Mikel Arteta saw in the new year with his first Premier League win since taking over at Arsenal, when his side beat Manchester United 2-0 at the Emirates. The records will show that first half goals from Nicolas Pepe and Sokratis Papastathopoulos enabled the Gunners to claim their first Premier League win in fifteen games. What they won’t show is the transformation in Arsenal’s fortunes in the very short time since Arteta’s late December appointment.
Nicolas Pepe (c) opened the scoring in the 2-0 win over United
Following his arrival, Arteta asked for more energy, and that was evident early on in Arsenal’s Boxing Day clash with Chelsea. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s 13th Premier League goal however was not enough to see off the Blues who prevailed 2-1. But Arteta saw improvements in what he had been asking for. Pressing high up, in a high intensity, quick passing game where every player has defensive duties too. The consequences of that he later admitted were that his players tired, but they will adapt as time is spent on the new training methods he noted. And so it proved.
A new year and a new air of hope dawned over the Emirates with the visit of United. The Gunners were quick out of the blocks, and at two goals to the good, Arteta and the Arsenal faithful were witnessing a new era where Mesut Ozil suddenly discovered how to affect games against the big sides. There was an energy and a buzz in the stands too, with noise levels rising with every Gunners attack.
Sokratis (c) doubled the Gunners advantage in the first half
Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka have defined defensive roles in front of a back line which for once held firm. Linked to a move to Hertha Berlin, Xhaka applauded all sides of the Emirates at the final whistle in the win over United. Was that a goodbye? Incredible to think that this was the same player booed off the pitch when he was substituted in the 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace last October.
For his part, Arteta is clear. He wants Xhaka to stay and hopes that his player will remain in north London and build on his midfield partnership with Torreira.
Arteta applauded the efforts of Torreira. “He was really good again. He wants to fight for every ball. In training he fights for every inch. He’s starting to understand the whole picture much better, that’s what I’m trying to do [with him]. He’s been superb. In the three games he’s played under me, he’s been top.”
Having had 22 years of Arsene Wenger as manager, trying to get his replacement would always be challenging. Arteta was on the initial short list, as was Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, but the Arsenal board opted for Unai Emery despite his lack of English.
Arteta has asked for more energy from his side
Following some initial success which included a 22 game unbeaten run in all competitions, matters deteriorated for Emery in his final month at Arsenal. Last November saw the Gunners register Premier League draws against Wolves and Southampton and a 2-0 loss at Leicester. Rumours of player discontent and of an inability of being able to get his message across didn’t help Emery in his quest to arrest the demise, and he was relieved of his duties. Former Invincible Freddie Ljungberg stepped up from youth coach and was tasked with temporary first team care. He oversaw a 2-2 draw at Norwich City a 2-1 home loss to Brighton, a 3-1 win at West Ham 3-0 and home defeat to Manchester City. Sitting in the City dugout that mid- December evening alongside his mentor for the previous three and a half years, Pep Guardiola, Arteta looked on as his former club were picked apart.
When he finally took over at the club he played 160 games for, Arteta wanted to know and understand the player issues and concerns in order to begin their rectification.
But what exactly had he inherited ?
“Well that’s why I said to them that without you guys, I won’t be able to do it. You have to open that door and believe that I can bring something different to the club. We need all the staff to believe as well. If we are able to do that, day by day it will take a long time and the process is not going to be easy and there will be ups and downs, but they bought into it. That’s my feeling. They want to do it. I think they are starting to enjoy it and hopefully it’s a start.”
Arsenal now turn their attentions to the FA Cup, a trophy which Arteta won twice as an Arsenal player. Leeds United are their third round opponents before it’s back to the Premier League and the short trip to Crystal Palace. Later in January we may get to further gauge Arsenal’s progression under Arteta when they face two sides who have beaten them earlier this season, Sheffield United and Chelsea.