When Mikel Arteta took over at Arsenal, his immediate aim in January 2019 was to steady the ship and to try and mount an unlikely challenge for a top four finish. While the Gunners finished eighth, the FA Cup triumph against Chelsea, which included a win over Manchester City in the semi-final, suggested that with a few more tweaks to the squad, the gap on our traditional rivals, could, with a bit of luck, be closed the following season.
Moves were made to infuse the squad with more experience; Willian and Thomas Partey arrived and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s future was secured. Qualifying for the Champions League was undoubtedly the aim at the start of the campaign.
Unfortunately, things exploded spectacularly. Not only did the new boys fail to deliver on the pitch, the captain stopped scoring and a host of ageing players on the fringes of the squad got the hump. Another eighth-place finish against the backdrop of the pandemic and supporter anger fuelled by involvement in plans to launch a European Super League have forced a rethink.
This summer, Arsenal have spent big and made it the policy to buy younger players. Noises coming out of the club suggest the owners are realistic about the chances of a top four finish and instead the aim is to build a squad that can grow together in the coming years. Most supporters seem to be on board with the idea even if patience has already been tested with back-to-back defeats in the league.
Of course, while Arteta might be working in harmony with the technical team and the owners, the buck will stop with him if the results don’t turn around. The pressure is mounting; the bookies already predict he’ll be the first top-flight manager to get the chop this season.
For the moment, he seems confident that he’s not on borrowed time. If anything quite the opposite.
“We analysed the situation and the position we’re in and we had to make big decisions,” said Arteta ahead of Saturday’s trip to Manchester City.
“Those decisions have been made with the technical part [of the team], the board and the financial guys who are involved with the ownership. Then, they support that plan. We are all in this.
“It’s a decision we made a few months ago, how we could move the club forward, the time that was going to take and the advantage that would have medium and long-term. We stick to that and we will try to execute that in the best possible way.
He added: “I really believe in what we’re trying to do. I see the progress, I see everything that has been changed around the club, that it’s in a much better place.
“I see the atmosphere around the place, I see the belief the players have when we are coaching them. We need results. We’re going to have difficult moments and thankfully, we know we’re going to have difficult moments, it’s about us trying to explain that situation, that marathon, to everybody and everybody is involved.”
There’s no doubt that placing trust in so many young players is a risk. The five arrivals – Martin Odegaard, Ben White, Nuno Tavares, Sambi Lokonga and Aaron Ramsdale – are all under the age of 24 and have cost the club an estimated £130 million. Given the outlay, the hope is that the club has done its research.
Arteta shed light on the process that takes place before dipping into the transfer market.
“First of all, we have to balance the squad in many different ways,” he said. “[We pick players based on] the development phase they are in throughout their careers and how we can evolve that. Then the specific qualities that we need from that player, in terms of our game model. And then what they’ll bring to the team as a personality.
“In order to know about that, you have to know about the background, their family, how they’ve been coached, where they are coming from, which experiences they’ve had in the past, how they have reacted. With all that information on the table, then we try to make the right decisions for the football club.”
We’ll know soon enough if they have or not.