In the March of 2019, I wrote my first and only Alternative Match Report when Arsenal beat Manchester United 2-0 at the Emirates. I talked about the shiny luck of the new manager for Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer who had led his team on an inspired winning streak until the loss to Arsenal. The same manager, far from shiny or lucky now, was in the dugout for Manchester United last night, while it was Arsenal’s turn for a new face in theirs. However, there had been no such respite for Mikel Arteta, hired for a job many believed (maybe still believe) was too large, too overwhelming to comprehend.
Following a draw in his opening match in charge at Bournemouth away and a heartbreaking loss to Chelsea at home, anything less than 3 points, at a time when Arsenal was closer to the drop zone than the top of the table, wasn’t an option. The signs were there that the Spaniard was already imposing a much-welcome structure and order to proceedings. Team-work, desire, intensity, discipline on and off the ball. A result was all that was missing, and voila.
I’m loath to chalk it up to the “new manager effect” because that would be doing Mikel Arteta a disservice, with his visible, immediate impact. It takes, on average, 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. Probably more when dealing with something as complex as building a cohesive, consistent team; particularly when the style of play is physically and mentally rigorous. As David Luiz pointed out in his very candid post-match interview, the team isn’t yet physically ready to sustain the intensity demanded by their manager. But, and this is important, he also said, “but when physically you’re not there, you have to put your heart.”
Arteta is already imposing his philosophy on this squad, very much like Emery tried to when he first came, and later. The 2-0 win in March 2019 came through a gutsy team performance where Unai finally started all of his best offensive players together. It saw the brief but glorious return of the press and counter-press we were promised early on. As a manager, he also demanded concentration, valued work-rate and did, initially, seem to be organising us into a better unit. That match felt like a minor turning point in the then narrative, not because of the 90 minutes but what it seemed to symbolise. For the first time since the 2007-08 season, Arsenal had 10 points at home against their big-six rivals and had 12 points more after 30 league matches than the season before.
All of this to say that determination, and discipline mean little on their own. Unai Emery, for all that he tried, just wasn’t the right fit for Arsenal Football Club. This isn’t only about different methods of coaching or preferred styles of play. This isn’t about me comparing the two, but about me trying to explain the elusive, intangible something that separates the right fit from everyone else. When we announced Mikel Arteta’s appointment, I tweeted, “This feels right in a way that I cannot explain,” and this was beyond his obvious qualifications and temperament.
In March 2019, I talked about how football runs on narrative cycles as much as anything else in sport, culture, or life. What I didn’t talk about was the tangible and intangible of it all. In sport, we have clear winners and losers, can crunch the numbers and analyse the statistics. Yet, we all know that stats can be taken out of context and rarely offer the full perspective, the narrative. They certainly never cover the elusive chemistry key to every successful story.
Confidence. Trust. Faith. Purpose. The players are already buying into their manager’s philosophy, already playing for him and for each other. It’s the kind of instant respect and loyalty you can’t buy or be taught to demand. Mikel Arteta seems to instinctively get what his squad needs and how to get the best out of them.
Last night, his team left everything on that pitch, and then some. They hustled, they harried, but they also seemed to just really enjoy their football. It’s an infectious, positive feeling that was amplified by a stadium never known for its banging atmosphere, in a sport that is nothing without feelings, without emotional attachment; itself as intangible as the rest.
One match, or even three, form too minuscule a sample size for any sweeping declarations and even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans knows that this is a long-term project. But if Arteta’s pressers and the almost magical transformation on the field are any indications, he knows that small steps are as important as leaps of faith. Not every match is going to be like last night’s, but there is a renewed energy in the fanbase, a restored sense of pride around Arsenal Football Club and a belief in the vision that the new manager is painting.
To quote our resident Greek philosopher, the fun is back.