Criticised Saliba, Martinelli, Aubameyang calls feature in ranking of Arteta’s ten best decisions at Arsenal (TUES)

Jason Soutar
Mikel Arteta's best decisions as Arsenal manager include Nicolas Jover and Gabriel Martinelli.
Mikel Arteta's best decisions as Arsenal manager include Nicolas Jover and Gabriel Martinelli.

If there is one thing Mikel Arteta has frequently done during his time as Arsenal boss, it is prove people wrong – whether that be rival fans or the Emirates faithful.

Here are the top ten decisions he has made – some that were originally scrutinised by the vast majority of the fanbase – since being named Gunners boss in December 2019. The controversial signing of Jorginho was very close to making it in, for what it’s worth…

 

10) Raiding Manchester City in the summer of 2022
Only just edging the renaming of London Colney to the Sobha Realty Training Centre, we have Arsenal’s 2022 signings of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko.

A large part of Arsenal’s recent success in the Premier League comes down to the business conducted by Arteta and Edu in the summer of 2022. Marquinhos and Matt Turner were uninspired signings and Fabio Vieira has the potential to come good, but Zinchenko and Jesus were ready-made and helped the Gunners go from top-four hopefuls to title favourites for much of 2022/23.

Both players were at a very important stage of their career. They were both 25 going into the transfer window and knew they were not first-choice players in their positions under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Joao Cancelo had just enjoyed another incredible season, keeping Zinchenko out of the starting XI, while Jesus was often used off the bench or on the wing despite being the only natural No. 9 in the first team. Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez’s arrivals would make it even more difficult for Jesus to get minutes. He had to leave and Arsenal were a good option, especially with a former City assistant in charge in north London.

No sane person thought both of these players were going to be poor signings, but not many expected them to be such a hit straight away. Jesus instantly displayed his outstanding technical ability and the energy we all knew he had. Zinchenko had a similarly effective start. Incredible on the ball and crucial in Arsenal’s build-up play with his ability to beat pressing attackers, the Ukrainian international is an important player at club level after struggling for consistent minutes at the Etihad.

 

9) Moving Benjamin White to right-back
A lot of Arsenal’s success since the start of 22/23 has been down to the perfect balance of Arteta’s strongest XI. Benjamin White was signed as a £50million central defender and played there in his maiden campaign at the club but was shifted over to right-back following William Saliba’s return.

White has been very solid in his new position, which has come almost naturally after playing as a right-sided centre-half in Brighton’s back five. He almost plays the exact same position in this Arsenal team. While he slots into a similar shape next to Saliba and Gabriel, Zinchenko on the other side slots in as another central midfielder.

White’s football IQ, discipline, positioning and ability on the ball has made him an indispensable member of this squad and he has been able to shine in a more advanced role in recent weeks with Zinchenko out injured. He has the ability and composure on the ball to be an inverted full-back and the balance is still there with Jakub Kiwior as the opposite full-back.

 

8) Making Martin Odegaard his captain
The captain’s armband at the Emirates has been cursed over the years. From Robin van Persie to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, skippers have usually pushed for an exit or lost the plot.

Martin Odegaard was officially confirmed as the new captain in July 2022. He succeeded Aubameyang, who left seven months before. Alexandre Lacazette, Granit Xhaka, Kieran Tierney and Odegaard shared the armband following the Gabonese’s exit, before the Norwegian playmaker was given it permanently ahead of 22/23.

While this decision from Arteta did not raise many eyebrows, it was an inspired choice that has probably gone a little under the radar. Making Xhaka captain again after he was stripped of the armband under Unai Emery would have been a mistake, although Arteta clearly gave the Swiss midfielder the license to lead without actually wearing the armband.

Odegaard is one of many leaders in this Arsenal team and despite only being 25, has a wealth of experience and is using it to full effect in Arsenal’s unexpected rise under Arteta.

 

7) Getting rid of Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil is an Arsenal legend. Some might think this is a ridiculous statement. Some might think it goes without saying. He joined in 2013 and instantly made the Gunners title contenders and ended their eight-year trophy drought. He is an Arsenal legend.

While the German playmaker is a club legend, he left the north London outfit on bad terms. Arteta made Ozil one of his consistent starters at the beginning of his managerial career, before he stopped relying on his former teammate. “What Mesut has done at the football club is unquestionable and that will stay,” Arteta said in January 2021, shortly before Ozil’s exit. “It doesn’t matter if he plays two more games, ten more games or none. What he has done is there for the records, for the history of the club, and his contribution I think nobody can discuss that.”

While Ozil’s exit was a controversial one amidst his criticism of the Uyghur genocide in China – which the club distanced themselves from – he was becoming a bad egg amongst the camp, with leaks quite obviously emanating from him. Arteta had to get rid of Ozil to begin the new chapter at the Emirates, and he did just that. It felt like a dark cloud vacated following his exit.

 

6) Hiring Nicolas Jover
30 per cent of Arsenal’s goals in the Premier League this season have come from a set-piece, which is quite astounding for a team chasing title glory. We would usually associate a reliance on set-piece goals with teams in the bottom half and while Arsenal are clearly a dangerous side from open play, their ability from deadball situations has given them a unique weapon in their quest for a first league title in two decades.

This remarkable improvement has come thanks to set-piece coach Nicolas Jover, who was poached from Manchester City in July 2021. Jover can be seen marauding the technical area whenever Declan Rice or Bukayo Saka are standing over a corner and is the man behind all of those goals from Gabriel Magalhaes and co. we have been seeing lately.

Bravo to Arteta, who managed to steal a world-class set-piece coach from their Premier League title rivals.

 

5) Sticking to his principles on and off the pitch
This should be number one, really, but it is such a broad statement to make that it has been pushed down a few spots.

Where to begin? Arteta has changed the whole culture at the club. Focusing on what has happened on the pitch, Arteta has stuck to an evident style of play, even during the toughest of times. He, and Arsenal, are reaping the rewards now. Thankfully the club’s hierarchy trusted the process and gave the Spanish manager the license to turn things around in a pretty short space of time, all things considered.

“The key thing is, Arsenal are progressing. There’s an identity, there’s a formula to the way they play. They play out from the back and they’ll keep playing out from the back, and that’s why I think Mikel deserves a lot of praise. They’ve lost a few games but they know why they’ve lost. They finish the game but they’re learning and they’re progressing,” Tim Cahill said in November 2020 with the Gunners ninth in the Premier League. He knew.

Off the pitch, he has been ruthless, as touched on with the Ozil situation and also with Aubameyang, which we will get to a little bit later. He is a disciplinarian and every player knows where they stand.

 

4) Convincing Granit Xhaka to stay and transforming his game
Rightly stripped of the captaincy by Emery after telling the Emirates faithful to f**k off, Xhaka’s days as an Arsenal player looked numbered, but he became a mainstay in the team once again after Arteta replaced Emery in December 2019.

Xhaka always divided opinion throughout the Gunners fan base during his time at the club. Much to the dismay of some supporters, Arteta convinced the Swiss midfielder to stay following his loss of the armband. Arteta said in January 2020: “I thought he could be a really, really good player for us and he could enjoy playing under me in this football club. I tried to convince him that way. He thought about it, he had a very positive response afterwards, and I think he changed his mind.”

And last year, Xhaka explained: “Arteta is the reason why I’m still at this football club. All of the club knows why I am still here, because three years ago I was gone. My suitcases were packed and finished, but I had a meeting with Mikel when he came… I didn’t speak with family, with nobody, and normally I don’t do that. But I said, ‘Ok, Mikel – I will stay for you.’ And I’m still here.”

Xhaka then improved a surprising amount, becoming an excellent box-to-box midfield player after struggling in a defensive role under Emery and Arsene Wenger. His improvement was helped by Thomas Partey, who was able to anchor the midfield and give Xhaka the freedom to attack more. Zinchenko’s role as an inverted central midfielder helped as well.

The player obviously deserves a lot of credit for his mentality and improvement, but the fact he became such an integral part of Arteta’s Arsenal is a testament to the management and coaching.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Granit Xhaka after a match at the Emirates.

 

3) Loaning William Saliba out to Marseille
Arsenal fans were full of rage and fear after Saliba was sent on loan to Marseille for the 21/22 campaign. There was fume because many believed he could have been a starter under Arteta, while fears stemmed from the idea that the player did not have a future at Arsenal. It turns out he does have a future and that season on loan at Marseille was extremely influential in making Saliba the player he is today.

My incredibly amazing boss Sarah Winterburn summed this one up pretty nicely in July 2022. Have a read of that – after this of course.

 

2) Getting rid of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
We got a nice insight into the Aubameyang debacle on the Amazon: All or Nothing documentary. At the time of Aubameyang’s ostracism under Arteta, fans didn’t really know what was going on. The Gabon hero was stripped of the captaincy in the latest skipper controversy after a ‘disciplinary breach’, later revealed to be a timekeeping issue and not his first. In fact, Arteta said in the documentary he had a “catalogue of misdemeanours” from the experienced striker.

The sale of Aubameyang to Barcelona was scrutinised; the overall treatment of the player also put into question Arteta’s management. A lot of the consternation came down to no replacement being signed, which was a telling contribution to Arsenal’s failure to finish in the top four in 21/22. While this did happen, the long-term picture is a lot brighter without Aubameyang – who did well at the Nou Camp before a disastrous move to Chelsea.

Getting rid of the personality was necessary and has definitely made Arsenal more Arteta’s Arsenal. His drop-off in performances is another justification for Arteta’s decision.

 

1) Easing Gabriel Martinelli into his team
Arsenal fans were very frustrated by Gabriel Martinelli’s lack of minutes in 19/20 and then 20/21, but Arteta’s treatment of the Brazilian winger was sublime. Had he played him every time a fan complained, Martinelli’s development would have been a lot different.

Martinelli used to be injury-prone, but even when fit he would often start on the bench, which annoyed supporters. After recovering from a long-term problem, minutes were hard to come by. He didn’t become a regular starter until 21/22, scoring two minutes after coming on for Bukayo Saka against Newcastle United on matchday 13; this was when the Brazilian really took his chance. He has not looked back since.

Arteta allowed Martinelli to adapt to English football and living in a different country, while allowing him to overcome his injury issues. Throwing the youngster into the deep end after knee and ankle injuries would have been foolish. Watching Martinelli flourish while becoming a regular in the Brazil squad brings a smile to my face and makes me think of the times when Arsenal fans would be crying for him to play.

Maybe there is a hint of bias in putting this first because I was one of not too many Arsenal fans to understand and back Arteta in his careful development of Martinelli. Arteta knows. So do I…sometimes. Trust the process.