As Mikel Arteta paced the perimeter of his technical area at Molineux, arms a blur while dishing out multilingual instructions, Arsenal – uncharacteristically – defended their lead.
A 2-0 victory at the home of Champions League-chasing Wolves was the club’s fourth consecutive win in ten days – and the first time Arsenal have recorded a quartet of triumphs since October 2018.
After six testing months at the helm, punctuated by an unprecedented global pandemic, this is the height of Arteta’s relatively brief stint in charge. The tentative signs of improvement are the latest in a sequence of high and lows in the 38-year-old’s debut managerial job.
Two days after seeing a 1-0 lead over Chelsea evaporate in the final ten minutes thanks to familiar defensive frailties, Arteta engineered his first victory as a manager in his third match at the helm, against Manchester United.
A dominant first-half performance saw the Gunners race into a 2-0 lead by the break as club-record signing Nicolas Pépé scored only his second goal from open play in Arsenal colours.
The other goalscorer – Sokratis Papastathopoulos – summed up the atmosphere surrounding the team after Arteta’s first two weeks as manager by simply saying: “The fun is back.”
Barely a month in the job, Arteta’s Arsenal rallied after falling a goal and man down inside 26 minutes. Granit Xhaka – three months after being jeered by own fans – slotted into the backline in place of the dismissed David Luiz and impressively marshalled the defence from an unfamiliar role.
Teenager Gabriel Martinelli levelled the scores with a lung-busting run before Chelsea again took the lead. With three minutes left, Héctor Bellerín – in his third Premier League start since rupturing his cruciate ligament against the same opposition 12 months prior – netted the equaliser.
When reflecting on the outcome, Arteta was glowing in his assessment of the performance, telling the BBC: “The togetherness and leadership they showed today, this is what I wanted to see. We are going in the right direction but I think tonight is a special night for everybody.”
Having taken over during the ludicrously packed festive period, Arteta took full advantage of a midseason break in February. This hiatus was not only used to convey tactical instructions, but also establish Arteta’s authority.
The promising midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi was dropped for the first game back against Newcastle after clashing with Arteta in training. With the Frenchman sidelined, Arsenal dispatched the Magpies 4-0 and as Guendouzi was welcomed back into the fold, the Gunners won five of their last six matches before lockdown.
Unfortunately, this was not the last incident between the pair.
The second defeat of Arteta’s reign dealt a huge blow to the club’s slim hopes of Champions League qualification. Their route through the Europa League back door was slammed shut as a disappointing 2-1 home defeat to Greek side Olympiakos bombed them out in the round of 32.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed a late chance but Arsenal conceded two preventable goals, both from corner kicks, after letting in two further set-piece goals the week before against Everton. If the Wolves win was Arteta’s peak, the ‘very, very painful’ defeat – as the Spaniard put it – was perhaps their nadir.
Alongside the on-pitch performance, Arteta has not lost focus of the team behind the team, having been a member of Pep Guardiola’s backroom staff at Manchester City.
According to The Athletic, Arteta was able to convince the long-serving club doctor Gary O’Driscoll to turn down Liverpool’s advances having handed in his resignation at the turn of the year.
The added bonus of keeping O’Driscoll was felt when the familiar and trusted medical professional was tasked with addressing the concerns of players returning from lockdown.
A less than welcoming return to the Etihad on the opening day of the Premier League’s return was followed up by an equally demoralising defeat to relegation-threatened Brighton. Arsenal’s loss on the south coast was marred by reports that Guendouzi taunted Brighton’s players over their wages throughout the match before clashing with Seagulls striker Neal Maupay after the final whistle.
The tempestuous 21-year-old is yet to be feature in the squad since this loss while Arteta has fired a warning the youngster’s way recently.
The 2-0 win at Southampton may not have been the most convincing victory of the Arteta era, but it was one of the most needed after back-to-back defeats. This was the first game Arteta deviated from his normal 4-2-3-1, and he has stuck with the three-man defence since.
While Aubameyang’s contract remains unsigned – although Arteta continues to be bullish in his confidence of agreeing an extension – the 38-year-old has been able to win over two of Arsenal’s brightest prospects.
Martinelli’s injury has ruled him out for the remainder of the season but Saka, with his versatility, has been pivotal for Arteta since the restart.