Mikel Arteta’s first match in command of Arsenal was two years ago on Boxing Day against Norwich City. On paper, his record at the club is great, but there are still some doubts about his ability to lead the Gunners in the long run – why is that? To find out, we take a look back at his stint as manager of the north London club.
The Return of Arteta
Consider the date of December 15, 2019. Mikel Arteta was Pep Guardiola’s deputy on Manchester City’s trip to the Emirates to face Arsenal, where City won 3-0 thanks to a stunning first-half performance. Arsenal is now in ninth place, having won only one of their 12 competitive matches and remained without a manager following Unai Emery’s dismissal. Arteta saw the job firsthand, secretly, before taking the risk and landing the job at Arsenal just five days later.
With a prior spell as a player, Arteta became only the 10th person in Arsenal history to both play and manage the club, but he lacked experience. The Spaniard, who is only 37 years old, is the Gunners’ youngest manager since Terry Neil in 1976.
This was Arteta’s first role in management and an opportunity to put the concepts observed under Guardiola into effect. It was a struggle for even the most seasoned of coaches. However, it is only now, two years into Arteta’s employment, that we can properly comprehend the scale of the task Arteta undertook at Arsenal, a club in transition and still reeling from the aftermath of Arsene Wenger’s departure.
On and Off the Field Struggles
Arteta’s first two years at the helm have been full of incident and controversy, from player revolts to board changes, from the termination of high-profile player contracts to fan protests, all while dealing with a global pandemic.
Arsenal has been hamstrung on the play by disciplinary concerns in addition to the pandemonium that has ensued off the field. Since Arteta’s first game in charge, the Gunners have been shown ten red cards in the Premier League, three more than any other club, but having only the 13th highest foul count in the competition since then.
Meanwhile, until recently, the club’s performances had been erratic, with results following a similar pattern – from the highs of the 2019-20 FA Cup success to the lows of back-to-back eighth-place league finishes, resulting in the club’s first season without European competition since 1995-96.
Giving the Youths a Chance
Following a seven-game winless streak, Arsenal placed 15th in the Premier League table heading into their London derby with Chelsea on Boxing Day 2020. Bukayo Saka (then 19), Emile Smith Rowe (20), and Gabriel Martinelli (19) were among the players picked by Arteta to a new-look youthful team.
Under the circumstances, Arsenal went on to win, but it was the young players’ efforts on the day – who injected some much-needed vitality into the Gunners’ play – that supplied Arteta with his most important takeaway: it was time to turn to youth. Arsenal has won 79 points in the Premier League since that day, with only Man City (107) and Chelsea (80) winning more.
Smith Rowe’s inclusion is largely responsible for this dramatic improvement in performance. Indeed, Arsenal’s Premier League victory percentage has been 23 percent higher with the Englishman in the team (58 percent) than when he hasn’t (35 percent) since the start of last season, with the 21-year-old finally proving to be the man to fill the creative hole left by Mesut Ozil’s departure.
Smith Rowe the goal scorer, rather than Smith Rowe the creator, has risen to prominence in 2021-22. He’s already scored twice as many goals this season (eight in 19 games) as he did in the entire 2020-21 season (four in 33 games), becoming the first Arsenal player under the age of 21 to score in three consecutive league appearances since Cesc Fabregas in 2007. In fact, Smith Rowe has scored in six of Arsenal’s previous eight Premier League outings, and he presently leads the club’s goal scoring rankings (7).
Gareth Southgate rewarded Arsenal’s number 10 with his first senior England call up last month, calling it “the biggest achievement of his career so far” after his strong start to the season.
It’s difficult to look much farther than Bukayo Saka, who has perhaps been Arsenal’s most consistent performer over the previous two seasons, when judging the influence of the kids throughout this rebuild. Under Arteta, the 20-year-old has appeared in more games than any other player (89), and against Leicester in October, he became the sixth youngest player in Arsenal history to achieve 100 appearances.
Saka and Smith Rowe have scored six Premier League goals together, the most of any Arsenal combo since the start of last season, with only Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo (eight) combining for more in Premier League history before turning 22. The rise of these two Hale End graduates could not have come at a better time for the Gunners and Arteta, highlighting the importance of a strong academy system and laying the groundwork for a new generation of Arsenal players, guided by Arteta’s “non-negotiables” of “respect, humility, and accountability.”
Gabriel Martinelli, a Brazilian attacker, has also impressed for the Gunners so far in 2021-22. The 20-year-old is in good form heading into the festive season, having been directly involved in six goals in his past six Premier League games for Arsenal (four goals, two assists) – more than he had in his first 33 appearances in the competition (five goals, one assist).
Arsenal’s Premier League goals have been scored by players aged 21 or under 52 percent of the time this season (14/27), with only Leeds United (65 percent) having a better ratio in a single Premier League season (excluding own goals).
The New Face
It was well known how Arteta inherited a bloated and aging roster, to the point where Mesut Ozil and Sokratis were left out of Arsenal’s Premier League squad entirely last season. 14 of Mikel Arteta’s 40 league appearances are no longer at the club in 2021-22, having either left permanently (seven – sold, contract expired or cancelled), been loaned out for the season (five), or returned to their original club after a loan stay with the Gunners (two).
Following these departures, Arsenal decided to take a fresh approach to recruitment this summer, shifting away from agent-driven agreements and focusing on players in their ‘peak’ years.
With the exception of Gabriel Magalhes, five of Arteta’s first six Arsenal acquisitions were over the age of 25, while all six summer recruits ahead of the 2021-22 season were under the age of 23. As a result, Arsenal’s starting XI has the youngest average age in the Premier League this season (24 years, 230 days), with the Gunners fielding each of the competition’s 16 youngest starting XIs this season.
Arsenal needed their new additions to have an immediate impact after losing their opening three league games without scoring a single goal for the first time in the club’s history. And they’ve done so. Arsenal has been lucky to have had a nearly fully fit team to choose from since the summer transfer window closed, winning 32 points – only one point less than Liverpool (34) and Man City (32). (38).
Believing in the Process
Arteta became the 15th manager to take command of 100 Arsenal games against Watford in November, with only George Graham (56) having a greater win tally than the Spaniard (54) after 100 games in charge.
In a recent interview with Arsenal.com, he stated: “What has happened since I became manager has never happened in history; we have faced obstacles that none of us has ever faced, but I am privileged,” Arteta added. We’ve gone through some difficult periods and have undergone a significant transition.”
While Arsenal is far from complete, Arteta has begun to assemble a team of characters who are well-suited to their roles.
This is, perhaps, the first time the Gunners have had a clear project that fans can identify with and rally behind since the early 2000s. There may be more bumps along the road as this young squad continues to develop, but the horizon looks a lot brighter for Arsenal.
Who knows, they could become only the third team to win the English Premier League despite losing their first three games, following Liverpool in 1905-06 and Burnley in 1920-21.
No, most likely not.