How Mikel Arteta powered Arsenal to brink of Premier League championship triumph

Wearing a broad smile, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said before the game against Manchester United: “My brain tells me Arsenal are going to lift the trophy next Sunday.” Winning the title is no longer in the hands of his team—for the dream to realise, his former employers, Manchester City have to spill points, at the home of Arsenal’s caustic rivals Tottenham Hotspur, or more improbably, at Etihad against a directionless West Ham United. Two London clubs could combine to bring the title back to the capital, though Manchester looks the likelier destination.

But Arteta and Arsenal would not shed belief. That perhaps is the biggest virtue the Spaniard has instilled in his team. That virtue, simple yet complex, has driven the Premier League race to the last weekend, promising unputdownable drama. This precisely is the virtue that Arsenal didn’t carry to the Emirates, buried somewhere in the depths of the glorious Highbury, where it became the Invincibles. The Emirates is a magnificent piece of architecture, a stadium with a soul, yet Arsenal have floundered several years without a league triumph, left to console with their record collection of FA Cups.

Arteta’s men, in equal measures gladiatorial, steely and stylish, have restored belief. It begins with Arteta himself, whose career itself is a triumph of self-belief beating rejections. At La Masia, he was always in the shadows of two midfield titans, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. For much of his time at Barcelona, he plied in the B team in division two; he was shipped to PSG, Rangers, and Real Sociedad, and he found his feet nowhere.

“I was so disheartened that there were times when I felt football was not meant for me. But I worked really really hard to play for a top club,” he had once said. Everton was not a top club when he joined them in 2005, nor was Arsenal at their peak when he became a Gunner. But all that defiance—as well as his education under two of the greatest managers of all time, Wenger and Pep Guardiola.—is serving well for him as a manager.

From Wenger, he picked the importance of identity, the involvement that goes beyond the touchline and board-room, but to immerse himself in every little aspect of the club. He is involved in the appointment of academy coaches. He personally attends the interviews. He felt the presence of a dog would benefit the players to relax during intense training sessions. So he himself handpicked Win, a lab. He cajoled set-piece specialist Nicolas Jover from Manchester City to Arsenal with glorious results. After his inbox was flooded with fans pushing to make Louis Dunford’s The Angel the club’s anthem, Arteta espoused their case and the song is belted out before kick-off in every home game. After games, he meets the families of his players in the stadium, shakes their hand, looks them in the eye and gives them a hug and a kiss. The bond spills onto the field. With success, steady and not spontaneous, has somewhat killed the Wenger-nostalgia. Arsenal is a club enjoying their present, and not stuck in their past.

The influence of Guardiola is profound on his tactics, in the use of false nine, possession play, compact midfields, and this season the use of back-four, comprising more of typical centre backs rather that flying full-backs, in a bid to counter the counterattacks, which they were vulnerable to last year. Ben White and Tomori Tomiyasu are not full-backs in the Trent Alexander-Arnold—Andy Robertson mould, but they offer immense defensive stability. He has also deployed the box midfield, a midfield with a double pivot and a play-making one. A double-pivot offers good coverage of central areas of the pitch, with either defensive midfielder able to react if the team loses the ball and are stuck in transition. The defense-first full-backs are stationed wide, making them an impenetrable proposition. Resultantly, Arsenal’s have been the thriftiest team in the league. Even Manchester City could not go past them this season.

Like Guardiola, he is masterful at repurposing his personnel too. Kai Havertz is the classical case. He was initially deployed in the left-side of his midfield trio, but was ineffective. He then deployed him at the tip of his attack, somewhat as a nine and a half, semi-creator, semi-goalscorer and the leader of the press. He has an innocuous knack of scoring important goals or hatching assists, like the one that set-up Gabriel Martinelli’s winner against City last year, a goal that could prove decisive still. He is exceptional at link play, drops deep, giving wings for Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard to bomb forward. Rice has already netted seven goals in 37 games; at West Ham, he had managed only 10 in 204 appearances. Arteta has channelled the record singing’s creative prowess too. That’s what great managers do, they make players better. Every Arsenal player he has bought in the last two seasons have only improved. The recruitment has been smart, and the hands of Arteta are all too evident.

The energy he carries is more reminiscent of Jurgen Klopp, the outgoing Liverpool gaffer. He is a riot of emotions on the ground, bares his soul in press conferences, and gives detailed tactical accounts too. In his most recent one, he displayed his eloquence. “We have opened that box of dreams to live the final day of the season in front of our people – we want to live that moment, it’s part of our journey, to live the occasion,” he said.

It’s an irresistible combination—personal charisma, tactical acumen and self-belief. Even if Arsenal fall short this season, little doubt that the season of spring is too not far behind

 

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