Since arriving in December 2019, it was evident Mikel Arteta will build something special at Arsenal, but no one imagined how it will turn out for the Spaniard and the club. It could have ended prematurely for both parties, but the 2020 FA Cup victory bought Mikel time and goodwill to build with less pressure.
In his full seasons with Arsenal, the club finished in 8th and 5th places, with many calling for the head of the coach, but the club gave him a new contract, which emboldened his belief and the much mocked process. Even big players did not have faith in the process. Mesut Ozil sarcastically mocked Arteta with his “trust the process” tweet after that 5-0 hammering at Manchester City at the beginning of last season, which saw the club bottom of the Premier League table after three matchdays.
This was Arteta’s starting XI in his first game in charge of Arsenal versus Bournemouth on December 26, 2019: Bernd Leno, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, David Luiz, Socratis Papastathopoulos, Bukayo Saka, Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira, Reiss Nelson, Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Alexandre Lacazette. The substitutes were: Nicolas Pepe, Skhodran Mustafi, Emiliano Martinez, Dinos Mavropanos, Joe Willock, Mateo Guendouzi, and Emile Smith-Rowe.
Fast-forward to the start of the 2022/2023 season, and only four of the eighteen players that were in the squad against Bournemouth are still in the club. In two transfer windows, Arteta has transformed Arsenal from 8th place finish to title favourites. His decisiveness, ruthlessness, clear vision, and extraordinary talent identification has worked wonders.
Arsenal Sporting Director Edu Gaspar says the club is in the middle of a 5-stage process, and it is scary to think what the team will look like when it gets to stage 4 and 5.
“When we first started, we were talking a lot about our process, and people were making jokes sometimes about our process. I think we were quite clear about all of the steps that we went through. We knew we were going to go through some challenging periods because we had to make some important decisions, sometimes unpopular decisions, which is going to cause some instability.
“Importantly, we internally was quite together in terms of understanding the process. And then, we are where we are, I know there’s lots to do. I think we are in the middle of it [the process], there’s still a lot of things to do, and carry on doing, but also, we are very happy and proud to see where we are at the moment as a club. “I think Mikel [Arteta] is, of course, doing a great job.
“I think we as well, in terms of choosing the right players with that right mentality, with the right spirit as well, to be in the squad. We have fantastic staff around us, we always have to mention that because when we’re talking about the team, we need everyone to be really good to make the players perform.”
With 10 games until the end of the current campaign, Mikel Arteta and Arsenal are 8 points clear of Manchester City in the Premier League and are favourites to lift the title for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Let’s take a look at three players that are the cornerstone of Arsenal’s impressive season:
1. Bukayo Saka
Bukayo Saka is one of four players still at Arsenal from Arteta’s team when he was in charge of his first game in North London. In that game, Saka was deployed at left-back, but has since moved to the right side of Arsenal’s attack.
Saka’s durability since coming into the team has made a lot of people not realise the prospect of him not being in the team. He has been Arsenal’s best player in the last two seasons, and it is no coincidence that he has contributed 13 goals and 10 assists so far this season.
The 21-year old has brilliant close control and dribbling ability, which allows him to isolate opponents. His qualities cannot be replicated among this current Arsenal team, which makes him arguably the most important player in the current setup.
Opponents are doubling or tripling up on him, but he always finds a way through to create chaos and open up space for himself and his teammates. His partnership and interchanges with Martin Odegaard and Ben White on the right is one of the best in the Premier League this season, and it is no surprise he is England’s best player and is in the running for player of the season.
READ MORE: The pressure is mounting, but Arsenal are fearless
2. Thomas Partey
Arsenal missed out on the top four last season because Thomas Partey was injured. Since joining Arsenal in the summer of 2022, Partey has been suffering from one injury to the other and it is no surprise that the Gunners are top of the league with 10 games remaining with the Ghanaian staying fit for the majority of the season.
Partey is a capable defensive midfielder who moves effectively over the field and primarily serves as both the full-backs’ and center-backs’ primary point of defense. He loves to shift over and double up on the player with the ball if the action is wide, working to block passes infield before either trying to get rid of that opponent himself or forcing play toward a teammate who can then try to do so. When Arsenal are without the ball, he is incredibly important because of his great work rate, fast footwork, and the conviction with which he presses or makes tackles in the center of the field.
One of his greatest qualities may be his defensive awareness and ball-winning skills, but those are by no means his only strengths. When the team starts to build from the back, he is eager to get on the ball and is good in possession. In order to defend them should the ball be lost, he loves to come short to receive short passes from central defense. He then prefers switching play to a full-back or wide midfielder. It’s a quality that is in short supply at the moment in the club.
Since August 2021, Arsenal have played 47 Premier League games featuring Partey, winning 74 percent of those encounters. Partey’s involvement has seen the Gunners claim 2.2 points per game and concede an average of just 0.9 goals per game. During the same period, Arteta’s side played 18 games without Partey, winning just nine of them (50 percent). Without Partey, Arsenal concede 1.6 goals per game, and have recorded an average of just 1.6 points per game.
Arsenal tried to sign Brighton’s Moises Caicedo before signing Jorginho from Chelsea as cover for Partey, but any extended period without him may be disastrous for Mikel Arteta and his title ambitions.
3. Gabriel Magalhaes
The Brazilian was one of the first signings that came through the door under Arteta. Relatively unknown, Gabriel joined Arsenal from French side Lille for a reported £27m in September 2020 having played 34 times and helped Lille to a 4th place finish in Ligue 1.
Mikel had this to say to the Arsenal official website on the arrival of Gabriel:
“He has many qualities which will make us stronger as a defensive unit and as a team. He has proved with Lille that he is a defender with many outstanding attributes and we are looking forward to watching him grow as an Arsenal player.”
He was expected to form a strong partnership with William Saliba who was to return from his loan spell in France. But Arteta loaned the young French defender back to France with Olympique Marseille, and that move is one of the reasons Arsenal are cruising to the title this season.
Gabriel has played 98 times for the Gunners, scoring 11 times in all competitions. What makes him very important to Mikel Arteta’s system is his energy and durability. His ability to remain fit and ready to play nearly all the games since joining the team is a great asset to the team. His athleticism has provided the platform for Arteta to invert Olexandr Zinchenko to central midfield when Arsenal have the ball. He is quick and intelligent enough to cover the spaces left behind by the full back, which has not allowed the opponents to exploit the space left behind by the more advanced Zinchenko.
This attribute is underrated, and Gabriel is not getting the praise he deserves. He is an emotional footballer which often counts to his disadvantage when teams decide to target him, but he has worked on his emotions to his credit and has helped Arsenal with the title push. His partnership with Saliba is one of the best in the world and will only get better considering his age (25) and Saliba (21).
Arsenal is currently without the Frenchman, but are reassured that Gabriel is there to provide cover and leadership. His three goals this season is the highest among any defender in the division this season, and he is one of Mikel Arteta’s trusted players in this current Arsenal set up.
If Arsenal are to go on to win the title this season, they need their top three players to be fit and available for the remainder of the season. Arsenal are blessed with top talents all over the pitch, but the attributes of Partey, Saka and Gabriel are very unique, which makes it difficult to replicate in the team. That does not mean that other players are not important.
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