When Mikel Arteta left his apprenticeship under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, he knew he had enough knowledge in the bag to lead a new club on his own. His former club Arsenal came calling; it was a place where he had spent five solid years as a player.
It has to be said that despite his Spanish origins, Arteta has never had a sniff around his national team setup. He did manage to land a few appearances for the Under-17s and 21s, but his more illustrious compatriots, particularly from Barcelona, kept him at bay.
Even during his playing days at Everton, it was clear that Mikel Arteta was a good reader of the game, a player who may not have been blessed with great strength, but like most Spaniards, he combined technical ability on the ball with an unparalleled tactical awareness.
Mikel Arteta - the master and apprentice
Under Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta had a fruitful three years, an experience that only enhanced his tactical nous and footballing intelligence.
In a press conference before Manchester City's league game in June, Guardiola praised his former assistant and now Arsenal manager. Guardiola’s choice of words was interesting and summed up everything there is to know about the 38-year-old Spaniard:
“I'm so excited to see him, one of the nicest people I've ever met. It was a joy for me and for all of us to work with him…He knows absolutely everything of us, he was an incredibly important part of our success, he helped us to be who we were and who we are.” - Pep Guardiola on Arteta
Quite succinctly, Guardiola not only highlighted Arteta’s pleasant personality, but he also shed light on the latter's understanding of the game. He also acknowledged the former Everton player’s role in the success of Manchester City.
Arsenal went into the FA Community Shield game against Liverpool knowing that a silverware was up for grabs. After their FA Cup heroics at Wembley, Mikel Arteta’s men were determined to keep their good form going. The way Arsenal set up was telling. Liverpool are a team who normally like to find spaces at the back to exploit. Mikel Arteta knew this and set his team up accordingly.
Mikel Arteta has tasted success in his Arsenal managerial career
What differentiates Mikel Arteta from previous Arsenal managers is that he is not pretentious about tactics. He knows his team well and sets his tactics according to the strengths of his players.
Mikel Arteta is not an idealist like Arsène Wenger or a juggler like Unai Emery who wanted to strike a chord between pragmatism and idealism. Arteta is realistic; he knows that his team cannot play beautiful football like Manchester City or have the personnel to perform Liverpool’s gegenpressing.
Emery had a difficult job. He was entrusted with the responsibility of rebuilding Arsenal, a side that had been under the impression that football matches can only be won by playing a brand of champagne football. This was largely due to Arsène Wenger who had a weakness for flair players who are technically gifted but may look out of sorts when put together in large numbers.
Sir Alex Ferguson best described Wenger when he wrote in his autobiography:
Arsene’s softer nature…reflected the players he brought into the club. Samir Nasri becomes available, so Arsene takes him. Rosicky becomes available, so he takes him, because he’s his type of player. Arshavin becomes available, so in he comes. When you acquire a lot of those players, they are almost clones. – Ferguson, 2014, pp. 190
Emery was a different personality altogether, but his job was made harder surprisingly due to his poor communication skills. He became the butt of jokes around the world due to the way he said ‘good ebening’. Perhaps his biggest drawback was not being able to incorporate Mesut Ozil into his system, something that Mikel Arteta has also found difficult to do.
But we must not blame Emery because it is difficult to rebuild teams from scratch. We only have to look at David Moyes and the difficulties he faced at Manchester United after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
How is Mikel Arteta different from Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery?
Mikel Arteta is different from both Unai Emery and Arsene Wenger. Unlike Emery, Arteta has had the added advantage of playing for the Gunners for five years. He also has the vision and honesty to understand that he has his own gifts, so he does not need to emulate others.
This strength of character reflects in Mikel Arteta's team-choices. He has shifted Pierre-Emerick Aunameyang to the left with or without Alexandre Lacazette moving into the side. In the Community Shield, Arteta used the youngster Eddie Nketiah from the middle.
In fact, despite having a silverware on the line, Mikel Arteta used the much-maligned Mohamed El Neney, a player we thought was on his way out of the club. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his Arsenal future, El Neney put in a commendable performance against Liverpool.
In many ways, Mikel Arteta is doing what Frank Lampard is doing at Chelsea: putting faith in younger players and trusting them to develop into good, dependable players for the upcoming season.
What is most interesting about Mikel Arteta is that although he was under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, he is an intelligent man who has managed to retain his own identity. He has not been diluted by external influences, and we probably would have excused him if he had wanted to emulate the style of Manchester City.
But no, Mikel Arteta understands Arsenal. He understood that in order to get a positive result against Liverpool, his young players had to defend in numbers and break quickly whenever they could.
It is also a testament to his quality that there was a freshness and energy about Arsenal despite only preparing for the Commuity Shield match for a couple of days. This was in stark contrast to Liverpool who had begun their pre-season training two weeks before.
We must also credit birthday boy Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who after a fine display, had the composure to take a penalty in such cool fashion, eyeing Alisson Becker’s movement throughout. The Gunners should rightly offer him a new contact.
Other positive traits of Mikel Arteta
Most importantly, there is a confidence and certainty about everything Mikel Arteta does. Unlike Wenger, Arteta does not look like a spent force, and unlike Emery, he does not seem uncertain. The 38-year-old Spaniard is a personality who inspires belief and faith. His players respect him, and it shows in Arsenal’s performances.
The former Everton man also has the humility to accept that the opposition has stronger and more potent players. Often managers are taken over by a strange sense of hubris where they are unwilling to accept the weaknesses in their team.
After the 2009 Champions League final against Barcelona, which Manchester United lost 2-0, Sir Alex Ferguson regretted that a change of approach to a more defensive-minded setup could have benefitted his team.
Mikel Arteta respected Liverpool. He understood, like Diego Simeone, that the only way to stop the Reds was by defending in numbers and counter-attacking if and when possible. The cameras caught an interesting picture that day. Far from being disappointed after Takumi Minamino’s equaliser that spoiled an otherwise 1-0 victory, Mikel Arteta was seen clapping after the final whistle and nodding in approval.
That showed that even a 1-1 scoreline and the prospect of penalties was a positive outcome in Mikel Arteta's eyes, when perhaps other managers would have been crestfallen to have lost the chance to win a match in regulation time.
Arteta is helped by the fact that he has leaders in the form of Granit Xhaka, David Luiz and of course Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. These players will no doubt pass on their knowledge and immense wealth of experience to this promising crop of young Arsenal players.
Mikel Arteta is one in a crop of new exciting young managers who are beginning to leave their mark in the game. His stock is only going to rise as he comes across as an eager student willing to learn and hone his craft.