“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Wait… Do writers still begin stories like that anymore? Personally, I prefer to start mine how I like my dreams, wham-bam in the middle of dissonance, where it takes me a few seconds to acclimate to the peril that I find myself in. So here it goes:
With almost a year of managerial experience under his belt, the lines in the sand can now be drawn for Mikel Arteta’s coaching style. It’s an ideology that yearns for greater control of the pieces on the pitch. Though Arteta studied under the ethos of Arsene Wenger, as well as soaking in the teachings of the pontificating Pep Guardiola, the young coach would go on to adopt his own managerial style at Arsenal. If you were to give it a name you would possibly bet the mortgage on the word, ‘pragmatism’. Arteta believes not just in order, but a controlled order. Where Wenger’s orchestra was about facilitating creative freedom, Arteta’s iteration sees him orchestrate each precise movement for all phases of the game.
At the time of his arrival, last December, his indoctrination of pragmatism was necessary. The Arsenal team at the time had a permeable defence and an identity crisis that robbed the passion from the eyes of its players. They needed a guide—someone who could give them the courage to walk the path. Egos had to be checked and abandoned for an order to instilled, one training session at a time until he lulled the crazy to a calm. With each game, the players poured their belief into their conductor, and with that belief, Arteta would finish his freshmen season with silverware, as well as some big results against the teams that previously held their foot firmly on the neck of the club.
With this current season already nine gameweeks old, Arteta finds himself at a crossroad—a writer’s favourite metaphor. Arsenal entered the latest international break rearing lament. Arteta’s side was thoroughly defeated 3-0 at home to Aston Villa, which triggered an avalanche of questions that tumbled down towards him. The longevity of Arteta’s pragmatism was being called into question. Could Arsenal continue to operate on such thin margins, where like a carnival game, they were given fewer tries to hit on the prize? How long would Arteta stay stubbornly loyal to players who seemed perennially cuffed to bad form? With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang banished indefinitely to a life out on the left-wing, was Arteta playing to the strengths of his players?
We go back in time, using revisionism as our fuel—when Arsene Wenger operated at the helm. Wenger enjoyed a 22-year reign at Arsenal—well, I say enjoy, but I imagine it to be a raging shitstorm—that was full of ups and downs, downs and downs, and a tsp of downs and ups. But to use a common metaphor, it was a rollercoaster. However, the sadist that he is, Wenger did enjoy it, and would most likely do it all over again. There was beauty in the struggle, and it was the struggle that kept him youthful, yet insatiably hungry.
At Arsenal, Wenger controlled mostly everything. He merged so deeply with the club that he would turn into some type of chimera, though a friendly chimera, full of class and dignity, who wouldn’t dare to harm a fly, though was bullish in defending the club’s image. He played physician with the implementations of forward-thinking dietary changes for his players. He played astute estate agent by finding the club a new training ground and also pioneering a move to the Emirates Stadium. He fully immersed himself into the club, whilst still having time to play the role of Head Coach, guiding Arsenal to three league titles, and a record-breaking haul of FA Cups. He was a man that stretched himself thin but still had enough to wrap himself around the club in a warm embrace until he was ordered to release his hold after 22 long years.
Within those 22 years, specifically the year 2011, in the crescendo of a frenzied transfer window is where Wenger and Mikel Arteta would meet. Coincidentally, Arteta would become the soothing figure that lulled the crazy to a calm, as he would later to again, last December. Although, during Arteta’s playing career at Arsenal he became a respected figure at the club, for both his playing ability and his knowledge of the game. His growing stature would propel him towards club captaincy, where he helped them break their arduous spell of 10 years without a trophy. Though his body would go on to lose the battle to attrition in his latter years at the club, his mind and knowledge of the game were still blossoming with great vigour. His coaching career was about to take flight.
Before his battle concluded, he would studiously take in the wisdom that Wenger would exhale, often visiting his then Head Coach, before and after training. The pair would spend long moments, enchanted in talking football, exchanging ideas over the net like a tennis rally. Dubbed a ‘teacher’s pet‘ by his then teammates, both teacher and student seemed uncanny in spirit, and alike in their love of the game—but at times their two methodologies would jostle. It is said that Arteta was left frustrated by Wenger’s laissez-faire approach to half-time team talks, to the point that, as captain, Arteta would take it upon himself to give out tactical instructions to his teammates. He would also spend time both before and after games with the video analysis team, trying to conjure up an edge over his opponents.
Wenger was a true believer of placing his players in positions where their strengths could flourish. He was a true conductor who loved the enchanting melody of each player playing to their own tune. It’s a methodology that Wenger swore by, which earned a reputation for its beauty and its splendour, but it was not often rewarded in a sport that was blustering forward into a results-driven business.
Both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil serve as children of the ethos that Wenger sowed, graduates of the school of Wengernomics. Both players were brought in by Wenger to uphold his vision. Sanchez, who encapsulated a determination and hunger ubiquitous across South America, was armed with this explosiveness, mixed with an unpredictable nature that made him a perfect piece in Wenger’s orchestra. The Chilean moved around the field like a vagabond, never bound to once place, displaying solo performances that would yield rewards on some days, but frustration on the others. Though Wenger, enamoured by his hunger and uncompromising style would never dare to box him in.
The same could be said for Mesut Özil, who arrived a year prior to Sanchez’s arrival. Özil played in a similar fashion—a bohemian who’s paintbrush never stopped dripping. Whether he was on the left, right, centre, or came deep, Özil held a picture in his mind—a vision that no one else could see but him. Wenger allowed him to surf and to frolic across the pitch, affording him the freedom to showcase his level of mastery. He was a facilitator for his teammates, but the prerequisite was Wenger providing a facility for that to be.
We return to the present, where the return to the Champions League qualification is still the goal for Arteta and his players. The belief that he once reaped from his crew has been shaken. Back-to-back home defeats have gnawed insidiously at hope, leaving those wondering whether choosing to stubbornly fit his players around his system, rather than fit the system around his players is the right path. The prolific striker of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continues to unconvincingly uphold his role out left, at the mercy of his close friend Alexandre Lacazette, who continues his bout with regression. With every defeat that comes or with every flaccid attacking performance, dissatisfaction will begin to grow within Aubameyang.
Arteta faces a big decision after a run of putridity. He is a man that seems beholden to his ideals. He has developed a functioning game plan to play against the bigger sides, however, has yet to find one to dishevel the fearless fortitude of the lesser sides. Only time will tell whether he’ll choose to go down with the ship, protecting his ideology of how he wants his team to play, or oil the joints of his pragmatism that opens up the creativity of his players. As he continues to work through the kinks of his rumination, at home watches Mesut Özil, the last of a dying breed of the Wenger era—the last remaining vagabond who knew of a time where creativity was free from policing.