When Mikel Arteta initially told Manchester City colleagues that Arsenal had come back in for him, there were some who counselled against it. They expressed the same reservations that figures like Max Allegri have, that the club structure is questionable and all such “a mess”, that it’s going to be very difficult for any manager to succeed there.
Arteta, however, has been steadfast. He wants the job, and was as strong on this as he is with everything else. Colleagues say there is a focus to him, a determination, and “no bullshit”. He feels can have a real positive effect. The club certainly needs his clarity. That’s been sorely missing. This is precisely why – in the words of one source – “Arteta might be among the best possible appointments for Arsenal in the circumstances”, and why they should have got him on initially replacing Arsene Wenger in 2018. The evidence of Unai Emery’s career suggested he was never the right manager for the club. Arteta, however, has plenty of potential to be the right one.
The fact there is no evidence from any previous managerial job indicates it is by no means a perfect appointment, and does represent an obvious risk. But Arteta does have some perfect attributes. It is in that sense a bold appointment, in total contrast to the conservative Emery pick and thereby in a similar vein to that of Wenger way back in 1996, so already tapping into the club’s identity in one way. Far more important than that kind of nebulous talk, however, is the vision that Arteta has. He sold Arsenal a compelling and modern one in his interviews, both in 2018 and last week.
What really stood out was the clarity, the explanation of how the different elements would work, and add up to the whole. Arsenal sources say there has been “so little by way of unified planning, strategy and structure” at the club that any little bit of any of them could go a long way. Arteta has thought about all of this in detail, and is described as “so meticulous” it will go way beyond that. “He is a clever guy with the necessary knowledge,” says one hugely connected figure who knows the Arsenal and City set-ups well. “Great footballing pedigree. Knows the club. Hard to knock that.”
It’s hard to knock his idea of football, either. It is again much clearer than Emery’s, and entirely about imposing your game on the opposition, in the way a big club should.
“I want the football to be expressive, entertaining,” he said in a 2014 interview. “I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition. We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us. I’m 100 per cent convinced of those things, and I think I could do it.”
It is exactly that mode of thinking, however, which could be more important than anything. It will after all be key to actually applying and executing this idea. The brutal reality at Arsenal is that they had become far too soft a club. For all Wenger’s obvious qualities over the years, it had got to the point where there was an atmosphere of indulgence at London Colney. The French great’s approach was initially designed for players to build up their confidence and express themselves but instead gradually meant that they just got away with sub-par performances for too long. This was something ultimately perpetuated by Emery, who players liked but didn’t exactly fear.
They mocked some of his mannerisms and even juvenile gestures like pre-match huddles where the squad would have to chant “Arsenal! Arsenal!” It’s difficult not to think this would have rankled with Arteta. There’ll be none of that with him. He certainly isn’t a “yes man”. The 37-year-old is an assertive and occasionally spiky character, not afraid of confrontation. You only have to look at the high-profile flare-ups he’s had with one of the game’s major figures in Leo Messi, and one of Arsenal’s major rivals, as he squared right up to Tim Sherwood when he was Tottenham Hotspur manager.
Arteta’s personality did mean he wasn’t universally popular with Arsenal teammates when a player, and as many called him “coach” as a disparaging term for how “busy” he was as much as a compliment for his knowledge. He also had a testy relationship with Steve Bould. But many at Arsenal now feel a certain tension, a hard edge, is essential. Even stand-in Freddie Ljungberg has privately complained that too many players don’t seem to care. He’s also argued they won’t care unless an appointment is made. Some figures were meanwhile aghast at the recent defeat against Manchester City and how the players seemed so casual. They argued there and then that Arsenal as much as anything needed that kind of highly demanding high intensity that is now the norm at the top clubs.
That is certainly what we’ve seen under Pep Guardiola at City, under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and – just as pointedly – under Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur. Arteta is a former teammate and friend of the Argentine, who Arsenal did explore as an option, and fully subscribes to Pochettino’s full-on approach. He can introduce that discipline, and that intensity.
“I will have everyone 120 per cent committed, that’s the first thing,” Arteta said in that 2014 interview. “If not, you don’t play for me. When it’s time to work it’s time to work, and when it’s time to have fun then I’m the first one to do it, but that commitment is vital.”
That commitment is something that has been sorely missing at Arsenal. Under Arteta, this team will not be indulged, or allowed to slacken. There will be a level of commitment demanded that will condition everything, and just make them a much harder side to play against. It’s still going to be a hard job for Arteta, mind. This is a club that has effectively been rushed into this appointment because the players did not respond to Ljungberg, when they initially wanted to wait until the end of the season, and half those players now want out. There are huge issues, and not much money. It’s just as well Arteta has a lot of steel. That is why, even though this is not a perfect appointment, it may be the right one.