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The identity of the shining players vindicates Mikel Arteta coaching

In six months, in the midst of a global pandemic, Mikel Arteta has substantially improved the Arsenal team. The identity of the players that he has improved the team with, however, is true vindication of his coaching skills.

It has been a remarkable first six months as Arsenal head coach for Mikel Arteta. There have been some huge downs: a North London Derby defeat, crashing out of the Europa League, slipping out of the European places entirely in the Premier League. But while the results have been inconsistent at times, the underlying progress has always been present.

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It reached a climax in the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday afternoon. After squeezing past champions Liverpool in midweek, largely due to luck, not judgement, Arsenal faced off against the other dominant English team in recent years, Manchester City.

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This time, through the togetherness of the team, the spirit of the dressing room, and some tactical wrinkles from Arteta, they delivered a brilliant counter-attack performance that was deserving the 2-0 victory. The win puts Arsenal in their fourth final in seven years, where they will face a familiar foe, Chelsea, who they beat in 2017.

What has been so incredible about the Arteta improvement, however, is not the overall growth of the team, though that has been exceptionally encouraging. Rather, it is the nature of the progression, namely the players that have played key roles under his jurisdiction.

Arteta is yet to have a summer transfer window. In January, Arsenal signed two loan players, both of which have combined for 375 minutes in all competitions. Instead, Arteta inherited a broken, battered and beleaguered squad and has turned it into a cohesive unit, one in which the pieces that comprise it work in tandem with one another.

Even more pertinently, players that have played key roles under Arteta were previously banished by former managers, fans, and pundits. Granit Xhaka is now the heartbeat of the midfield. Just weeks prior, he was stripped of the captaincy and told Arteta that he would leave in the winter window.

David Luiz is now the anchor of the defence and has performed excellently under Arteta, bar one disastrous outing against Manchester City when he was distracted by his contract dispute. Shkodran Mustafi’s form has taken an uptick, too, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles has performed astutely, even if he has been in and out of the team throughout Arteta’s tenure.

And then there are the young players, who Arteta is keen to usher into the team. Bukayo Saka is now a key component of the team, Eddie Nketiah is pushing Alexandre Lacazette as the starting centre-forward, while Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson play important roles from off the bench.

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The point is this: these players have not suddenly turned into world-class stars overnight. They still possess the same flaws that they did before Arteta arrived. The same restrictions still exist for many. Rather, Arteta has crafted a structure and culture that gets the very best out of the limited talent that he does have at his disposal. Ultimately, that is the job of a coach, and it is precisely what Arteta has done so wonderfully in his opening half-year.

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