OPINION: Super Mik Arteta
Arsenal are easily having the best season they have had since I closely started following the club in 2014. My initial introduction to the club came at the hands of my uncle who is a diehard fan. Apart from the odd game, I never really watched soccer that much apart from international tournaments. Every tournament I watched was so captivating and exciting that finally after the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I started following the European leagues on a regular basis. Luckily for me, I already had a team to support. Arsenal. While I wouldn’t trade my fandom of the Gunners for any other team, I can’t say I haven’t thought about why my uncle would bestow the curse of being an Arsenal on me over at times over the past nine years.
Going into the season, I had a lot of optimism for what our season could be. Although last year ended in disappointing fashion after failing to make the top-four in the Premier League and losing it out to our bitter rivals Tottenham, there were so many positives to take away from the season as a whole. We saw some young players step up and improve drastically and most of our signings worked out extremely well after some of them came under intense scrutiny. Last off-season, we made some more good signings. Players that were proven winners to join a young group. Arsenal’s pre-season went as well as they could have hoped for. The Gunners won six of seven games, including a game I attended in Orlando where we trounced Chelsea 4-0. As optimistic as I was going into the season, I couldn’t have envisioned Arsenal competing for a Premier League title in my wildest of dreams.
With about a month left of the season, Arsenal find themselves at the top of the Premier League with 75 points, with 33 games played. The team chasing the Gunners, the reigning two-time champions, Manchester City, are on 73 points, with 31 games played. The season will end May 28, when every team will have played their 38th and final game simultaneously. After being at the top of the league for most of the season, it will be heartbreaking if we don’t get over the line. As much as it would hurt, there’s no shame in losing the league to a juggernaut like Manchester City. I’m here to tell you that no matter the outcome of this season, the Gunners will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Here are three reasons why.
Arsenal hired Mikel Arteta to be their manager in December 2019. I have such vivid memories of that week. It had been only five days prior to the announcement of his hiring that ironically enough Manchester City, where he was an assistant coach for three and a half years, came to Arsenal’s ground and beat them with ease 3-0. I was so dejected from the team at that point. I was barely paying attention to the second half of that game. A bit of hope was restored when I saw the next day that Arsenal executives were seen leaving Arteta’s house late that night to discuss the prospect of him becoming Arsenal manager. He was someone I was keen on the club hiring in 2018 after the departure of the legend himself, Arsene Wenger, after 22 years of being Arsenal manager. The club decided to hire Unai Emery, who after having a decent first season, ended up being the wrong guy for the job. I was ecstatic that my wish eventually came true after the firing of Emery. In hindsight, I’m glad things worked out the way that they did because it’s hard to fill the boots of a recently departed legend. Arteta also got an extra year and a half to continue learning under Manchester City boss, Pep Guardiola.
Despite having no experience being a manager before, one thing that made Arteta very appealing was his connection to the club. Arteta retired in 2016 as a Gunner, after the Spaniard spent his last five seasons as a player at Arsenal. The former Arsenal captain had not only the connection to the club, but the stamp of approval from the likes of Wenger, Guardiola and numerous Manchester City players. While I was already bullish on the hire, Arteta’s first press conference as Arsenal boss convinced me even more that he was up to the task.
“What I have learned mostly is you have to be ruthless, consistent and fit the culture of the club to create a winning mentality,” Arteta said.
His reign at Arsenal hasn’t always been a smooth ride. There have been lots of ups and downs. The best moment came at the end of his first season when Arsenal won the FA Cup. They ended up finishing eighth in the Premier League that season, but very little blame can be placed at the feet of Arteta, as he took over about halfway through the season when they were in tenth place. Unfortunately, the FA Cup Final win was by far the best moment Arsenal had for quite a while, as the next season saw the Gunners finish in eighth again. Last season couldn’t have started worse as they lost their first three games of the season by a total score of 9-0 over those games. Arsenal were in 20th place. Last in the Premier League. People were calling for Arteta’s head. The club stuck by their man and their confidence in him was rewarded as the Gunners took massive strides of improvement throughout the season. While the on-field improvements for Arsenal took a while to develop, a major reason why Arteta is reaping the fruits of his labor is because he has stuck to his principles throughout his tenure. He showed that no one is bigger than the team when he stripped the captaincy off of the team’s best player Pierre-Emerick Aubamenyang, and got rid of him after numerous disciplinary issues.
This season, Arteta’s red and white army are on a different level. The team is now playing the way that Arteta has always envisioned his side playing. With control, intensity and relentless attacking play.
The Squad’s Youth
Arsenal’s rebuild under Arteta has been built on youth. The 41-year-old has the youngest team in the Premier League. Ever since Arteta took charge of the Gunners, he has slowly but surely moved on from older players on big contracts he deemed not good enough. He put his faith into the youngsters. Some of them were players that were graduates from the Arsenal youth academy, like Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe and Eddie Nketiah, while some others were signings that left a lot of people scratching their heads, like goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale. Arteta even took a gamble on Martin Odegaard. The once ‘wonderkid’ that joined Real Madrid at the age 16 back in 2015. Odegaard’s talent was obvious, but after several years of never being totally settled anywhere, he found a home at Arsenal. Arteta has shown his belief in the 24-year-old’s ability not only on the field, but in his leadership as well. By making him the youngest captain in the league. The Spaniard’s nurturing and patience with his young players has them blossom and compete for a title this season. Some standout performers have been the likes of Odegaard with 12 goals and seven assists, Saka with 13 goals and 11 assists and Gabriel Martinelli with 15 goals and five assists. With the average age of the squad being 24.4 years old, the young Gunners will only continue to get better.
When Arteta first arrived, he highlighted the importance of needing to change the feeling around the club.
“The first thing is to change the energy. Last week I was here with Manchester City and I was a little bit down after the game when I felt what was going on. We have to build a culture that has to sustain the rest. If we don’t have the right culture, the difficult moments, the tree is gonna shake,” Arteta said.
He had a clear goal and has achieved it. The squad is full of players that hold themselves accountable and lift one another up in difficult moments. It’s clear to me how close-knit the team is during the games and celebrations of goals. The Emirates Stadium has never been so consistently electric during Arsenal’s home games in my time watching the team. The crowd and team constantly feed off of each other. Even when the team concedes a goal. There are no moans and groans, just a roar to get the team going again.
Some of my favorite things Arteta has done are the little things. For example, he made the club install a giant picture of Wenger at the entrance of Arsenal’s training ground. The picture shows a smiling Wenger raising his hand. Arteta wanted to make sure the presence of the man he played for was around for his own players.
As the season enters the final stretch, I wanted to reflect on the incredible journey we’ve been to get to this point. No matter the outcome of this season, I am so grateful to Arteta and the Arsenal players for making this season so special.
Write to Mohamed Warsame at firstname.lastname@example.org
Header Photo: Arsenal’s manager Mikel Arteta celebrates his team win their English Premier League soccer match against Leicester City. (Jon Super/The Associated Press)