Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC
Eighteen months ago, Mikel Arteta came within a whisker of becoming Arsenal‘s first manager of the post-Arsene Wenger Era. That story has been told many times: he interviewed well, impressed the board and had many of the qualities the club were looking for. But the job eventually went to Unai Emery, who had just been released from his gig at Paris Saint-Germain.
Why? Because as multiple Arsenal sources put it at the time, Emery was a safe pair of hands and Arteta was a gamble. The upside with Arteta was so great that it might have been a gamble worth taking, but the club also felt that this wasn’t the time to roll the dice.
Wenger’s departure after 23 seasons was traumatic enough. Ivan Gazidis, the club’s then-chief executive, had hired Sven Mislintat in a recruitment role and Raul Sanllehi as director of football. It was felt their differing outlooks and experiences would bring the right creative tension to the club, further driving them forward into the new era. But equally, both had just landed on Planet Arsenal. Throwing a 36-year-old with zero managerial experience who had retired barely two years earlier into the mix at this stage was an unknown quantity too far as the club saw it.
We have the benefit of hindsight here, so we know what happened next. Arteta stayed at Manchester City as part of Pep Guardiola’s staff. Mislintat was never a cultural fit at the club and departed the following February: he’s now director of football at Stuttgart. In a move which surprised many, Gazidis resigned his post to become chief executive at Milan in November, Sanllehi was promoted to the role of head of football, and Emery was fired last month.
So where does this leave us? Arteta was a gamble then and — unless you believe those 18 months at Guardiola’s side have been transformational — he’s still a gamble now. What’s different compared to the summer of 2018 is the environment at the club. Sanllehi has an extra 18 months under his belt in the Premier League. Edu, who arrived in July at technical director, isn’t Mislintat. As so often happens when a big boss (Gazidis) departs, those left behind can distance themselves from previous mistakes, which is what happened with Emery to some degree. Except they can’t do that now. They’ll have to own Arteta, for better or for worse.
Four-hundred words in and you won’t have read anything about whether Arteta is any good, or even what he might try to do with this Arsenal side. That’s because we don’t know. We have very little to go on other than words, impressions and deductions. Arteta has managed one game in his career, a defeat to Lyon in September 2018 when Guardiola was suspended. That tells you zero. We can, however, infer.
Arteta is a guy with the right bloodlines and pedigree. If you believe in cross-pollination, the fact that he grew up with Xabi Alonso, one of the most intelligent footballers around, matters. So too does the fact that Guardiola picked him as an assistant to help him navigate his Premier League debut, the minute he retired in 2016. Clever, successful people tend to want to have clever, successful people around them.
What matters more in understanding a globalised game is his resume. From Barcelona’s La Masia to PSG to Rangers, to his hometown club of Real Sociedad to Everton and finally, to Arsenal. That’s a cosmopolitan career not just in terms of leagues but also types of clubs, from title contenders to mid-table wannabes. Then there’s the identity thing. He spent five years at Arsenal: he gets both the Wenger Era and what came next. The importance here is perhaps less clear, but to fans and to the club (at least as a marketing tool) it appears to be a priority, and it’s no coincidence that they’re now stocked with former Gunners, including Edu, Freddie Ljungberg and Per Mertesacker.
The assumption — although this is purely down to where he has spent the past three and a half years — is that he’ll implement some kind of Guardiola-inspired football, a combination of the possession, pressing and verticality. If so, it won’t happen overnight.
Folks seem to forget that even Guardiola required time to put his stamp on Manchester City. He spent much of his first season in fourth place before sneaking up to third in late spring, and this was at a free-spending club that had finished first or second in four of the previous five seasons. Not only that, but Manchester City had spent a long time preparing for his arrival, beginning to overhaul the club (witness the hiring of Ferran Soriano as chief executive and Txiki Begiristain as director of football) well before Guardiola committed to them.
In short, Guardiola had (almost) everything he needed from day one, including a gaggle of exceptional players who had already won silverware in England, plus executives above him who were willing to bend over backwards for him. That’s not the situation Arteta walks into. Arsenal have finished outside the top four for three straight seasons and may well make it four in a row this year (they’re currently 10th). Sanllehi and his team have the trust of the owners for now, but everything will be reviewed in the spring, particularly in light of the summer transfer debacle.
A big chunk of the wage bill is tied up in four attacking players aged between 28 and 31: Alexandre Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (currently on loan at Roma), Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. None of them, certainly not at this stage of the careers, seem a natural fit for a Guardiola-style approach. When it comes to central defenders, most are either in their 30s (David Luiz, Sokratis Papastathopoulos), perpetually injured (Rob Holding), not very good or some combination of the above. Monetizing any of the aforementioned would be extremely difficult, which means Arsenal are likely to have to operate on a relative shoestring, at least compared to the moves City made when Guardiola arrived.
All this points to the fact that patience will be required. Arsenal likely won’t be able to wheel and deal their way out of this: they will need to make the right bets on the right players and hope they come off. They will face some huge decisions on what to do with some of their veterans. Logic suggests several don’t belong as part of a rebuilding project. Equally, it takes guts (and a lot of faith) to swallow salaries (as they did this season with Mkhitaryan) and sacrifice short-term results for long-term growth.
There is a ton that Arteta won’t be able to control at this club. He will have to put his faith in Edu and Sanllehi to guide him on the recruitment side and hope they come through. He will have to trust that the Kroenke Sports & Entertainment group is willing to take a long-term view even if it costs them in the short-term.
Crucial throughout this, in addition to the relationships he fosters with those around him, will be his messaging. He’s a thoughtful, charismatic communicator (and an evident upgrade over Emery in that department, although that’s not saying much) and he will, on a weekly basis, have to sell his bosses, the players and the fans on the strength and vision of his project. In the short-term, that will be his biggest impact. The football itself will, you hope, come after that.
We have no real idea what it will like. But then we too need to make that leap of faith. Just like Arteta.