After a rather tumultuous season, Arsenal are beginning to take on the personality of their exciting new manager.
Mikel Arteta‘s courage, intelligence, and determination can be felt in every facet of the team and a new renaissance built on these principles may be dawning. A little over a year ago, Arsenal manager at the time, Unai Emery, made headlines with a tongue in cheek comment that seemed fairly innocuous. The Spaniard was asked about the prospect of facing Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side on matchday three of the season and, he responded: “For us, we don’t want to play against Liverpool ever. We’d prefer not to play against them.”
Of course, Emery went on to clarify his statement that playing Liverpool proposed an exciting challenge that would provide an insightful test for his Arsenal side. At the time, most sections of the Arsenal fanbase were able to discount the comments as nothing more than a light-hearted joke even if it was in bad taste. However, with hindsight, Emery’s jest was a telltale sign of degradation in the club’s mentality.
A football club is a living breathing organism with a wide array of complexities that can alter or even threaten homeostasis. Its the manager’s job to maintain balance and give the squad cues to build upon, as well as a general vision to work towards. Even joking about fearing a team as good as Liverpool creates a subconscious inferiority complex that can and probably did seep into the team’s psyche.
Conversely, Arteta’s primary strength so far since taking control of the first-team squad has been his messaging. Speaking after his most recent victory over Jurgen Klopp’s reigning Premier League champions, he made that clear:
“Two days ago we started to have players back in training and I didn’t hear one excuse like: ‘Oh Liverpool had two weeks [training] in Austria, better preparation…’ None of that, when I was in the dressing room I had the feeling they believed we could win. They didn’t feel any fear. They had a lot of respect for Liverpool but they wanted to really go for it and believed they could win another trophy. And from the first minute they showed quality and courage on the pitch.”
Arteta’s communication to the players, fans, and media has all been positive and consistent, but most importantly backed up on the pitch. We are also starting to see the tenants of his personality, courage, determination, and intelligence, affect this club and this group of players in major ways.
If we use Arsenal’s most recent performances as a litmus test, it becomes apparent what exactly this manager is looking for in his players. Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles embody the Arteta style of play. Much has been made about the future of Maitland-Niles and although his future still hangs in the balance, Arteta has chosen to stick with the newly called-up England International.
Playing as the left wing-back in the current three at the back system, Maitland-Niles has proven himself to be an incredibly intelligent player. As a right-footed player, left wing-back is clearly not a natural role for him, but his ability to read the game and move seamlessly from defense into midfield has been particularly eye-catching.
When Arsenal do not have the ball, Maitland-Niles has exhibited fantastic reading of the game and positional awareness to stifle opposition wingers, most notably Mohammad Salah, Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mane, and Adama Traore. However, when Arsenal look to break forward with the ball, Arsenal’s number 15 has been seen surging forward through the inside left channel getting himself in attacking positions and keeping opposing defenses on tenterhooks. This is a role that requires heaps of in-game intelligence and courage to go toe-to-toe with top attacking talents.
His left-sided partner Kieran Tierney has been deployed mostly as the left center-back of a three-man central defensive unit. Tierney’s pace and determination makes him similar to Nacho Monreal in the fact that he is rarely caught out of position and is no slouch in his defensive duties like some other more attacking full-backs might be.
However, unlike Nacho Monreal, Tierney still has the ability to burst forward and join the attack. Nacho was very good at scoring goals from left-back in a more traditional back four but in a back three he was far more reserved. Tierney can still be seen getting forward to the byline and putting crosses in even when he is ostensibly playing as a center-back. This all boils down to the fluidity and intricacy of Arteta’s system and the level of intelligence it takes to perform both jobs effectively.
Bukayo Saka is in my opinion the most intelligent teenager we’ve seen at the club since Cesc Fabregas. Many will point to Jack Wilshere and that’s fair, however, I would argue that while Saka may not have as many eye-catching highlights as Wilshere (we all remember that night against Barcelona) that he is, in fact, playing smarter within Arteta’s system. Arsenal’s new number seven has the ability to play in a plethora of positions on the pitch at a high level, making him a nearly invaluable asset.
When Saka first started playing at right-wing, he did not look completely comfortable and it was obvious that the teenager was out of place. However, now Saka looks assured as an inverted winger cutting in off the left-wing and combining well with his teammates. His fantastic diagonal ball to set up Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang’s goal was a thing of beauty from a technical and mental perspective. Reading the decoy run of Eddie Nketiah through the middle Saka was able to play the simple but proper pass to get Arsenal’s leading scorer in an isolated one-on-one situation. Tying down Saka was a crucial piece of business because although the youngster is still only 18, he plays with an unbelievably high level of maturity.
More from Pain in the Arsenal
Beyond intelligence, Arteta has also instilled bravery and determination in the way Arsenal play. One only has to look at the build-up play for Arsenal’s goal in the Community Shield to see the courage that the team is currently playing with. Large sections of the Arsenal fanbase would probably dread the idea of Rob Holding and Mohammed Elneny playing passes within their own box, but that’s exactly what happened. The tight intricate passes in a dangerous part of the pitch beat Liverpool’s vaunted press and opened up sizable gaps for the forwards to exploit.
After scoring his absolutely sumptuous goal, club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang didn’t rest on his laurels. Playing out wide comes with defensive responsibilities and there was one specifically eye-catching moment when Aubameyang made a crucial tackle at the edge of his own box, winning the ball and regaining possession for his side just as Liverpool began to set up shop in Arsenal’s half. This has been a normal occurrence from the forward line with Alexandre Lacazette often leading a dogged press to win the ball in advanced positions as well.
Finally, no player seemed to embody Arteta’s call for courage and determination more than Reiss Nelson. Speaking to the club’s official website after the win over Liverpool, Nelson mentioned how determined he was to take the first penalty in the shootout:
“I really wanted to take a penalty but I think I was 17 at the time and the boss didn’t let me take it, so I said to myself if I ever get the opportunity to take one again then I’ll be the first one and I’ll be confident and just pick a spot and pick it… I got an opportunity, went to Mikel and said I’ll take it, then I was brave and he let me take it.”
This moment encapsulates the energy and determination that is most notably rife amongst the young players of the squad.
As time goes on we will see if Mikel Arteta can continue to get the best out of his players and surely new signings, if any arrive, will need to quickly bed into what the manager expects. However, as things stand we are beginning to see a true renaissance of a team that looked weak, dull, and soft just a few months ago.