Ask anyone that played with Mikel Arteta at Arsenal if they are surprised to see him return to the club as manager and the response will most likely be no.
“My team-mates are always going “What are you going to do Miki?” He said in 2014. “You’re going to be a manager; you should be a manager!”
During his final season at the club, Arteta would often assist Arsene Wenger during training sessions. And yet, when his 17-year playing career came to an end in 2016 it was not Arsenal’s coaching staff that he joined, but Manchester City and Pep Guardiola.
“The way he sees football is always to look ahead, then further ahead, always improving,” Arteta said of Guardiola, who he has known since he was 15. When discussing influences, he cited the Manchester City boss alongside Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino. All three have spoken glowingly about Arteta.
At a time when sentimental coaching appointments are very much in vogue, this seems like a genuine attempt to procure a talented up-and-coming coach. An ideological clarity matched the 37-year-old’s determination to go into coaching that he was able to outline as far back as 2014.
“I will have everyone 120 per cent committed, that’s the first thing,” he said. “If not, you don’t play for me. When it’s time to work, it’s time to work, and when it’s time to have fun, then I’m the first one to do it, but that commitment is vital.”
That will sound like music to the ears of Arsenal fans. Their team looked anything but committed during the final throes of Unai Emery’s tenure, but passion alone will not resurrect their season, it will come down to ideas as well. Given Arteta sat in the same dugout as Guardiola, shared ideas seem inevitable, but in simple terms, Arsenal are nowhere near good enough to play like Manchester City.
“I think you need to adapt,” Arteta said. “You can have an idea of a system, but you need to be able to transform it depending on the players you have – how much pace you have upfront, how technical your team is, what types of risk you can take and whether your players are ready to take those risks.”
Deciding what risks Arsenal can take will be Arteta’s first test. Arsenal’s spine is weak, and the club’s centre-backs represent the nadir of the team’s strength, (only the bottom six and Burnley have conceded more than Arsenal in the Premier League this season).
“Let’s be clear about this, these defenders like Mustafi, Sokratis and Luiz are uncoachable,” Gary Neville said last month.
Unai Emery spoke of a need to be more compact, but even when trying to limit space Arsenal seem susceptible to conceding. Following a devastating performance at the weekend, Kevin De Bruyne provided an interesting insight into what he sees the Gunners’ defensive weakness.
“We saw upfront in the video, the attackers they try to press up but when we pass their front four they really don’t help the Arsenal defence,” he said. “So they always stay with four upfront, except [Gabriel] Martinelli who comes [back] a little bit more.”
Freddie Ljungberg admitted to a similar problem following the draw with Norwich City. As discussed above, a dwindling commitment will not be tolerated by Arteta, but the obvious solution to the issue is to invest in new players. William Saliba will arrive next summer, and January is often a difficult time to buy players, meaning a quick fix in the New Year is unlikely. When the time does come to spend, it is only fair the club not only back Arteta but address apparent weak points.
In the meantime, the Spaniard will also have to decide how to handle Mesut Ozil. The German is one of just three players that were at the club during Arteta’s final season in 2016, and as such he may be viewed as someone to keep close (along with Hector Bellerin). Working with a vastly different group compared to the one he left behind may seem daunting to a young coach that knows his predecessor could not command respect from the dressing room. Still, Arteta must be given confidence by those above that time is on his side.
Reports this week claimed Arteta was in the running for the job 18 months ago. Timing is everything in football and had he been appointed then he may now be unemployed. Arsenal’s decision-makers have seen first hand that the club requires more than just a change of manager, and if they refuse to give this latest appointment time and support, they will ultimately repeat the history they ignored.