Mikel Arteta’s 150th league game in charge of Arsenal ended with a 1-0 victory over Chelsea. If the Arsenal manager wins his 151st against Wolves, Arsenal – who have made their best start to a league season in the history of the club – will be top of the table at Christmas
It has been a high-speed, bumpy and at times turbulent introduction into management, but at the moment Arsenal and Arteta are looking down at the rest.
There have been defining moments along the way, but as Arteta and I sit down and reflect on his almost three years in charge, it is not the trophies or the wins that are the most rewarding moments to him but something far more significant.
“I am really proud, especially about one thing – that we had a club that was in a difficult state and today we have a club that I and we can feel proud of,” he said.
Arteta’s journey began with a 1-1 draw against Bournemouth. He can remember the rain, the nerves, the feeling of privilege and honour as he walked out, and the team he selected.
Only three – Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Granit Xhaka – are still at the club. I refer to them as ‘survivors’, but Arteta puts me straight as we discuss the evolution of the team.
“They are part of this journey. It’s been very intense and I am so grateful for every player that has been part of this journey. They all added to what is happening now for sure, and to make ourselves better coaches. It’s been an absolute pleasure, I have really enjoyed it.”
That game gave Arteta his first taste of life as the boss. He knew having worked under Pep Guardiola that “when you’re an assistant coach the bullets go to the person that is next to you”, but he was not prepared for how tough dropping a player would be.
“You’re telling them you are not able to do your profession,” he explained. “I’m taking [away] the nicest part of the week, which is the weekends or the midweek game. It’s painful. The way I’ve learned my profession and the way I was as a player, I think it’s much better to tell them straight and give them the reasons why.”
Game 28 – Beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final
We fast forward to game 28 – Arteta and a victorious day at Wembley for Arsenal as they beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final.
Reflecting on the game, he said: “It came really early and was very special. It was after lockdown, just look at the pictures of the empty stadium, that was a bigger shame. We did enjoy it, but it wasn’t the same. I would love to do that with our supporters in that stadium.”
Some managers go their whole careers without getting their hands on silverware, so what did that win do so early in his managerial career?
“Things turn around so quickly. It is great, it’s so difficult to win, especially in this league. If you see not winning a trophy like a failure you’re going to be in your own room depressed and not feeling great about what you do. So you have to be yourself believe and work for it and do your best. That’s all we can do.”
Game 53 – Boxing Day victory ends 56-day winless run
Game No 53 “changed a lot of things”, said Arteta, as he looked back on the win against Chelsea on Boxing Day, 2020. It had been 56 days since Arsenal had managed a league win. Stadiums were empty – the team was struggling with a lack of connection with fans.
“There was a huge wall, it was really difficult for them,” the Arsenal boss said. “That game came at a really important moment. I don’t like to single out a player, but I think probably Emile Smith Rowe – that is the moment where he really appears into the picture and something changed and that helped shift momentum big time.”
That season, Arsenal went on to finish eighth. Arteta was backed heavily in the transfer window with the likes of Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale joining the club.
Game 109 – Winning the north London derby
Three games into the start of the season Arsenal were bottom of the table and winless. Then came game No 109 for Arteta – a 3-1 north London derby win over Tottenham in September, 2021.
“I look at it and I have goosebumps,” he remembered. “This feeling because look at the stadium, it’s completely different. I said it many times the support that we’ve got, the connection and the unity that we have at the club and what these people that are right behind the team have done for the club, it’s incredible.
“We wouldn’t be able to do without them. I’m sure of that. The team made it a very special day for them and a great one to just spend with them for sure.”
That day, Thomas Partey and Xhaka marshalled the midfield – a partnership that has thrived this season, despite Xhaka’s Arsenal career coming closer than ever to ending.
Arteta placed his belief and trust in Xhaka ,who has gone on to repay his manager. There were moments he admitted that he wondered if he had got some of the tough calls wrong.
“It has taken some decisions and some fights and some moments where you have doubts about yourself and about whether this is going to work out,” he said.
“You play against Norwich at home and you say ‘well we need to get this one out of the way after losing three’ – you are under pressure and you have to deliver.
“I have a lot of people, more and more especially from other sports that I can call on in those times.”
Game 128 – European challenge falls apart
The next game may have held a little less significance in the growth of this team had it been played on its original date, but the rearranged north London derby became box office. Spurs won this one – 3-0, in May of this year.
Two of the game’s great rivals chasing a Champions League place in the final few weeks of the season. Arsenal were in pole position but their European challenge fell apart in Arteta’s 128th game in charge. The injustice he felt over Rob Holding’s sending-off is still fresh.
He reflected: “It was a big moment for us and we know what happened. It was a difficult moment because we had it and we lost it.”
A few days later defeat against Newcastle was another hammer blow to Champions League ambitions.
“It was a consequence of what happened in the derby, but very difficult to predict. What I saw in training two days before, the day before, when I saw them in their warm-up, I said they are ready to go.
“And then you go there and – this is the beauty of this sport – everything falls down and you have to react to it.”
The pressure and expectation shifted as the club closed in on the prize, yet the players did not respond in the way Arteta had hoped.
Arsenal delivering this season
There have been questions asked of this Arsenal team’s mentality this season but, defeat to Manchester United aside, the team has come up with the answers.
“I hope we have learnt – you have to be in that situation again and then deliver.”
Deliver they have, with six league wins in their last seven, including triumphs over Liverpool and Tottenham before victory against Chelsea last week. Arteta’s reaction at the final whistle told its own story.
This was something big that gives the whole club a real sense of belief. The progress, maturity and courage of his young squad has, he admits, taken him a little by surprise.
They have grown as a group, while Arteta has evolved too. He admits to changing as a coach, a person and a father in so many ways over the last three years.
“They needed someone to hold their backs and feel protected and something that they could hold to when I first joined,” he explained.
“Now they need somebody that’s going to challenge them to the next stage and is going to really push them to try to fulfil their potential.”
Potential that has taken them to the top – so the really big question is, can they stay there?
“We want to be there. We have to play better every single day. And that’s what I tell the boys – the better we play, the more chances we will have to win more football matches.
“We know the competition, when it is [finished]. And I’ve said [it’s] too early [to judge], but so far we’ve done it.”
Watch Wolves vs Arsenal, live on Sky Sports Premier League, on Saturday from 7.30pm; kick-off 7.45pm.