MIKEL Arteta carries a heavy burden. In his first managerial role, the 38-year-old finds himself in charge of a club still floundering in its attempt to rebuild from Arsene Wenger’s departure two years ago, suffering an apparent lack of direction and disinterest at board level and with a mishmash squad of expensive misfits talented underachievers and just a handful of trusted performers.
In his nine months in charge of the club he once captained, it has not been all smooth sailing for the Arsenal boss. Losses to Brighton, Aston Villa and rivals Tottenham late last season – as well as a Premier League win rate still under 50 per cent – evidence the choppy waters Arteta must yet navigate if he is to restore Arsenal to regular top-four contenders or better.
But already there is a sense that, at long last, there is once again a progressive, innovative and clear-thinking manager at the Emirates Stadium helm, a feeling absent during Unai Emery’s reign; likewise much of the latter half of Wenger’s two decades in north London.
And while last season’s FA Cup triumph was a boon to the project the Spaniard is overseeing, and wins over Manchester United and Manchester City showed what the Gunners are capable of when at their best, it was June’s 2-1 victory over champions Liverpool that Arteta highlights as the point at which he and his players began to appreciate their progress.
“That moment probably was a moment where the team clicked a little bit and went into more of a belief mode,” he said after beating Liverpool at the Emirates.
They repeated the trick in this season’s Community Shield, albeit requiring penalties to see off the Reds at Wembley after a 1-1 draw. And as Arsenal prepares to face off against Jurgen Klopp’s side again, they do so with the belief Arteta spoke of at the highest point of his tenure, having begun the 2020-21 Premier League campaign with back-to-back wins, over Fulham and West Ham.
While no one expects them to ultimately challenge Liverpool’s supremacy at the top of the table come the end of the season, it is no longer difficult to imagine Arsenal mustering a return to the top-four spots they once were a staple of. Arteta’s ideas, many of which inspired by his time studying at the feet of Pep Guardiola as Manchester City’s assistant manager, are being brought to life – the cohesive passing patterns, the utilisation of pace on the counter and the precise construction of play to maximise Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s finishing prowess.
And this has been achieved via comparatively minimal transfer investment. Arsenal have spent around £30m on new recruits this summer, headlined by centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes’ arrival from Lille, while goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez’s sale to Aston Villa helps drop their net spend to just £7m.
“I think Mikel Arteta is punching above his weight,” Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville said recently on his podcast. “He is going above and beyond the players he has. The shape and the organisation, things we have criticised Arsenal for in the past, is good.
“They are not finishing in the top four like Arsene Wenger used to get criticised for but they look like a team which is more cohesive. It has continued from the end of last season and he is doing a great job.”
Before his £20m departure for Villa Park, Martinez spoke equally glowingly of Arteta’s Arsenal impact, praising his work on the training field.
"He is one of the best modern coaches today,” he said. “In six months he has won a title, the FA Cup no less, one of the best cups in England and one of the oldest in history.
"He's very smart, in my opinion, he's going to be one of the best coaches in the world. Pep Guardiola said that everyone at Manchester City had learned from Arteta.
“In training we see that he has a clear idea of the game, he surprises us day by day."
But with so much going right for Arsenal at present – not least Aubameyang’s commitment to a new long-term contract – it is encouraging that Arteta will not get carried away; he won’t allow short-term results to distract from his long-term aims of sustainable improvement in all areas.
“There is no structure in the world that can sustain when someone has the ball completely free and gives it to the opponent,” he said after last week’s 2-1 win over West Ham at the Emirates – in which, according to understat.com, the away side’s chances amounted to the greater expected goals total (2.06 to 1.33). “We have to improve in many things.”
There were elements of Arsenal having ridden their luck in their recent successes against Liverpool, too, with the Reds earning an xG advantage in their June meeting in the Premier League (2.22 to 1.32) and outshooting the Gunners in the Community Shield.
But having come out on top in their last two meetings with the country’s best team, and with the confidence of a perfect start to the new season, taking on Liverpool at Anfield on Monday night will give the best indication yet of how far Arsenal have come under Arteta.