It was late at night, Mikel sat at home waiting for a knock on the door, a ring of the doorbell – something to announce the arrival of his two evening guests. How would the conversation go? Would there be any slight resentment for what had occurred mere hours ago? Banter? Would it go undiscussed completely? After all, it was this evening, moments ago that Arteta’s Manchester City had rolled to a 3-0 win over his guest’s club, Arsenal.
There was business to discuss, new opportunities to become a head manager for the first time and the prospect of returning to his old club to do so was all too enticing to pass up even if. Mikel is shaken from his thoughts by a knock at the door. Vinnai has arrived.
Fast forward to a restless night as Mikel awaits morning and his first day as Arsenal Manager. He looks back at the surreal feeling of his late night, secret meeting. It had hardly been a secret the next day, but the job was his, nonetheless. He wonders to himself at times what he has gotten himself into. Arsenal in the midst of their most underwhelming season in nearly 25 years and he was asked to steady the ship, correct the path, and do it with the same team – quickly.
He couldn’t second guess himself. He reviewed his non-negotiables in his mind a final time. He had a plan, he was ready for this, and confident in his ability to adjust to whatever came him way.
Call it a fabrication of my mind. A fictional take on imagining Mikel Arteta going through two monumental moments leading up to the start of his time as manager. But, I have no problem believing the first-time manager would be having these thoughts run through his mind as he braced himself for taking on a position he likely thought would be years down the road. No matter the thoughts that Mikel Arteta had in those moments, no one could have predicted the timeline of his first 6 months as Manager.
At the age of 37, just having turned 38 in March, Arteta is the youngest manager in the Premier League and he has already worked his way into a role as Manager for one of the Premier League’s prestigious “top 6” clubs. He had worked for the last few years at Manchester City under Pep. Guardiola, with high praises, but that was not enough for everyone to believe he deserved the job.
After all, Arsenal found themselves in middle of one of the most catastrophic seasons in almost 25 years. They had put their faith in the unsustainable Unai Emery and despite early wins and results, that success proved simply to be a red herring, but in that case, Unai’s resume had been impressive before he was given the job. Success in the Europa League, titles, time with a big club like Paris St. Germain – Arteta only had time as second fiddle, albeit to one of the top innovators in the game.
Arsenal has done this before by bringing in the lesser known Arsene Wenger, but even he had time at the reputable Monaco and had actually managed a club before. Yet here Arsenal were, hiring the confident, stern, energetic, passionate “boy” Mikel Arteta and asking him to right the ship – with largely the exact same squad that sat in 10th place and was sinking fast. Offering an untested manager like Arteta the job was a trial by fire but could help assess is promise quickly.
The fans had seen this squad struggle away from home, struggle to string together wins, lose a captain after a verbal clash with the Gunner’s fans, lose a manager for the second time in two years, and with no visible identity – the situation was dire enough to understand any prospective manager’s unwillingness to undertake the challenge. While he may not confirm it, it was the outlook of this task that likely saw Carlo Ancelotti take his skills to Everton and a club that appeared to be an Ancelotti-esque manager away from finding some potential success.
That’s not to make it sound as though there was no potential in the squad, or any supporters excited to see Arteta at the helm. The majority of this squad had reached a Europa League final the previous year and there were plenty of fans intrigued at the attacking style of play that Arteta could potentially bring back to the club after Emery’s defensive, pragmatic approach.
The job was Arteta’s and from his first interview with the club, he began to demonstrate to the club, the players, and the fans how he was going to conduct himself, the demands he had on the team and his expectations. He was addressing issues that fans had spent months clamoring for Emery to comment on. He was listing his non-negotiables he holds players to, discussing energy, work rate, pride, and with every, easily understood phrase confidence grew.
He wasn’t going to write the season off, chalk it up as a lost cause, or accept that this team couldn’t achieve anything until money was poured into it the way his previous mentor is often criticized for demanding. Given his little training time, Arteta was taking it one step at a time, addressing the issues in small segments, and dedicated to proving his value day in and day out.
“Energy is everything, in life, in sport”, he said. A mantra? A creed? Whatever it is, it’s how Arteta conducts himself in everything he does as he leads by example for the players. “I will give every drop of blood for this club” he said, but not even giving his blood could have altered the course that was in front of him and his new team.
He had said all the right things, but could he turn it into results on the pitch? Results didn’t come in the form of wins and points at the start, as Arteta’s first matches resulted in a tie to Bournemouth and late loss to Chelsea, but the performances showed signs of life. The team showed intent, work rate, everything Arteta declared he was looking for and when they got their well-deserved, comfortable 2-0 win to start 2020 again Manchester United, things were looking up. The team followed that with 10 matches unbeaten – nearly two full months.
The streak contained a lot of draws, but a 2-2 draw against Chelsea saw 10-men heroics from the Gunners as their sheer work rate and team chemistry earned them a point in a hostile Stamford Bridge. The run also contained thrilling wins like their 4-0 manhandling of Newcastle and wins that were gutted out like their 3-2 win over Everton at The Emirates, after conceding a goal in the opening minute. The identity that Arteta said he wanted to create was coming to fruition and fans and players alike were buying into it.
The squad was brimming with confidence, fans had hope to cling to, and Arsenal had a 1-0, away win in hand as they returned to the Emirates for their 2nd leg against Olympiacos. One night in London, one terrible night in London, would send fans crashing back to earth and remind everyone the sheer mass of the project at hand. It was a reminder in the worst way. A slap in the face, a dousing of ice water, and a stumble that would give some life to people’s fears that Arteta was not capable of leading us back to European competition.
It was the first major hurdle of Arteta’s early career as a manager, and would be his first test of his ability to raise the spirits of his squad, keep them on track, and elicit a response from them. They needed a bounce back – badly. There was still a race for 4th or 5th place within their reach and with Manchester City being given a potential ban from for FFP violations, 5th place presented the potential for reaching the highly sought-after Champions League. They even had the FA Cup and with it, a chance at silverware.
Arteta would not get the chance to sustain a full bounce back. Arsenal would follow their loss to Olympiacos with a win against Portsmouth and a win against West Ham, only for the season to come to a screeching halt. COVID-19, Coronavirus, a world-wide pandemic. Not only would it bring the season to a halt, Arteta would test positive and become the first Premier League coach or player to require mandated self-isolation. An outcome few could have predicted when Arteta took hold of the reins.
For Arteta, this was simply another opportunity to lead. He demonstrated his respect for the rules and guidelines in a world where people were unsure how serious to take this new-age plague. He sent messages assuring the fans and world of his recovering state and his desire to get back to work as soon as possible was noticed.
Fast forward again to this last week, over a month later. The suspension is still in effect, games are still cancelled, and clubs are at a period of uncertainty over their finances. The pandemic threatens to result in up to a billion in losses, and the players are at odds with the club having rejected their initial wage cut offer.
Instead of staying out of it, Arteta demonstrated once again how he has ingrained himself within the team and club to earn each sides’ trust in the negotiation. It is reported he walked the thin, tricky line of assuring the players he would protect their interests on their behalf and have their back while urging them to do what they could to assist the club. The result? A dramatic swing from split-decision rejection to a 25/27majority.
David Luiz spoke about Mikel saying, “Mikel, he brings a philosophy where everybody has to think for the best of the club, and make the club shine again. Everybody, not just players, everyone has to breathe this oxygen. It doesn’t matter where or when we lost it, we bring it back.”
Was it Arteta’s greatest achievement in the short time he has been the manager? Possibly. Simply because of what it symbolized to everyone on the outside. Arteta had emerged as the leader of the pack. A pack that seemed lost and without leadership. A pack that had turnover in manager and captain. A pack that seemed destined to have nothing to play for by the end of the 2019 calendar year. But now, a pack that had someone with a vision, a plan, and an unyielding desire to see this vision come to fruition.
He may still get an opportunity this year to give Arsenal something to show for the season, but even if he doesn’t, the way back feels a little clearer with Arteta guiding us through the dark.