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1 October 2022

Arsenal took a gamble on Mikel Arteta – and now it’s paying off

Three years ago Mikel Arteta inherited a demotivated squad – but he has since reignited the team’s passion for the game.

By Jonathan Liew

From the Clock End in the south of the Emirates Stadium came a guttural roar, the sort not heard in these parts for years. Arsenal had just scored a late goal to beat Fulham 2-1, and the festivities would continue for hours, out on to the Holloway Road, into the pubs of Islington and Finsbury Park. On the face of things, it was a predictable home win against a newly promoted opposition. But as the songs and the throngs swelled, it felt bigger and more meaningful than that.

For those of us who have followed Arsenal’s fortunes and misfortunes over the past decade, this in itself was remarkable enough. Some time ago Arsenal stopped being a team loathed by most rival fans, who instead began to regard them with a mixture of pity and irritation. The years of glory under Arsène Wenger were long gone. The football was stultifying. The ticket prices were among the highest in the country. Their most famous and vocal fan was Piers Morgan. We felt their pain, until there came a point when Arsenal stopped making you feel anything at all.

It was a vicious cycle. Penance begat rage, rage begat supplication, supplication begat self-flagellation, which begat rebirth, optimism, hope and a dispiriting 3-0 defeat to a team like Crystal Palace. Wenger was dismissed in 2018 and replaced by Unai Emery, a cheerful Spaniard with little idea of the toxic chalice he was taking on. Emery was replaced by another Spaniard, the former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta, and for a couple of seasons the cycle of rage, hope and Crystal Palace continued.

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Presumably this was the sort of dramatic turbulence that Amazon was hoping to capture when it trained its cameras on Arsenal last season for the All or Nothing documentary. Alas, the few genuinely insightful moments are outnumbered by the endless hours of overweening blandness, the wall-to-wall aroma of nice lads working hard and working hard at being nice.

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But the same traits that make Arsenal such stultifying documentary television have transformed them into a devastatingly effective football club: a lack of stars; a disinclination towards drama; a distrust of big reputations and knee-jerk decisions. Arteta himself, for all his Lego-man good looks, is hardly a heroic protagonist. “We didn’t win a f***ing duel… we were horrible with the f***ing ball,” he seethed comically after a defeat to Newcastle. “So now, shut your mouth and eat it.”

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Arteta is one of the main reasons Arsenal have surged to the top of the Premier League, winning their opening seven games this season. When he arrived three years ago he inherited a bloated, demotivated squad full of divisive personalities. The quality of coaching and talent identification was shocking. Despite spending £1bn on transfer fees since 2012, Arsenal have never sold a player for more than £35m. Seventeen other English clubs have a higher outgoing transfer record.

[See also: Sporting Notes: At the crease with Harold Pinter]

And so Arteta began to remake the team in his own image: a young and hungry group of players with pace and a genuine passion for the club. Home-grown talents such as Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli have been supplemented by smart but unstarry players such as the goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale and the defender Ben White. This summer brought the signings of the unloved Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus, neither of whom could get a regular start at champions Manchester City.

Meanwhile, world-renowned stars such as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé and Willian have been eased towards the exit. Not all these moves were informed by conventional wisdom, or even welcomed by supporters. But Arteta has prioritised character over reputation, rewiring the culture of a club frequently derided as soft and lacking in basic standards. All this required a certain faith in the method, in the plan and in the man. At several points during his tenure, results have been so poor it would have surprised no one if Arteta had been sacked. And so, in part, Arsenal’s resurgence represents the culmination of a colossal gamble: on a rookie coach learning on the job in one of the most overheated environments in English football. Slowly and by degrees, Arsenal’s long-grumbling fans have bought in.

This, perhaps, has been Arteta’s most remarkable achievement. For years this was a fanbase in open warfare with itself. Camera crews and celebrity fans would feed like vultures on the chaos, fattening their own engagement numbers on the back of Arsenal’s chagrin. The atmosphere at the Emirates was frequently toxic. At other times the place simply sighed and rustled to the sound of apathy, rain clattering on empty seats.

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But Arsenal’s support has changed too. Many older fans stopped renewing their season tickets after the pandemic, and in their place a younger crowd has moved in: noisier, more optimistic and diverse. They bring banners and drums. They organise. They feel equally passionate about the thrilling women’s team.

None of this necessarily equates to anything tangible on the pitch. Arsenal have not won the title in 18 years or qualified for the Champions League in five. There are no guarantees this season either, with Tottenham looking stronger, Chelsea investing heavily and even Manchester United looking vaguely passable after a bad start. But the real revolution has already taken place: a revolution of mood and purpose, one that has temporarily silenced Arsenal’s many critics. For now, all they can really do is shut their mouths and eat it.

This article was originally published on 31 August 2022.

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine