If there is one thing Mikel Arteta has frequently done during his time as Arsenal boss, it is prove the club’s supporters wrong.
Here are the top ten decisions he has made – some that were originally scrutinised by the vast majority of the fanbase – since being named Arsenal boss in November 2019. Will the (somewhat) controversial signing of Jorginho will break into this list?
10) Moving Benjamin White to right-back
A lot of Arsenal’s success this term has been down to the perfect balance of Arteta’s strongest XI. Benjamin White was signed as a £50million central defender and played there last season but has been 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 sits a little deeper than your usual right-back, Oleksandr 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 someone who does not need upgraded, Mr. Ford…
9) Signing Aaron Ramsdale and Benjamin White
Sticking with White, the window he joined Arsenal was a high-spending summer that raised plenty of eyebrows amongst the Arsenal supporters. Arteta invested in young players, who enjoyed an unexpectedly superb 21/22 campaign before many took their game to another level this term. White and Aaron Ramsdale are two of those players.
Nuno Tavares was signed as back-up to Kieran Tierney for a measly £7m, Albert Sambi Lokonga came in for around £16m, Takehiro Tomiyasu was bought for a respectable £17m, Martin Odegaard joined permanently for £31.5m after a successful loan spell, and Ramsdale and White signed for £24m and £50m, respectively. The final two signings were the ones most scrutinised, but were two of the best three alongside the acquisition of the imperious Odegaard.
White’s ability was not in doubt, but his huge price tag attracted some criticism. Ramsdale, on the other hand, was a signing who was written off before he had even donned his gloves. Rumours of a move for over £20m sent the club’s fans into meltdown on social media. Arteta pushed and pushed to get the goalkeeper through the door and when it happened, there were still some disgruntled fans.
Eighteen months later and Ramsdale is now Arteta’s No. 1 with the man he displaced, Bernd Leno, now at Fulham. The England shot-stopper is a big part of how Arsenal play, offering quick and effective distribution, while his occasional s**thousery is also pretty fun and doesn’t do his side any harm. Ramsdale was good last season but has been even better this campaign and he should be England’s No. 1 in no time.
8) Making Martin Odegaard his captain
The captain’s armband at the Emirates has been bloody cursed over the years. From Robin van Persie to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, skippers have usually lost the plot or pushed for an exit.
Martin Odegaard was officially confirmed as the new captain in July 2022. He succeeded Aubameyang, who left seven months before. The armband was passed around Lacazette, Granit Xhaka, Kieran Tierney and Odegaard before the Norwegian playmaker was given it on a permanent basis.
While this decision from Arteta was not one that raised too many eyebrows, it was a brilliant choice that has probably gone a little under the radar. Making Xhaka captain again after he was stripped of the armband would have been a mistake, but the Spaniard has clearly given the Swiss midfielder the license to lead without actually being the skipper. Odegaard is one of many leaders in this Arsenal team and despite only being 24, has a wealth of experience and is using it to full effect in Arsenal’s unexpected, but brilliant, title charge.
7) Raiding Manchester City in the summer of 2022
A large part of said title charge comes down to the business conducted by Arteta and Edu last summer. Fabio Vieira, Marquinhos and Matt Turner have the potential to be good signings, but Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus were absolutely ready-made.
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 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 of the Gunners.
No sane person thought both of these players were going to be poor signings, but I don’t think many expected them to be as good as they have been. Jesus instantly showed on his competitive debut against Crystal Palace that he was a monster who would be unleashed under Arteta. Zinchenko was the same. What a player he is. Incredible on the ball, better defensively than many realised and crucial in Arsenal’s build-up play and ability to beat pressing attackers, the Ukrainian international is finally an important player at club level and £30m already looks like a bargain.
6) 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.
While the unique German playmaker is a club legend, he left the north London outfit on pretty 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.
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 do I begin? Arteta has changed the whole culture at the club. Focusing on what happened on the pitch, Arteta had a clear and evident style of play and he stuck to it, 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 this in November 2020 with the Gunners ninth in the Premier League. He knew.
4) Convincing Granit Xhaka to stay and transforming his game
Rightly stripped of the captaincy by Unai 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 has always divided opinion throughout the Gunners fan base. Much to the dismay of some supporters, Arteta convinced the Swiss midfielder to stay at the club. He 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.”
Since then, Xhaka has only improved. Under Emery, he was being used as a holding midfielder and did so under Arteta at the beginning of his tenure before the signing of Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian and left-back Kieran Tierney are very injury prone, so the Switzerland captain has often been forced to fill in for one or the other. However, Xhaka’s game has come on leaps and bounds this season thanks to Partey’s improved fitness, while the acquisition of Oleksandr Zinchenko has eradicated the need for those left-back cameos. The 30-year-old is now an excellent box-to-box midfielder, who plays as Arteta’s left-sided central midfielder. He allows Gabriel Martinelli and Zinchenko to thrive and has become much more of a threat in the final third.
The player obviously deserves a lot of credit for his mentality and improvement, but the fact he has become such an integral part of this Arsenal team is a testament to the management of Arteta, who has shocked everyone by making Xhaka the player he is today.
3) Loaning William Saliba out to Marseille
‘Last season saw those in the #Artetaout camp armed with heavy French artillery as Saliba thrived at Marseille, with every man-of-the-match performance a hand grenade tossed and every French call-up a missile launched in the direction of north London,’ my incredibly amazing boss Sarah Winterburn wrote last July in a piece about why loaning Saliba to Marseille was a masterstroke from Arteta, despite Arsenal fans being furious about it all season long. Have a read of that – after this of course – as it sums it up very well.
The passion that William Saliba has for Arsenal is beautiful! His home 🏡❤️ pic.twitter.com/pYCB0XgaxB
— Arsenal Inside (@arsenalinside_) January 24, 2023
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 Gabonese striker 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 last season. 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 2019/20 and then 20/21, but Arteta’s treatment of the Brazilian winger was sublime. Had he played him every time a fan complained, Martinelli would not be the player he is today.
Martinelli used to be injury-prone, but even when fit he would often start on the bench. This frustrated supporters. After recovering from a long-term problem, minutes were hard to come by. The 21-year-old didn’t become a regular starter until last season, 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 England at such a young age, and also allowed 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 I am biased 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. And so do I. Trust the process.