Mikel Arteta has normalised Arsenal as title contenders and that is extraordinary

Dave Tickner
Champions League draw
Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola.

Should Arsenal and Mikel Arteta in particular be getting more plaudits for the way they’ve backed up last season’s unexpected title challenge with an expected title challenge? Especially as they appear to have actually learned last year’s lessons…


We found ourselves last week wondering aloud if Mikel Arteta is still actually a little bit underrated given all he’s achieved at Arsenal.

Watching him and his instinctively front-foot team show the adaptability to tough it out and grind their way to a potentially crucial goalless draw at Manchester City, and getting loads of stick for it…we’re now sure of it.

Arsenal have done something really quite extraordinary over the last two seasons, and we think it’s been normalised and accepted far too quickly. We did it ourselves, a few months before deciding he’s underrated.

Obviously, this is not by everyone. Some have gone too far the other way, suggesting that had Arsenal won the title last year it would have been an achievement on a par with Leicester’s ludicrous 2016 triumph. Steady on.

But what Arsenal have done and are doing this season is arguably more impressive than their emergence as unlikely title contenders last year. Anyone can have a year of being unlikely title contenders; even Spurs sometimes do that. What proper teams do is go from that launchpad and become…likely title contenders.

That’s what Arsenal and Arteta have done, and it is way more impressive – and unusual – than having one spectacular season. Think about it. In the Guardiola Era, which teams have managed to mount successive proper title challenges? Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are the only ones. And they’ve really only done it once, going close in 2019 and winning the league in 2020.

Since then they’ve alternated title bid with fallow year. And that’s with a manager widely accepted as one of the very best in the world and acknowledged by Guardiola as his greatest ever rival.

Arteta, in his first senior managerial role, has given Guardiola more to think about over the last two seasons than any other manager bar Klopp since City’s era of dominance began.

The similarities with Liverpool are clear enough too. An undoubtedly huge club with vast resources by any sane measure, but fallen on (relatively speaking) hard times and outgunned financially by the City behemoth.

This was not a job where Arteta walked in to find an oven-ready squad of title contenders. It took time to build, and far more Arsenal fans than will now admit were far from certain for far too long. We certainly weren’t expecting Arteta and his team to become this good and more importantly consistent.

Even their summer transfer work leant heavily on the Klopp-at-Liverpool playbook. Arsenal were happy to pay huge money for Declan Rice, because they had correctly identified him as the one they wanted to solve a problem position. It’s precisely what Liverpool did with Virgil van Dijk and Alisson to make the leap from contenders to champions.

Arteta’s side this season have also repeatedly shown signs of learning from last season’s failings. They might not win the league – and they really don’t need to win the league to prove they’re legit – but they don’t look like they’ll go away meekly as they did last season.

READ: Liverpool are kings of Premier League run-ins but Arsenal? Look away now

There was a clear opportunity for Arsenal to go full Arsenal when an absurdly unlikely home defeat against West Ham was followed by a dreadful performance and deserved loss at Fulham at Christmas. Here was the precise moment an Arsenal team of the past could simply have disappeared from view, rebranded as Champions League contenders and convinced themselves that was always the primary goal.

This Arsenal team instead chose violence. They won their next eight Premier League games by an absurd aggregate of 33-3.

They won 6-0. Away from home. Twice. There were two 5-0 wins. They demolished Newcastle, who had beaten them earlier in the season.

Most importantly, they also thoroughly outplayed and defeated title rivals Liverpool at the Emirates.

Here is another example of how Arsenal aren’t just maintaining standards but actively improving. They have long been weak enough against their direct rivals even when those direct rivals were for Champions League places rather than the title.

Last season they were swept away by Man City, a team that have generally been able to reliably bank six points against the Gunners before a ball has been kicked.

This season, City couldn’t even manage a goal against them in two games. Arsenal have now beaten both City and Liverpool at home, which is impressive enough, but perhaps more significantly shown themselves resilient enough to emerge from the Etihad and Anfield with a point.

Criticising Arsenal for how they went about getting that Etihad point just feels absurd, especially given the way they’d earned the right to do it that way over the previous eight games. It was on City to open that game up and find a way to win, not Arsenal, for whom a tenacious draw was always going to be an acceptable outcome.

Now they can go back to battering all the other dross, and unlike last season there’s no reason to think they won’t do it.

Their last win against Brentford was a slight throwback to last year, with its seat-of-the-pants late winner and celebration-police bothering ensuing celebrations. But that is now the exception (apart from the celebration-police-bothering). Arsenal don’t tend to need the late drama now. They’ve grown and improved under a manager who is doing incredible things at what is still an incredibly early stage of his career.

And even then, they only needed that late nonsense because Aaron Ramsdale had to play in that game and dropped a giant b*llock. Which is really just another tick against Arteta’s name. Remember when he was a big idiot for signing David Raya and adding unnecessary confusion and competition to a position where Arsenal didn’t need it? Don’t hear much about that these days, do you?

We’ve got a theory about why Arteta’s achievements aren’t getting greater acclaim. It’s because it’s Arsenal. Now we don’t mean there’s a bias at play, at least not the kind football fans mean when they talk about bias.

No, we mean the fact that football takes an awful long time to move on from what it considers normal. Arsenal being title contenders is no surprise to a football media comprised mainly of people who either grew up or cut their teeth while Arsene Wenger’s side were Manchester United’s biggest/only rivals.

Arteta’s mistake is in merely taking Arsenal back to where people subconsciously expect to find them. A bit like getting Nottingham Forest promoted.

But the main point is this. Normal teams and managers don’t do this. Teams don’t come from this far back to rival City and then come back to do it again the following season.

It’s not something anybody should be taking for granted, even at a club that was very good 20 years ago in an entirely different world.