In his first major interview since becoming Arsenal head coach, Mikel Arteta tells Sky Sports about changing the culture in the dressing room, how Arsene Wenger helped him into management and more
Wednesday 20 January 2021 15:36, UK
Arsenal players were queuing up to praise Mikel Arteta's impact during the winter break. "As a team, we are much happier," said Mesut Ozil. "We are improving every day," said Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. "I really believe we can achieve something big," added David Luiz.
Arsenal have won only three of Arteta's first nine games in charge. They were 10th in the Premier League table when he took over and they are no higher now. But it is not just the players who feel this might be the start of something special.
"I am convinced that we are going to do some great things together," says Arteta, speaking to Sky Sports at Arsenal's London Colney training ground ahead of the Super Sunday meeting with Newcastle.
"We have every element that we need to be successful and take the club forward - and to do it in the way we want as well. It's great to feel that the players are enjoying it, and that they believe in what we are trying to do.
"Now it's down to us to accelerate the process as much as possible, without killing the process but by winning as many games as we can."
Those wins are still proving elusive for now, leaving Arsenal with significant ground to make up on the top four. But the mood around the club has been transformed. Arteta has brought clarity where there was none and performances - most notably the 2-0 win over Manchester United and the spirited 2-2 draw with Chelsea - have offered encouragement that Arsenal are heading in an exciting new direction.
"There have been a lot of positives," says Arteta. "I have tried to convince the players that if we work on certain things in training, they will happen in games and we will score goals from them. There have been some really good moments like that with things I have asked them to do.
"As well, some of the counter-pressing we have done has been very good. Some of the behaviours of the players weren't there before, particularly the top players tracking back. The distances between us and how compact we are is much better, and so is our body language during games."
Improving the body language of his players is part of a wider cultural shift Arteta has overseen since his appointment. From the start, he has described full commitment and maximum energy as "non-negotiables". Players who might previously have lacked motivation have been ordered to fall in line, and Arteta has been delighted by their response.
"The first thing was to make those changes in terms of our culture, how we live together, some of the behaviours that I expect from players and staff and some of the values that we have to have at this club," he says.
"I think we changed the energy at this club. I think we brought the team and the fans together, which wasn't an easy thing to do. And then, on the playing side, I think we are starting to see some signs of how I want the team to play, how I want it to behave, and the type of passion and commitment that the players have to show under me."
The impression I've had from the start is that the players are willing, they are alert, and they are listening to what I want to do
Arsenal's winter break in Dubai, described by Arteta as a "mini pre-season" after a breathless period of nine games in 39 days, is felt to have been particularly useful in bringing the players and coaching staff closer together. In terms of its spirit, does he now feel he is looking at a different squad from the one he inherited?
"I wasn't here before, of course, but from what I heard and from what I felt when I joined, I would say yes," he says.
"Is this exactly the way I want it? No. There are still a lot of things we have to improve, and we have to maintain our level while we improve, which is sometimes not an easy thing to do. But I think we are on the right way."
Arteta has tightened Arsenal up on the pitch as well as off it. They are facing fewer shots and conceding fewer goals than at any point this season. In an attacking sense, however, and while there have been moments of incisiveness, there is still a sense that they are yet to fully click.
It is hardly surprising given their long-standing issues in that area. Arteta described Arsenal's identity - the fluidity in possession and potency in attack that were hallmarks of the sides he himself played in - as "lost" soon after taking the job. But he is adamant that bringing it back is fundamental to his vision for the club's future.
"Without an identity, you cannot plan and you cannot convince a player to do what you want," he says. "How do you recruit a player if you don't really know what it is that you are trying to do? How do you convince a player of the way you want to play if you don't have clarity yourself over why you want to do it?
The identity is the foundation for everything
"That is the first thing, I think. You have to say, 'This is the direction and this is what we want to do.' Then you have to convince the players and get them on board with what you are doing, and after that you can start to build. But the identity is the foundation for everything."
Arteta added to Arsenal's foundations in January, signing centre-back Pablo Mari from Flamengo and full-back Cedric Soares from Southampton, and while his immediate priority is to improve results in the short-term, it is indicative of how he is approaching the job that plans are already in place to continue strengthening the squad in the summer.
"It has to be a long-term project," he says. "In the short-term we cannot achieve all the things that this club needs. It wants to fight now with the top teams in this country and in Europe, but it is not possible. We are very far behind at the moment and everything shows how far behind we are.
"We need to make that gap shorter and shorter. But it's going to take a lot of right decisions and a great amount of energy and commitment."
One player who has shown no lack of energy and commitment under Arteta is Mesut Ozil. The 31-year-old has looked reinvigorated under his former team-mate. But despite earning plaudits for his off-the-ball work and starting the last seven consecutive Premier League games, he is yet to score in 19 appearances this season and has only provided one assist.
Is Arteta confident that he can help him get back to his best?
"I reviewed that in the last week or so," he says. "He has been unlucky with some of the times that he has put people through and they have not scored. Things like that would have made stats a little bit different.
"But you don't go from where he was to where he can be in five weeks, I'm sorry. Even when you really want to do it, it doesn't always go that way. You have to be so constant. But he is trying so hard and he is very willing."
Is it a case of putting the right structure in place for Ozil to flourish, or is it down to him to find ways to contribute more?
"I think it goes both ways," says Arteta. "The team cannot have the right structure to support him if he doesn't do some of those non-negotiables. If he does them, then the team can afford to have someone like him to make the difference. In some moments, he has come very close to what I would like to see from him on the pitch."
Ozil would surely benefit if Alexandre Lacazette could rediscover his scoring touch - the Frenchman has not found the net since early December - and his job might also be easier if record signing Nicolas Pepe could recapture the devastating form he showed at previous club Lille.
Like Unai Emery before him, Arteta admits Pepe is a player who needs more pushing than most - "absolutely," he says with a nod - but he insists the Ivorian could yet live up to his billing once he adapts to the Premier League.
"I have been impressed with Nico because he really likes to play, he loves football," says Arteta. "He's a very shy boy who had an incredible season last year, but that was with a very different style of football, with a lot of space, with a lot of runs in behind, with a lot of freedom.
"Here, it's different. He is surrounded by other top players and he needs to adapt to that. To come to England and do that straight away, being a winger, is not easy.
"I have seen players with much more experience than Nico come to the Premier League and for six, eight or 12 months, completely fail and underperform. But after that, they have come back the following season and become some of the best players in the Premier League."
Arteta still has work to do with Ozil and Pepe but his eyes light up when the conversation turns to Arsenal's young players. Gabriel Martinelli, 18, has been outstanding since his appointment, while the first-team squad also includes academy graduates Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
From his technical area on matchdays, Arteta can be seen giving out constant instructions to those young players. And like his old boss Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, he has even developed a penchant for walking onto the pitch immediately after the final whistle to give them one-on-one tactical advice before they head down the tunnel.
"I love working with young players," says Arteta. "When I see potential and I see the hunger in their eyes to be the best, I cannot stop working with them because it's a joy.
"When you feel that energy from them, that is what you want, that love for what they do, and that is what I am getting from these players, absolutely. They are the future of the club."
Arteta is particularly excited by Martinelli's potential. The Brazilian, a £6m signing from Ituano FC in the summer, has scored 10 goals already this season, including two in his last three Premier League appearances. It is typical of Arteta, though, that he is still demanding more from him.
"He needs to digest a lot of things," he says, "The better you do, the more you have to start to digest what people think about you.
"He has to think 'now, the opponents know me better, the spaces are smaller, I am going to have more attention. I still want to do what I was doing three weeks ago or four weeks ago, but now it's not happening.' As a young player, you need to go through that. The mental side of it is a process."
This is only the beginning for Martinelli and Arsenal's other young players and, given how seamlessly he has slotted into management, it is easy to forget that it is only the beginning for Arteta too. At 37, the former midfielder is the youngest head coach in the Premier League. It wasn't until his late 20s that he began to consider the profession seriously at all.
"It was when I had my cruciate injury at Everton [between 2009 and 2010], that I started to study it a little bit. Then, in my first or second year here as a player, I spoke to Arsene [Wenger] about it. He told me I should try to do it and so I started to do my badges and I started to love it more, more and more."
Guardiola is widely seen as the coach Arteta has modelled himself on following his spell at Manchester City, but it was Wenger's encouragement that put him on the path to management in the first place and his former boss remains a hugely influential figure to him now.
"He has been very supportive," says Arteta. "I had a very good relationship with him. He's a very calm person, very reflective and very, very intelligent. I learned a lot with him as a player about how he managed people, the love and respect that he felt for the game, his values, the type of game he wanted to play and the messages that he used to send to us as well."
It is little wonder Arteta is now is trying to restore the identity Wenger put in place before him, and it is no surprise either that he is approaching his first job as a head coach with just as much dedication and determination.
"I was putting in the same amount of hours for the last four years at City, for sure," he says with a smile. "But the decision-making all the time and the responsibility you feel to really lift the players and transmit the energy you need to them, that's the real difference. It's all-consuming and I am adapting to it. But I am happy with how it's going so far."
The long line of Arsenal players queuing up to praise him suggests he is not the only one.
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