Cards on the table, now is not the ideal time to assess ‘Project Arteta’, the coverall term that is sometimes used in derogatory tones to chronicle Mikel Arteta’s reign at the Emirates.
Should Arsenal secure a top four spot come May, the project will inevitably be deemed a success but if they fall short of Champions League qualification it will be considered a failure and though this is unquestionably harsh, that’s just how it is these days with short-term achievements the only barometer that counts.
Looking beyond such unforgiving criteria however, we find a project – or a ‘process’: feel free to choose whichever corporate jargon you prefer – that is coming to fruition this season regardless of league standing. It is a sustained improvement across the board that feels substantial and immune from the fickleness of form. It is a jump forward in development that bodes extremely well for the future.
Which suggests that the North London giants were entirely correct to initially place their faith in the 40-year-old back in December 2019, and then show patience as his ways and means floundered, first through a major crisis last term, and then in enduring a mini-crisis at the beginning of 2021/22.
But we’re already getting ahead of ourselves. To gauge what the Spaniard has implemented at the Emirates – slowly, surely, and to his enormous credit, without wavering when under immense pressure – we must go back to the start.
Pep-lite. That’s how Arteta was viewed on being appointed, after spending three years as Guardiola’s assistant and soundboard at Manchester City during a period that saw the Blues win silverware by the bucketload. The implication was that the former Gunners midfielder would transfer wholesale all that he had absorbed from the Catalan grandmaster down south and though to an extent Arsenal’s new mandate was always going to mirror that of City’s it was a tremendous disservice to insinuate that here was a pupil merely passing off knowledge gained from a mentor.
The very reason that Arteta was so valued in Manchester was because he brought his own thinking to the table and challenged Guardiola. And now he had the opportunity to evolve his personal ideology into his own team.
So it was, and is, that Arsenal’s methodology has distinct echoes of Arteta’s former employer but with significant twists. His side presses high but not with the same regularity as City, preferring instead to pick and choose their moments. This way they can prioritise retaining their structure so as not to be countered.
If this intimates that Arteta is the more conservative of the two, the very opposite applies when it comes to individuals. Across the Arsenal boss’ two and a half – give or take – years at the helm, he has increasingly allowed for individuality, the kind that City players can only dream of.
Regarding possession of course they are much the same. After all, there is an underlying reason why Guardiola and Arteta clicked.
“My gratitude goes to 𝗲𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆𝗯𝗼𝗱𝘆 that helped us.”
❤️ – Mikel Arteta pic.twitter.com/PbQSqAwdRB
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) April 1, 2022
In his first half a season in the capital, Arteta guided the best players he had at his disposal to a FA Cup triumph but it was, at that early juncture, still not his team: still a project very much under construction. It was a seismic disappointment therefore, following a transfer window that saw eight players come in and 13 leave, when Arsenal began last term in calamitous and disorganised fashion, losing eight of their first 14 fixtures. Was Arteta’s grand plan in tatters before the blueprints could even be fully assimilated by his players?
In hindsight, that prolonged period of pain can be perceived as a blessing, affording a coach the invaluable chance to judge each player’s fortitude in crisis. Not unsurprisingly the following summer heralded a further overhaul in personnel, the deadwood moved on along with several big-name stars who presumably believed they could coast in N7 on big wages for some time to come. A few months later, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – the club captain and go-to for goals – was shipped off to Barcelona, his propensity for bad-timekeeping no longer tolerated.
Don’t care what anyone says. Arteta and this young Arsenal team is just getting started. pic.twitter.com/GTpK0dqiqx
— AfcVIP⁴⁹ (@VipArsenal) March 31, 2022
Arteta’s transfer business illustrates the discrepancy in how Arenal the club is seen and who they are fast becoming more acutely than even their improving output. On signing Aaron Ramsdale for £25m and Ben White for £52m a well-known betting company released a video that went viral, mocking the club’s supposed tendency to buy badly. Yet both are now foremost in Gareth Southgate’s thinking ahead of Qatar 2022. Both have been superb acquisitions.
First, Arteta implemented his playing style, meticulously so, and invited the players he had under his charge – players he inherited – to make the best of it. Then, in due course, and across a number of transfer windows, he has targeted talent that neatly fits his ideal, who have the intelligence to execute his aims and the desire to maximise its possibilities.
The consequent results are there for all to see. Last term, Arsenal won 47.3% of their league commitments. This time out it is currently 58.6%. More so, by bringing through brilliant youngsters such as Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe while harnessing the potential of Martin Odegaard, the Gunners now have a vibrancy and ambition that was previously lacking. He has kids who ‘get it’ and want to learn.
There remains regrettably a mentality issue at Arsenal, one that is most prominent in the centre of midfield; one that will continue to undermine their progress until properly addressed. That aside though, the arc of improvement in the past year at the Emirates is impossible to ignore.
Project Arteta is no longer under construction. It is flourishing.