Mikel Arteta opens up to Sky Sports' Nick Wright about turning the Emirates into a fortress, letting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang go, and planning for a big summer; watch Watford vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Sunday; kick-off 2pm
Sunday 6 March 2022 20:54, UK
Mikel Arteta is becoming animated, eyes widening and hands gesticulating enthusiastically as our conversation turns to the connection between his team and the Arsenal supporters.
The 39-year-old is known for staying cool and composed during his media dealings but on this subject, in a small office at the club's London Colney headquarters, his passion shines through.
The atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium, he says, is "completely different" from the start of his tenure, when rows of empty seats had come to reflect the general malaise around the club.
"You can feel it," Arteta tells Sky Sports. "You can try to tell people about it, but when you are there, you just feel it, that it's genuine, that it's happening, that there is this interaction of energy and emotions. I feel a real unity between the supporters and the team."
The pandemic proved a significant and unforeseen interruption but Arteta describes building that sense of unity as one of his "main goals" following his appointment in December 2019.
"If you had asked me what I wanted to do here, I would have said that I would like to make the Emirates the toughest stadium to play at in England, to create a really unique atmosphere that you feel on your skin when you go there," he says.
"An atmosphere where our fans feel, 'I can't wait until Saturday to go and support the team', where people are walking to the Emirates thinking, 'I'm ready, I want to support these guys, they are really worth it, and I feel really engaged with them'.
"If we can do that, it's going to be a big, big win."
There is work still ahead if the Emirates is to become quite as fearsome as Arteta desires but the progress is already clear.
It can be seen in their record - only Liverpool and Manchester City have taken more points than Arsenal in home games this season - and it can be seen in the stands too; in the way supporters stayed behind to show their appreciation after the crushing, stoppage-time defeat to City on New Year's Day; in the way they roared them on to victory against Wolves last week.
"We got that result because of the reaction the fans had straight away [after conceding the opening goal]," says Arteta of the Wolves game, "to support the team, to be behind the team, and the energy they created even before our first goal.
"The goal wasn't what provoked that emotion, it was the opposite way around, and that has to be it. 'Can we give something to the team knowing they are going to give it back for sure?'.
"That's where you build special moments."
It helps, of course, that recent results have been so positive, putting Arsenal two points off the Champions League spots with three games in hand on fourth-placed Manchester United.
But the make-up of the side is more important to Arteta when it comes to fostering a connection between players and fans.
"I think we have players where generally you can see the feeling they have towards the club," he says.
If you had asked me what I wanted to do here, I would have said that I would like to make the Emirates the toughest stadium to play at in England
"Obviously, having academy players in the team is something extremely important because you know there is something else there apart from, 'I like to play football, I like to represent a professional football club and earn money here'.
"I think those players are attached to our DNA, to our values. They have been raised here and they appreciate the fact they have been with us for a long, long time.
"That's something I think the fans sense.
"And, with the other players, they just see that they are giving 100 per cent to the club, and when that is the case, I think they have no option..." Arteta grins. "They have to support these guys."
The win over Wolves sparked delirious celebrations inside the Emirates, putting Arsenal's top-four destiny firmly in their hands and adding to a growing sense of optimism that they might just do it.
But it is only a matter of weeks ago that they were enduring a dismal January, winning none of their five games, crashing out of two cup competitions, and allowing captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to join Barcelona on a free without signing a replacement.
The decision to let Aubameyang go in that context left onlookers scratching their heads and left Arteta with two senior strikers in Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah who had only scored three Premier League goals between them all season.
And yet, in the Premier League, at least, the team's performances have improved markedly. Arsenal have won seven out of nine games in the competition since Aubameyang was dropped, losing only once.
Their attacking output has increased across the board during that time. They are taking more shots and scoring more goals. They are getting more touches in the opposition box and ranking higher for expected goals. Even possession is up.
"I think there are many reasons attached to that," says Arteta. "First of all, the understanding of what we want is clearer. We have a fit squad, without too many disturbances for a long period.
"That has allowed us to play a certain team more regularly and that team now has better cohesion and better understanding. Their qualities fit to make each other better.
"And then, obviously, when you get results, confidence builds up, belief builds up and the rest is a consequence of that."
Has Aubameyang's departure allowed others to shine?
"We always make decisions in the best interests of the club and to get the best performances from the team," says Arteta.
"We made that decision as three parties. One was the club, one was Auba, and the other was Barcelona. The three of us believed it was the right thing to do."
As for the decision not to replace him in the same window, a decision which angered many supporters, Arteta says: "That was a possibility but I think when you have a clear direction and process of how you make your decisions, you have to be ruthless.
"You have to have a certain courage and consistency in those decisions. If one decision is to only bring in players we can afford, who are going to make the team much better straight away, and who are sustainable for our future, then that should be the case.
"So, even if you are tempted to do something, but you think it's going to bring you trouble in the coming months or years, you should not do it. I think we were brave not to do it."
Brave, but not vindicated just yet.
"We did what we had to do and what was our responsibility as people who are managing this football club," says Arteta.
"But whether it was good or not, we will only know at the end of the season, and it will depend on whether we have won enough matches."
They will attempt to do that with Lacazette leading the line and while goals continue to prove elusive for the Frenchman, whose late winner against Wolves was ruled as a Jose Sa own goal, Arteta insists he has been instrumental in their recent improvement.
"Laca has a really important quality, which is that he makes the people around him better," he says. "He understands the game really well, he's a really intelligent player and his work-rate is phenomenal.
"I think he's been very unlucky not to score another four, five, six goals in this period. We want to give him the confidence and he will do that but, for me, he scored last week against Wolves.
"He was there to make the final action to win the match."
Aubameyang's exit followed those of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Folarin Balogun, Pablo Mari, Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac either on loan or permanently in January, continuing a drastic overhaul of the squad which has been ongoing throughout Arteta's tenure.
Indeed, of the 18 players involved in his first game in charge, a 1-1 draw with Bournemouth a little over two years ago, only six remain at the club now. First-team departures are well into double figures under the Spaniard and so too are arrivals.
"It's unheard of," says Arteta. "I think it's very difficult to explain externally what it takes to do that, the thinking behind the decisions you have to make and the unpopular decisions you have to make.
"But our responsibility is to look further into the future, to say, 'I want to get here and I have to work backwards from there because this is the aim and if I don't do this now, we are never going to get there'.
"That is very difficult to explain but I think between all of us, starting from the ownership, the board, Edu as our technical director and all the people in between us to make final decisions on the squad, we have been very consistent and very united.
"Because normally, when a turnaround like this happens, there is internal conflict, 100 per cent, because you cannot agree on 36 players in two years - it's impossible."
Has he had any rows with Edu along the way?
"Not rows," Arteta says with a smile.
"The good thing is that we have people who say what they think, then go away and work on it and present their reasons why, and that makes other people think.
"And the really important thing is that we decide whatever we decide on this table," he says, his palm landing on the surface in front of him, "then we leave the room, and it's our decision.
"It's not yours or mine, it's our decision and we stick by it - even if we make mistakes."
There have certainly been mistakes along the way - and costly ones at that - but last summer's spending looks increasingly inspired, with Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Martin Odegaard and Takehiro Tomiyasu all making huge contributions this season.
Will this summer be as important as the last one?
"More important," says Arteta. "I think now is the moment we have to go to a different level.
"We have been able to get the squad balance in a much better shape. Financially, we are in a much more stable position with the money we have spent on certain players touching the pitch for a certain amount of minutes. That balance is much better spread out across the squad.
"And now is the moment to raise the quality."
He has to have a certain age, a certain level of experience, and he has to be able to come here and play under the pressure of being at Arsenal
With Aubameyang gone, and with Lacazette and Nketiah's contracts due to expire at the end of the season, a new striker is sure to be top of the club's agenda.
What, though, is Arteta looking for in that position?
"He puts the ball in the net, that's priority number one," he says with a grin. "Goal threat. Any successful team needs enough goal threat in the squad. Without it, you have nothing. You can play good football but you need enough goal threat in the team.
"The other thing is that he has to complement the other people we have, personally and on the pitch, and for that, we need the right profile.
"We need a profile where you can exploit his qualities at the same time as the qualities we already have, so we don't have to transform our way of playing again to adapt to that specific player.
"He has to have a certain age, a certain level of experience, and he has to be able to come here and play under the pressure of being at Arsenal."
The club put the emphasis on youth last summer, with all six of their new arrivals aged 23 or under, but Arteta nods his head when asked if there is more room for manoeuvre on that front now.
"I think now we can be more flexible in the type of recruitment we do because obviously we are the youngest squad in the league right now," he says. "We have to be careful about what is the balance.
"But sometimes, it's not just related to the age because you see players who are 23, 24 but have the career of someone who is 29 because they started really young.
"Then, it's about the personality, the leadership qualities they have at 22, at 24 or at 34, because some players don't have that even at 34. We are sometimes much more focused on that than the age."
One player to whom that feels relevant is Bukayo Saka.
The 20-year-old has played more Premier League minutes than any other Arsenal player under Arteta and while he was initially used at wing-back - "it took me a while to figure him out," Arteta said in April of last year - he is now firmly established on the right-hand side of their attack, where he has become a talismanic figure.
This season he has continued to flourish. With seven goals and four assists in the Premier League so far, he has already eclipsed his combined total for the whole of the last campaign.
I think he is happy with his team-mates, he is happy being at the club and he is enjoying it
"I think his biggest improvement is the level of consistency he's playing with," says Arteta. "To have moments is fine. A lot of players can do that. But to play consistently at that level is very difficult.
"Opponents know him and people expect a lot of him but he is still as humble, as committed and as hungry as he was when I met him on the first day.
"Now, I think he understands the game much better and I think he also has a different level of aggression as a player which I think was very needed in him."
The manner in which he has embraced the responsibility of being one of Arsenal's most important players has delighted Arteta.
"I'm very pleased and it's very rare, especially for attacking players at big clubs, but he's done that in a natural way because he's shown he can do it, he's doing it, and then he has to flow.
"You don't have to look at him and ask more questions because he's coming from the academy. I think that's a big mistake. He's doing it. If we had paid £70m for him, we would keep playing him, so why would we not do that with an academy player?"
Why not indeed? Arsenal's quest to claim a Champions League spot resumes against Watford at Vicarage Road this Sunday. For Arteta, though, it is just the beginning. In the stands, on the pitch, and behind the doors of London Colney, the transformation continues.
Watch Watford vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Sunday; kick-off 2pm