Arsenal owe their resurgence to one man: Mikel Arteta

Such is the measure of trust and confidence Mikel Arteta conveys, he didn’t even need to have a medical at Arsenal. True, The Gunners were in a desperate situation come the final day of this summer’s transfer window but with his unfortunate injury record in the past two years, it came at a risk Arsène Wenger knew was worth taking. “It was highly stressful, full of uncertainty,” Arteta tells Guillem Balagué of how his transfer unfolded in Champions Magazine. “At three o’clock I thought I was an Arsenal player, by six it had broken down and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m staying [at Everton].’ At 8:30pm I went through it all again. By then there was no time to do a medical, no one around who could establish my condition, so I jumped in the car, went to the offices and they just had to trust what I told them. If it turned out there was a problem, I’d have been responsible.”

In a sense, signing Mikel Arteta was the safe option. He already knew the Premier League and his rich footballing heritage meant he could integrate seamlessly to Arsenal’s play. But he was also “safe” in the sense that Arsenal needed a midfielder who could balance out the vagaries of their expansive style. They already had a Cesc Fàbregas replacement – two in fact in Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey – but what was required was a “between-the-lines” player; someone who maintained the flow in centre. Wenger has always wanted one; Filipe Melo and Yann M’vila have been most recently linked while Gilberto, Flamini, Denilson, Diaby and Wilshere have all played that role but it’s Arteta, though, who looks perfect in the position.  “He’s [Arteta] a really important player in our team,” said Wenger. “He is the player between Song and [Aaron] Ramsey or [Tomas] Rosicky. That gives us continuity. When we need to keep the ball he can do that. With Jack [Wilshere] missing he is really a player who allows you to keep the ball when it is needed.”

My first impression upon seeing Mikel Arteta in an Arsenal shirt – apart from how even more handsome he looked in the club’s colours in comparison to the blue of Everton – was that “he knows how to defend in a 4-3-3.” And sure enough, in the first minute of Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Swansea, he won the ball back twice to instigate forward momentum to emphatically confirm my suspicions. His stubborn positioning on the left of Arsenal’s midfield was a refreshing sight, neither attracted to the bright lights of opposition goal nor too risk averse to get forward, it was the perfect balance.

Arsenal’s results have steadily improved with Arteta in the team but just as importantly have the performances also improved. Wenger describes his team as “more controlled and less cavalier” and that solidity can be attributed to the Spaniard’s calming influence. His tactical acumen is superb and he was known at Everton for having technical discussions with the manager, David Moyes. On the pitch, his attention to detail can be as unerring as the neatness of his hair. Arteta’s passing accuracy is over 90% and he is in the top ten of most the passes in Europe, completing 76.7 successful passes per game. That statistic has been criticised by some who say it’s a false masturbation of his numbers, (no doubt forged from the frustrations of watching Denilson in past seasons), as it shows his passing can often be too passive. But those who make that argument also miss the point of Arsenal’s style because by keeping it moving, he’s dragging opponents around to create space and to help sustain the pressure. Not coincidentally, other parts of Arsenal’s game has improved to complement his style; the defence are better at winning the ball back higher up the pitch thus allowing Wenger’s side to play as much of the match as possible in the opponent’s half of the field. It’s as much a defence as it is an attack. Nevertheless, a player creating 2.5 chances per game can’t really be termed as conservative.

Arteta’s presence has helped shaped the dynamics of Arsenal’s midfield. No longer is Alex Song burdened with the lone duty of bringing the ball out from the back but alongside Arteta, he is given freedom to break forward to aid attacks if needed. It’s true that Jack Wilshere also did this last season and in a way, his absence is just as influential Cesc Fàbregas’s departure, but the layout of the midfield has moved away from the double pivot to a rotating three. Which is important to distinguish because the way Arsenal open up teams now is not limited to one person as it was with Fàbregas. Creative duties are shared, and build up tends to be more patient before a sudden – and occasionally intermittent – release puts a team-mate through: Usually Robin van Persie. Then there’s Aaron Ramsey who, after a difficult start, has begun to flourish and again, we might have to thank Arteta for it. He’s not burdened with having to collect the ball deep, as he might have earlier this season and certainly he did alongside Tomáš Rosický, and he has started to have more of an effect up the pitch. The Welshman has four league assists to his name and is a near ever-present, missing one game.

It’s been said Arsenal are a one-man team and Robin van Persie’s goals don’t do much to disprove that notion but every other statistic suggest Arsenal are more of a team than they have ever been. Sometimes you will find one person who is so perfect for the team that their presence lifts everyone around them and makes the system click. Naturally, Mikel Arteta is doing it in his quietly spectacular way.

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