Three Years and Rising by Peter Doherty
What a difference three years make. Of course, basking in the afterglow of a good victory over West Ham, the feeling is one of positivity around the Emirates. But that is a small element of a very fascinating journey that our club has undertaken in the last three years under the tutelage of Mikel Arteta.
On Boxing Day 2019, Arteta oversaw a dour 1-1 draw with Bournemouth that reflected the directionless nature of Arsenal FC. The club had been drifting since the tail end of the Wenger era and Unai Emery proved incapable of reversing the trend.
Freddie Ljungberg’s short stint as the chief was uninspiring and highlighted how deep the problems ran within the club. The hierarchy then decided to pursue a coach with absolutely no experience in management, and this was seen as a further insight to the complete lack of ambition that they held for the future of the club. The pictures of Edu leaving Arteta’s apartment in the early hours confirmed that Arsenal were going to take a punt on a novice. The mood around the Emirates was destructively toxic and expectations were low.
Arteta’s first game in charge had a back line of Maitland-Niles, Luiz, Sokratis and Saka. Xhaka, Torreira and Ozil were the midfield, and Reiss Nelson, Aubameyang and Lacazette were the attackers. The utter transformation of Arsenal in the interim is reflected in the fact that only two of those players are now first team regulars. That is a remarkable statistic.
Another fact worthy of recognition is how the players who have departed from that team have played at a considerably lesser level since. All of this is an indication of how much surgery was required in order for Arsenal to become competitive. Arteta had a huge job on his hands from the start.
There was a massive and ongoing clearing out of deadwood whose wages were draining the club of its resources. Then there was the major investment in largely untested players at the level that Arsenal would be expected to compete. Every move involved an inherent risk, but Arteta had a vision that he was adamant he was going to pursue. Potential failure lurked at every corner and two successive eighth places and a capitulation for fourth at the end of last season may have pointed to failure. But something was changing.
The profile of the squad had changed from aging players on bloated wages, to young hungry players determined to prove themselves. The playing style emerged in bursts, but remained frustratingly inconsistent.
Academy players in the shape of Saka and Smith-Rowe in particular gave the fans a sense of attachment to the team. These were backed up by the potential emergence of Nketiah, Nelson, Balogun and Patino.
The new signings had character and were obviously playing for the jersey. Ramsdale’s personality endeared him to the faithful, Odegaard’s industry and vision, Martinelli’s skill and tireless running, Gabriel’s passion, Tierney’s fearlessness, and gradually a connection began to emerge between team and fans.
Outcasts who were previously derided like Xhaka were welcomed back into the fold as he proved his commitment time and again. Finally there was something to believe in.
What had been the most toxic environment in the Premier League was morphing into one of the most supportive and, unbelievably for Arsenal, the noisiest. This was no accident. Arteta had pursued this connection as a main focus from the start. He referred to it with regularity in interviews. He nurtured it by getting us an anthem. He knew that it was critical. The fans were key.
Three years on and Arsenal are seven points clear at the top of the table. This stat is misleading as it might represent an over extending ambition that we will remain there until the end of the season as we are still a work in progress.
But one stat that is very revealing is that in 2019 Arsenal were twenty six points behind Liverpool, and now sit fifteen points ahead of them. Comparing ourselves to the rivals that we would expect to be competing with, gives an honest appraisal of the progress made. What is revealing is that the expectation is that Arsenal are not peaking yet, but Liverpool have peaked and are in need of a minor overhaul.
The turnaround has been remarkable and it is only fair to give credit where it is due.
Arteta and Edu… take a bow.
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Mikel Arteta on West Ham win, Nketiah’s success and Wenger’s comeback and Arsenal’s winning run.
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