When Mikel Arteta walked into the Football Analysis room at Arsenal’s London Colney training base on his first day as head coach, he delivered a message to the staff waiting in anticipation: “You’re going to have a lot of work to do — you know that, right?” A smile spread across his face as he embraced those around him, but the sentiment was serious.
Arteta’s meticulous attention to detail first emerged when he was a player, frequently spending time after training watching videos of forthcoming opponents without prompting. It also characterised his time as a coach at Manchester City, working alongside Pep Guardiola, and helped convince the Gunners last December to overlook his lack of managerial experience to hand him the tough task of reviving a squad that had become fractured and uninspired under Unai Emery. Yet there was precious little time to implement meaningful change.
February’s winter break offered a chance to begin that work but only now, albeit in strange and unwelcome circumstances, has Arteta been afforded a prolonged period in which to shape Arsenal more into his own image. The final 10 Premier League games of the 2019-20 season, starting away at Manchester City on Wednesday, therefore offer the first proper glimpse of Arteta’s Arsenal. The outcome will have sizeable repercussions for all concerned.
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Arteta’s first five games in charge came across 17 days at the turn of the year. Then he had just one clear week to work with his players prior to the club’s Premier League-mandated winter-break at the start of February. The Spaniard took his players to Dubai for the first lengthy, meaningful training camp of his tenure, finally afforded time to nurture the seeds planted during that flurry of matches. A spell of recuperation preceded six training sessions, focused and fruitful.
Next time out, Arsenal thrashed Newcastle 4-0. In fact, they won five of their six matches prior to the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
The sole defeat in that run led to an embarrassing Europa League last 32 exit to Olympiacos — a reality check, no doubt — but if there was a correlation between that concerted period of training and improved results, Arsenal should be buoyed by the prospect of another longer period behind the scenes under Arteta’s tutelage to build on those foundations.
However, this has been no ordinary training block. Clubs have had to adapt to COVID-19 safety requirements, with contact training sessions making a belated return after several phases of small group or individual trainings. Players have also not been allowed access to communal areas, robbing them of interactions so important to engendering team spirit. Arteta was therefore quick to reject any suggestion he was no longer disadvantaged by taking over the club in mid-season.
“This [return to training] wasn’t exactly a preseason because I didn’t have the players for six weeks, but we tried to use everything we could,” said Arteta, embracing the novelty of a prematch news conference held via Zoom on Monday ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Manchester City.
“If you asked me, ‘what have I learned most,’ it has probably been using different ways of communicating. Using technology is one of them, but from my side, it is hard to communicate with players, talk to them and try to get into them as well without touching them or seeing them. That has been a challenge, but we have been trying to do everything we can to help them understand better what we are trying to do to convince them that it is the right way for them to enjoy their profession. Let’s see if we’ve done a good job or not.”
The answer will come in this 10-game coda to the 2019-20 campaign, providing a test of his methodology and a determination of the resources that will be available to him moving forward. In that respect, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang holds the key to both situations.
Arsenal will have minimal chance of overhauling four teams and five points to the fifth-place finish currently needed for Champions League football without their talismanic captain continuing his fine form. Since making his Gunners’ debut in February 2018, only Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (51) has scored more Premier League goals than Aubameyang’s 49.
Ominous noises about the club’s finances also make the need for European football in some form even more acute, no matter if it’s the diminished returns of Europa League qualification or a return to the Champions League for the first time since their round of 16 exit in 2016-17. That alone would probably not be enough to convince Aubameyang to stay, but a clear vision for future progress in these final 10 Premier League games — perhaps with an extended FA Cup run to boot — would strengthen the argument that Arteta can succeed where Emery failed.
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Arteta confirmed there were no fitness issues ahead of Arsenal’s visit to the Etihad Stadium, and he can therefore start with something approximating a clean slate. Painting that canvas in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing, and hinting at a deeper meaning, will help convince players Arsenal is a club worth committing to.
Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka and Sokratis Papastathopoulos will all enter the final year of their contracts next season. David Luiz’s deal expires this month. Atletico Madrid’s Thomas Partey is a desired but expensive target. Big decisions lie ahead when it comes to the squad, and Arsenal can emerge from this season on a path to restoration or retreat further into the wilderness.
Even bereft of supporters, Man City away is a tough place to take the first step. There have been signs Arteta has brought some defensive resilience to Arsenal, but a searching examination of his organisational skills awaits. In his first training session, Arteta made his players run into tackle bags to strengthen them when challenging for possession, a trick he repeated in the build-up to facing Burnley.
But City’s intricate movement and speed of passing offers a polar opposite threat. Countering it effectively would display Arteta’s dexterity as a coach and have particular poignancy for a team that has not won away at a traditional “Big Six” team since January 2015. Arteta was in the Arsenal team that day, beating Man City 2-0.
Arteta may not have had the preseason he craves, but players have been given “a lot of homework” during this hiatus. Detailed video plans have included identifying preferred patterns of play and optimising runs in certain situations through the use of specific clips packaged from previous matches.
Players may have excuses for a lack of match sharpness, but there can be no doubt about what is being asked of them, just like the staff at Arteta’s disposal. The next 10 games will show whether that message really is getting through.