By Christine Allen
“Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.”
Jocko Willink, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
Post game press conference, if Mikel Arteta does anything other than take full responsibility for an Arsenal defeat, you sit up and listen.
“Embarrassing, it’s an absolute disgrace, that’s what it is: a disgrace,” Arteta fumes following multiple highly questionable VAR decisions which allow The Magpies second half winning strike at St James’s Park to stand.
“There’s so much at stake,” Arteta reiterates to the awaiting media. “We’ve put in so many hours to compete at the highest level and you cannot imagine the number of messages we’ve had saying this cannot continue. It’s embarrassing.”
While this may not be the first time that the Spaniard has expressed contempt for VAR officials (he accused referee Lee Mason of “not understanding” his job post defeat last season against Brentford), his willingness to accept responsibility for 99% of Arsenals losses gives credence to any grievances raised that point to external factors influencing a result.
Since its introduction in the 2019/2020 season, video assistant refereeing technology (VAR for short) has been at the epicentre of controversy, its replays simultaneously breaking and mending the hearts of fans across the globe in real time.
Over the coming days, weeks and months, the efficacy versus the drawbacks of VAR will once again be dissected and contested.
This article will not contain such forensic analysis.
Instead, it will delve into Mikel Arteta’s at often times disarming willingness to publicly take ownership for any negative attention which threatens his squad – be that on foot of a defeat or the departure of a star player.
Speaking ahead of Arsenal’s opening Europa League game at Rapid Vienna in 2020, Arteta took the high road in response to Ozils Instagram bating, stating to the press that he was at fault for the exit of their highest paid player.
“I have to be the one getting the best out of the players. It is my responsibility. It is nothing related to any behaviour or like I read, the pay cuts. It’s not true. It’s my decision, if someone has to – blame me. And it will happen when we lose football matches — my responsibility.”
In an interview earlier this year, Arteta revealed that he had questioned his suitability to lead The Gunners into another season, following his teams failure to clinch the Premier League title with both hands, despite having held the top spot for 248 days.
While his answer was ultimately in the affirmative, Arteta reveals that this process of introspection is ongoing.
“I don’t know if that process is still gone,” He answers truthfully, “because I question still a lot of things that I did last year and that I do every day – you cannot sit still in this job. Everything goes so fast and it’s constantly moving and that’s the mindset. We have to be evolving, we have to be dynamic.”
On November 1st, he again looked inwardly on footage of Arsenals defeat in the Carabao Cup to a West Ham team still high from a historic Europa League win.
“First of all, I’m disappointed with myself,” He acknowledges, “because I wanted the team to play in a very different way and obviously, we haven’t managed to do that and every time that you lose a game, the pain is there.”
In 2017, while Arteta was honing his managerial acumen under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Navy Commander and Seal Jocko Willink delivered a Ted X talk at the University of Nevada.
The subject? “Extreme ownership.”
Retelling the series of unfortunate events which led to a battle of friendly fire between US Armed and Marine forces under a cloak of dust in Ramadi Iraq, Willink speaks to the moment he decided to take the sole blame for the grave mishap – mid debrief.
“And then I told them [the commanding officers] that there was only one person at fault for what had happened.” He states chest forward. “There was only one person to blame, and that person was me. I am the commander; I am the senior man on the battlefield, and I am responsible for everything that happens. Everything!”
“And I will tell you something,” He continues, “It hurt. It hurt my ego, it hurt my pride to take the blame… And you know what, I didn’t get fired. In fact, my commanding officer who had expected excuses and finger-pointing, when I took responsibility, when I took ownership, he now trusted me even more. And my men, they didn’t lose respect for me. Instead, they realized that I would never shirk responsibility and I would never pass that heavy burden of command down the chain and onto them. And you know what, they had the same attitude.”
Mikel Arteta, young and ‘inexperienced’ as he was in the eyes of many pundits and fans alike, seems to have adopted Willinks philosophy.
Ownership. Responsibility. Accountability.
These three tenets were laid as an unbreakable foundation at his first available opportunity upon taking the helm in 2019.
As a result, he quickly gained the players and fans respect and trust.
“It was impossible to come away from that first press conference and not be impressed,” Charles Watts reflects in Revolution, The Rise of Artetas Arsenal. “His message couldn’t have been clearer. He wanted everybody on board and everybody in line.”
Yet the Spaniards willingness to take ownership when his team underperforms is to be taken as a sign of weakness, or meekness, at a player’s peril.
Arteta, willing to take a bullet for his players publicly, demands vociferously behind closed doors that they in turn take ownership for both their mistakes and the quality of their play.
“I don’t accept them – these standards,” He fires at a subdued dressing room following a defeat against a newly promoted Nottingham Forest. “Nowhere near! Because I see it in training, that it doesn’t matter to give the ball away. ‘It’s okay, sometimes I go to the next ball, and I run’….no! Because in a game it’s a goal!
“When I lose a duel, I am upset! When I lose the small, sided games, I am upset! Because that’s the fu*king standards!”
When watching Arteta erupt in the dressing room, courtesy of the Amazon Prime fly on the wall documentary entitled ‘All or Nothing’, his gestures and tone of voice strike the viewer as raw and passionate – more synonymous with a parent who is deeply disappointed and frustrated with their child than the ‘hairdryer’ onslaught United players were forced to endure throughout the Fergie years.
The fact that he cares about his team with every sinew in his body can be seen (often moments later) in his blanket refusal, when peppered with leading questions, to deflect blame from himself and critique individual performances.
Metres away from the dressing room, Arteta faces the music so that his players don’t have to, taking full ownership for a negative result yet praising the players when the outcome is positive.
This solidifies their loyalty – and belief.
Martin Odegaard summed it up well during an interview he gave to the Players Tribune in February 2023. “Honestly, I challenge anyone to come away from a meeting with Arteta and not believe everything he tells you. He is next level. It’s hard to explain. He’s passionate, he’s intense, yeah, he’s a bit crazy, but when he speaks, you understand that whatever he says will happen, will happen.”
In solidarity with Mikel Arteta’s condemnation of the VAR decision to allow Anthony Gordon’s second half strike to stand, Arsenal released a statement confirming that the club “wholeheartedly supports” Arteta’s post-match comments.
While some have questioned the necessity for such a public gesture, the message behind it is clear.
At Arsenal, from the top down, we’ve got each other’s backs.
We own our decisions and publicly back our colleagues.
North London forever, whatever the weather, these streets are indeed our own.
By Christine Allen who is a member of the Dublin Arsenal Women’s Supporters Club.
Follow Christine on Twitter.