After 630 days in charge, the football world is looking at Mikel Arteta’s stuttering Arsenal project and questioning whether the Spaniard can turn things around.
A rookie coach when he was appointed in December 2019, he learnt pretty quickly that a UEFA Pro Licence course doesn’t prepare you for all the twists and turns that come with being a manager.
While Covid-19 has certainly complicated his role, there’s no doubt that consecutive eighth-place finishes and this season’s poor start are far below the standards expected of a club that counts itself as one of the biggest in the land. When people look back on his time in charge, he doesn’t want the 2020 FA Cup success to be viewed as an outlier.
Could he have done better? Has he made mistakes? It appears they are questions that are constantly front of mind.
“I’ve looked at almost every decision that we’ve made,” he said ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Norwich.
“Sometimes it’s whether it was the right decision or not or sometimes whether it was the timing, sometimes if we could have explained earlier what we were trying to do or not.
“Certainly, I am the one responsible to make things work. We are not where we want to be and that’s my full responsibility and there’s no one else to blame, that’s it.”
Asked if he was thinking specifically about the way he’s managed players, he was quick to point out that criticism comes from all angles for every decision.
“It’s in everything; when you don’t win, you got it wrong, 100 per cent, believe me. If you played somebody, you should have played somebody else, if you made a substitution at 70 minutes, you should have done it at 25. It’s always like that, that blame doesn’t go away.
“Every time you lose a football match, it’s like this. What I can assure you is that everything has been through a thoughtful process with everybody involved around the club. When it was more down to decisions towards the team, decisions about how we’re going to play or with who, it’s always with my coaching staff. There’s nothing off-the-cuff.
“You have to have that inspiration, that gut feeling that you should never lose, but always with the right intentions.”
Arteta also made clear that he’s looking to be challenged every day by those who work closely with him. In so doing he took a passive-aggressive swipe at those outside the club who make their judgements without having all the information to hand.
“I want myself to question and the people around me to question me. They are the ones who are looking at things from a very close angle, with all the facts but they can have a different perspective as well.”
Backed by the board with £140 million worth of signings and with fringe and unwanted players culled, the squad that tackles the remaining 35 games of the season is very much his. How much Arteta was a driving force behind a youth-first policy is up for debate – the noises out of the club speak of a united front – but it will be on the Spaniard to gel the players. And quickly.
“We could have taken a very different approach [in the transfer market] and just go in the casino and gamble big. But that’s a big, big thing for the club that would put it in a live or die situation. We all believed that it wasn’t what we could do.
“Me being responsible in my area of decisions to make, I supported completely, the strategy the club wanted to implement. And there we go, let’s have a big go. There’s been a lot of changes and let’s be positive and let’s move forward.
“We are in a much better place,” he added. “I’m happy with what we’ve been able to do with the ideas that we had. Now it’s about getting the maximum out of that team. As I’ve said before, the complexity in this industry is medium to long-term projects with immediate results. That’s where we have to find the right trick in the car to make it go fast as quick as possible and not break down.”