Arsenal looks to be heading in the right direction under Mikel Arteta, but the full effect of the new manager is still a promising work in progress.
Mikel Arteta stepped into a dumpster fire when Arsenal hired him in December. The club was mismanaged and players were losing motivation. Squad members were unhappy and lacked the drive to push Arsenal towards a top-5 finish in the Premier League.
Since his appointment as boss, things have been turning around. Key players have gone from disinterested to functioning to influential. Fans are happy with the way the club is trending. And most importantly, Arsenal is churning out wins again.
Now that Arteta has established a competent ability to make Arsenal a factor in the Premier League and a possible European competition candidate, he can start to make an impact on the performance of individual players.
In his previous position at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, Arteta made a name for himself thanks to his player development skills. Specifically, his guidance that effectively turned Raheem Sterling into one of the Premier League’s best attackers.
Sterling wasn’t always the prominent offensive talent that he is today. In fact, he severely underperformed when he first arrived in Manchester. After his sizable transfer fee from Liverpool in 2015, Sterling was off to a slow start prior to Guardiola taking the reins and naming Arteta his number two.
“The huge transfer fee was actually pretty detrimental in terms of his self-confidence, which is so important for any player. As things didn’t come off for him you could almost see Raz fading away,” Mikel Arteta said in a story published by The Guardian a few years ago.
The first thing that Arteta addressed was Sterling’s confidence. It’s hard for a player to perform with such high expectations hanging over their head, and Arteta knew that this was a factor in Sterling’s struggles.
The same struggles were seen in Nicolas Pepe’s first year in north London. As Arsenal’s most expensive transfer ever, Pepe struggled to establish an identity of his own on a new team in a new league. This was a challenge, seeing that Arsenal themselves were struggling to find an identity as a whole.
For Sterling, Arteta was a fortunate hire by Guardiola. Arteta focused on some keys with the winger to make him a force around the penalty area; acceleration, quickness and first step.
Arteta recognized the problem with Sterling’s current game and changed his focus. Instead of being a winger focused on streaking up and down the line to blast in crosses, Arteta wanted Sterling’s game to amplify his strengths. He switched the player’s focus from long distance coverage to short distance.
The plan to re-tool Sterling’s game started off simply. Arteta began by ridding Sterling of his bad habits, like avoiding the penalty area and receiving the ball on the hip of his marker. Instead, he wanted him to focus on his surroundings.
Arteta’s plan for Sterling: play further off his marker and face the goal. Only make sprints into the penalty area rather than away from goal, beat the defender with quick acceleration. This leads right into an area to shoot if you have created enough space, rather than being stranded away from goal. It also makes the defender hesitate when making a challenge for the ball since it is inside the penalty area.
Sterling saw radical changes right away. He made a massive leap from 7 goals and 8 assists in 2016/17 to 18 goals and 11 assists in 2017/18. This was just in Premier League play.
Something to focus on in this transition are his crossing stats. In 2016/17, he made 85 crosses, while in 2017/18, he only made 42. He didn’t even make half as many crosses after Arteta stepped in, yet he still increased his assist numbers. Sterling also doubled his penalties drawn from one season to the next, bumping them from 3 to 6.
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His increase in production was caused by the strategic factors that Arteta focused on, but creating points of emphasis gave Sterling confidence.
An Arsenal player who has acknowledged Arteta’s success with Sterling is another young winger, Reiss Nelson. When Arsenal hired Arteta, Nelson recognized the transformation of Sterling under his new coach.
“It is crazy because you look at Sterling and Sane and you see them before at their previous teams, they weren’t doing what they do now,” Nelson said in an article written by the Evening Standard’s Simon Collings.
“You can see it because Mikel’s drive is different. I haven’t seen a manager with that much determination to make individuals into better players. I have all my belief in Mikel and I think he is going to make me into a top player.”
Nelson has made it clear that he wants to be a difference maker for Arsenal. At 20-years-old, he is full of potential. He did, however, miss much of the season due to injury. Nelson saw some playing time at the start of the year and even looked to have scored an impressive goal against Burnley in August, but the play was called offside. He returned later in the campaign after Arteta took over, and he began seeing the field more in the spring.
Nelson has stated that he wants a coach that will give him the confidence to be a top player, but will also help him improve his game by focusing on facets that he needs to work on.
Arteta has already made it a priority to focus on each Arsenal player’s areas of improvement. Even in quarantine, he meets with individual players over video call to analyze game film and focus on areas to improve.
“Every day he changes something more and changes something more and how a new philosophy can still improve me as a person, a player as a leader,” David Luiz said to Ian Wright for Adidas.
At Manchester City, Arteta focused on creating relationships with every single player. Guardiola didn’t have enough time to speak individually with each player every day, but Arteta made it a priority. For example, Arteta’s relationship with a young Leroy Sane helped him settle into the Premier League.
“My priority was to reassure him how much faith myself and the rest of the technical team had in him. I thought he’d be feeling a bit lost and that always makes you insecure, particularly at that age. We wanted to boost his confidence. We showed him a lot of videos so we could point out where the spaces were, what options he had, the mistakes he was making, how he could increase his intensity.” Arteta said in an interview with The Guardian.
“That’s really my role here: to look for what’s missing in a player’s game. If I spot something, there’s no point in waiting for the guy to tell me about it. He might take three months to get round to it. Opening up like that to a coach, pointing out your own weaknesses, that’s not easy. What we do is create a safe place so that the players feel comfortable about sharing with us. That way we can then give them the tools to make the improvements they need.”
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Hopefully Arteta can recreate his player success in north London like he did in Manchester. Specifically, he can improve Arsenal’s young wingers.
After his move from France to England, Pepe has proven his technical ability. The way he slithers through defenses and cuts in on his left instep is dazzling. He is also one of Arsenal’s best options to take players on one on one. But, like any other player, Pepe has his weaknesses. He can sometimes be too direct, which restricts him from finding open passes.
His right foot is also a point of his game that needs improvement. Arteta focused on “unconscious competence” with Sterling at Manchester City. This is the ideology that with enough practice in a certain area, one can perform a skill without even thinking about it. With Sterling, he was unconsciously competent with his right foot, but consciously competent with his left foot. Arteta’s focus was to make Sterling unconsciously competent with his left foot, just like his right. He could help improve Pepe’s right foot in the same way he did Sterling’s left.
Along with Pepe, Arsenal has a few more young wingers. Reiss Nelson could have a major effect on the team going forward. Gabriel Martinelli already has. He came onto the scene and showed his effects as a speedster in his first season, knocking in 10 goals in 26 games. Who knows what kind of player he can be with the guidance of Arteta
Nelson, on the other hand, has more to prove. The Arsenal Academy product showed promise on loan at Hoffenheim last season with seven goals. He returned to Arsenal last summer and earned a spot in the first team, but battled through injuries all season. Maybe Arteta’s success with his Sterling project can translate to another prosperous transformation with Nelson.
Mikel Arteta has already proven that he is capable of molding young players into key players. His work as an assistant to Pep Guardiola at City helped land him the Arsenal job, and he has shown early on as the Gunner’s manager that he has the chops to improve the team. Now, the question is if he will be able to individually develop Arsenal’s young players such as Nicolas Pepe, Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli in the same way he did with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane. The club is filled with potential-ridden youngsters, but it is up to Arteta to exploit the untapped wave-pool of talent that Arsenal has waiting for them.