Thursday, August 18

Arsenal reform: how Arteta is restoring the lost soul of the gunners

When Mikel Arteta returned to Arsenal in December 2019, he was surprised by what he found.

It had only been three years since his playing career ended and he left North London to take on a role within Pep Guardiola’s coaching staff at Manchester City, but a lot had changed in that short space of time.

The club he had left behind in 2016 felt different.

The stadium, the training ground, even some of the players remained the same. But much of the soul had been extracted from the place.

It no longer felt like Arsenal.

When asked during his official press presentation if he thought the club had lost its way, he replied: “That is what I am feeling from the outside. I would like to take some steps to begin to understand why.”

“There will be reasons behind this, and a story behind that, and I have to try to quickly understand why this is so.

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“We have to create the right environment, the right energy, and everyone in the organization should feel so privileged to be here. There is no other way.”

It has been almost two years since Arteta made those comments and he has spent much of that time trying to restore a sense of identity to the inner sanctuary of the club.

During his time as a player in North London, which spanned from 2011 to 2016, Arteta was keenly aware of what it meant to be at Arsenal.

Arsene Wenger had spent two decades building an identity for which the club had become known around the world.

But that identity was fractured during the final stages of the Frenchman’s reign.

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There was a backstage infighting over how Wenger’s departure should be handled, while a large chunk of fans grew increasingly frustrated with the direction the club was headed.

Unity was a thing of the past and the cracks that were beginning to appear widened during Unai Emery’s brief tenure.

The Spaniard was an extremely hard worker, but that came at a cost.

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He would lock himself up in his office, which was located near the entrance to the main building in London Colney, and players and staff would often go for hours without seeing or hearing from him.

And he often couldn’t find the time to take an interest in the youth teams or attend any of the games that were held on the training ground.

A disconnect appeared. There was no bonding, there was no sense of everyone pulling in the same direction in an attempt to turn things around.

“I found an environment, a culture with which I did not feel identified,” said Arteta. “It’s about having the feeling of having the privilege of representing this club every time you walk through that door.

“If that is lost, you have to go, get back to your car and drive home because we are not going to move this club the way we want without a purpose.”

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The Gunners chief added: “If I have to define our identity, that’s one word: Unity. Without unity, you can’t achieve what you want to achieve.

“Unity means each person who works in the organization. It is our way of playing, our way of transmitting our values, our way of connecting with our fans, our property.

“Everyone, uniform, thinking in the same way, with the same purpose, without individual agendas, without egos.

“That’s what we want to achieve, and I’m going to push the boat very, very fast.”

One of Arteta’s greatest strengths is her ability to get players to buy into her way of thinking. But he is also ruthless, as many have discovered.

His first two years at Arsenal were spent trying to completely reform a fractured squad that was bloated and contained deep-pocketed players who he did not believe would fit into the direction he wanted to take at the club.

It took some time, but little by little they all moved on and now, for the first time since he returned as coach, he has a team that feels like his.

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The summer transfer window felt like a great moment in the rebuilding, with the six additions adding a fresh and vibrant feel to the wardrobe.

And the changes are now starting to pay off, with Arsenal traveling to Manchester United on Thursday night in fifth place in the Premier League and out of the top four on goal difference alone.

But it is not only in the field where things are improving. Arteta’s work behind the scenes has been equally productive.

He has driven big changes to training camp, which has been given a facelift to celebrate past glories and remind today’s players of the standards they must try and follow.

Arteta felt that the corridors around London Colney were too sterile, so inspirational paintings, murals and quotes have been placed on the walls, with more to come soon.

A huge mural that the team must pass before heading out to practice every day celebrates the record-setting 49-game undefeated streak, while a giant image of Arsene Wenger now greets players as they enter the building each morning.

A Wenger quote is on the wall below him, which reads, “Here is your chance to bring out the greatness that is in each of you.”

When asked why it was so important for him to have Wenger’s presence in training camp, Arteta told Goles: “For me, it’s something we lost and we have to recover.

“I wanted that photo and a very inspiring entry line because it was a big part of what he did at Colney and how it all started at the Emirates.

“Just look him in the eye and it’s like he’s there. He has that ability, he penetrates when he looks at you. The players really benefit from that. He had to be there.”

Arteta is now pushing for Wenger to return to the club in person, though not in an official role.

What the Spaniard would like is for his former boss to feel welcome enough to visit London Colney whenever he wants and to be able to pass on his experience, both to the coaching staff and to the players on an informal basis.

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“I think he would have a great time just seeing the environment he can create around him when he’s in this place,” Arteta explained. “Things take time and I think he has to dictate those times.

“What I can say from my side, and I think on behalf of everyone, is that we would be delighted to have him much closer.”

As part of London Colney’s facelift, Arteta moved out of the office that both Wenger and Emery had by the front entrance to one that is adjacent to the offices of other members of the training and administration staff.

He works closely with Technical Director Edu and Academy Manager Per Mertesacker, and group meetings are now held in an open space within the new training area to try to ensure there is a feeling of openness and union throughout the building.

Arteta is now seen roaming around regularly to watch youth games and training sessions and, along with Mertesacker, is eager to bring the legends back to work with the youth of the club.

David Seaman has returned in recent months to help out with the academy goalies on an informal basis, while Jack Wilshere was given the opportunity to work towards earning his coach badges as he gets in shape prior to the transfer window of January.

There is still a lot to do at Arsenal and the “process” that Arteta has talked about since he returned is far from complete.

But there is certainly a feeling that the club is now in better shape behind the scenes than it has been for a long time thanks to the work that has been done over the last two years.

Arteta said he found an environment he couldn’t relate to when he arrived in 2019. Now, two years later, the environment at Arsenal is starting to feel a little more familiar.

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