Mikel Arteta: Arsenal boss celebrates FA Cup win with his players
Mikel Arteta won his first piece of silverware as a manager on Saturday, as Arsenal lifted their 14th FA Cup.
It was well known how big a task the Spaniard faced after accepting the Gunners’ offer to replace Unai Emery back in December.
He has a long way to go, but to win the FA Cup and confirm their place in the Europa League in the process is some achievement in just half a season, with an improvement both on and off the field.
We look at key components behind his short reign and pose questions on how he can build on his impressive progress so far…
1. World-class Aubameyang: Will he stay?
Much of Arsenal’s success this season is arguably down to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who thankfully scores goals better than he can lift silverware.
We are, of course, referring to the captain’s failed attempt in the FA Cup trophy presentation, which you can see more about here in our report which has key highlights from another memorable day for the Gunners.
He capped off a fine season and there is a chance it was his last game in an Arsenal shirt, but they should fight tooth and nail to keep him.
The 31-year-old just missed out on another Premier League Golden Boot last week, finishing one behind Jamie Vardy, which is some achievement from a player whose team finished just eighth.
He ended the campaign with 29 goals and three assists in 44 appearances (all competitions) and his lethal double in both the semi-final and final showed just how much of a threat he is for the Gunners.
As the radar below shows, he is among the league’s top forwards and is one of the only players who regularly possesses the real world-class ability that the Gunners desire.
He plays with ice running through his veins, as his crucial penalty showed in Saturday’s final, the captain willing to step up and coolly send Willy Caballero the other way.
With just a year remaining on his deal and time running out on his career, uncertainty remains around his future.
But Arteta has made it no secret that he wants to build his team around the Gabon forward and the Arsenal boss remains confident he will remain at the Emirates.
“I think he wants to stay and it is just about getting the deal done,” he said after the game.
“But I think these moments will help him to realise and believe that we are in the right path and he is a big part of that. He is loved by everybody at the club. Hopefully he can continue with us.”
One thing Arsenal have not been lacking is attacking options and how you fit them into an XI is something Arteta has been pondering all season, with Nicolas Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah among those forwards on rotation. But on the left side, where Arteta clearly prefers him, Aubameyang is the first name on the team sheet.
On the left, below, is Aubameyang’s heatmap for the first half of the season compared to the latter half when Arteta was in charge, which shows the difference in instruction under Arteta, keeping him in a less central role.
The captain and his manager seem to have a good relationship and whether that continues beyond this summer is crucial for Arsenal – and fans will be desperate to hear of news soon.
2. Defence and game management
When Unai Emery was relieved of his duties in late November, who would have thought that this side would be lifting the FA Cup come the end of the season?
Not even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans would have believed you. The team was in disarray, winless in seven games when Emery left, and already eight points adrift of the top four.
Granit Xhaka wanted out, with the Swiss midfielder’s frustration culminating in that exchange with fans after being substituted against Crystal Palace, Shkodran Mustafi came in for a lot of early season criticism while David Luiz was…well, David Luiz.
Sokratis remained unconvincing while Calum Chambers would suffer a long-term injury in January. It was an obvious area for improvement and Pablo Mari and Cedric were brought in on loan, but they have made little impact due to injury and selection.
So, 11 clean sheets and wins over (in all competitions) Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man United and Wolves later, they have made some impressive strides.
Arteta has turned Xhaka around, using the 27-year-old’s experience and know and getting the best out of him since his arrival at the club in 2016.
Experience is a key word and he has also used that of Luiz and Mustafi while standing by them following errors and reaping the rewards. Papering over cracks, maybe, but they have done a commendable job.
The FA Cup semi-final win over Man City showed the dedication of Luiz, who got in the way of everything and, most importantly, Arsenal’s ability to manage games well for once.
They showed it in the final against Chelsea and in their Premier League win over champions Liverpool last month.
They had to accept periods of intense pressure from their opponents and in previous times Arsenal would have crumbled. Instead, they were able to ride the wave and continue inviting their opponent before pouncing and punishing them either on the break or later in the game.
Just imagine what he could do with a better squad.
3. Up for the big games: Now can they add consistency?
The Gunners have arguably relished the underdog tag under Arteta.
They were around 5/2 to win the FA Cup final in 90 minutes on Saturday.
Against Man City in the semis, few fancied their chances. At home to Liverpool, albeit already champions, most still expected Jurgen Klopp’s side to at least get a point.
The way Arteta has them playing means they can, as stated, manage the game well by allowing their opponent to play a little, not capitulating and instead growing in confidence. It will be those games Arteta has lost where he will be looking for better, for areas to improve.
Brighton, Aston Villa, Olympiakos at home in the Europa League, drawing at Bournemouth. All games typical of Arsenal in recent years and something the Spaniard will be keen to cut out.
The Villa game did, to be fair, come in the same week which saw them face Liverpool in the league before City in the cup, so fatigue could have been a factor which Villa capitalised on. But taskmaster Arteta demands a lot from his players and if they are to be successful they should not be dropping points to lesser opponents, whether they are scrapping at the bottom or not.
4. No nonsense management
Cases with both Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi in recent months have shown us that Arteta is not always the nice guy we expect.
On the face of it, of course. But successful managers need that aggressive streak, the side you would not like to cross, and it seems Arteta has it. He has, after all, learnt from the best in Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger.
Ozil is Arsenal’s top earner on a reported £350k-a-week contract which has a year left to run. For that kind of money, 23 appearances and one goal in all competitions does not cut the mustard.
His attitude has regularly been questioned and, as another season passes, it is another one with Ozil off the boil.
The German playmaker has always been given the benefit of the doubt – ‘if he can come good and back to his best under this manager’ – but this campaign may have been his last at the Emirates.
The 31-year-old has been frozen out by Arteta, who has refrained from speaking publicly about his player’s situation. Injuries have sometimes been an issue, but the Arsenal boss has shown with Ozil that he will not be taken for a mug.
He has reportedly rejected an offer from Fenerbahce while more Turkish and MLS clubs have been linked. The sooner both parties draw a line under this working relationship, the better. It’s gone stale.
So too with Guendouzi, another player Arteta remains tight-lipped about publicly, and the French midfielder has not been seen on the field since the loss at Brighton.
The 21-year-old clashed with the Seagulls’ Neal Maupay and was accused of taunting his compatriot over their ability and how much more money they earn – which came back to bite them later in the game.
Guendouzi’s overall attitude around the training ground is said to have angered Arteta and put his future in doubt. He is arguably talented, but Arteta does not want bad influences around the team and Guendouzi’s potential sale could raise funds for transfers, with Juventus recently linked with a move.
Arteta will not tolerate egos and negative energy in the dressing room and he is soon showing that it is his way or the highway – leadership he showed first as a captain and now as the main man in north London.
5. Faith in youth
Emery gets a lot of stick for his 18-month spell at the club, but one of his positives was the use of youth and Arteta has continued that progression.
Arteta’s coaching background is from Man City, where the academy set up is incredible and he will have picked up the tips and knowledge from Guardiola on spotting potential.
But also from his own knowledge – his intelligence, ability and multi-lingual communication – and trust of young players from another academy that regularly produces talent is inspired, with Eddie Nketiah brought back from his loan at Leeds in January and thrown into the first team reckoning.
Bukayo Saka has thrived, the 18-year-old being used in various positions by both Emery and Arteta, notching an impressive 11 assists (and four goals) in 38 senior games for the club this season.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Rob Holding, slightly more senior players at 22 and 24, have also been trusted while Joe Willock, Gabriel Martinelli and Reiss Nelson have also been utilised.
Expect the highly-rated returning loanees William Saliba (19) and Emile Smith Rowe (20) to get game time next term.
6. Will he get the backing?
Saturday’s cup win secured the north Londoners a place in the Europa League next term, which could help Arteta in terms of both transfer funds and being able to attract players to the club.
According to reports, key to keeping Aubameyang at the club is a significant backing and show of ambition in the transfer window.
The hierarchy at Arsenal, with sporting director Edu and head of football Raul Sanllehi, makes for uncertainty as to where the final decisions lie.
Arteta reportedly wants Ousmane Dembele, a former Dortmund team-mate of Aubameyang’s, Philippe Coutinho of Barcelona, Wolves forward Raul Jimenez, Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin and Atletico midfielder Thomas Partey, to name but a few.
Keeping Aubameyang happy by delivering on transfer targets is incredibly important. After all, if they do not invest in him here, it will cost more to replace him as well as recruiting elsewhere in the team.
Arsenal have not had loads to spend in comparison to their rivals in recent years and it remains to be seen what kind of figure Arteta and co could be handed in light of the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Furthermore, with knowing how club boards tend to work and think, it would be little surprise to see them try get out of spending too much by pointing at Arsenal’s improvement under Arteta – they sit fourth (P18, W9, D5 and L4) in the 2020 calendar year Premier League table behind Man United, Man City and Liverpool and this side, after all, is quite expensively assembled.
The board could also point to the defence’s improvement and how David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi are indeed capable enough. Then they have William Saliba for competition.
You could see that happening and then, come October, Arsenal are back to their usual selves at the back and the fans are criticising the club for not plugging obvious holes…
We know how fiery Arteta is, though, and he will not have taken this job on without some guarantees in regard to transfers and remoulding his Arsenal squad, although he has raised concerns in the press in recent weeks as a potential message to the board.