsenal’s sudden upturn in form after Aubameyang disciplinary – winning 5 out 6 games and scoring 20 goals – this could be Arteta’s example of pulling out the big stick.

Forget the ring:

Arsenal supporters often wonder when this “Trust the Process” thing will end. The answer could be never for as long as Arteta leads the club. Instead of the main focus being the endgame, simply try to appreciate the present.

The moment Jackson’s players allowed themselves to be coached on the first day of training camp, they made a personal decision to do everything they could to practice, train, and play like a pro, each and every day. They stayed focused on being masters of their craft and trusted destiny would unfold in a natural way.

Learn To Let Go

Arteta has become a pin-up in the Premier League for a manager who commands and coaches his team from the sidelines. However, Saturday was the first time Arsenal have been without Arteta on the touchline due to testing positive for Covid-19. This left many fans feeling worried that this young group of players would be lost without him, but the opposite occurred.

The loss of Arteta in the dugout spurred Arsenal on to produce their best ever performance during his managerial reign. Pep Guardiola and Manchester City were on the ropes and running out of answers for at least 55 minutes.

In The Tao of Leadership, John Heider stresses the importance of interfering as little as possible. “Rules reduce freedom and responsibility”, he wrote. “Enforcement of rules is coercive and manipulative, which diminishes spontaneity and absorbs group energy. The more coercive you are, the more resistant the group will become.”

In his own experience, Jackson said: “Once the game began, I would slip into the background and let the players orchestrate the attack. Occasionally, I would step in to make defensive adjustments or shift players if we needed a burst of energy. For the most part, though, I let the players take the lead.”

Much of this thinking was influenced by the work of Abraham Maslow, according to Jackson, who is best known for his theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow believed that the highest human need is to achieve “self-actualisation,” which he defined as “the full use of and exploitation of one’s talents, capacities and potentialities.” The basic characteristics of self-actualisers, he discovered in his research, is spontaneity and naturalness, a greater acceptance of themselves and others, high levels of creativity, and a strong focus on problem solving rather than ego-gratification.

Perhaps the next step now is for Arteta to trust his own process and learn when to let go. Who knows what might happen if he relinquishes more responsibility to his players on the pitch.

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One Response to Mikel Arteta: The Soul to Success

  1. Newton (@NewtonGunner29) January 9, 2022 at 11:43 am #

    Good work really good work

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