It is Friday morning at Arsenal’s London Colney headquarters and Mikel Arteta has just spent half an hour fielding questions on everything from the Covid outbreak that threw his opening-day plans into turmoil to the critics trying to “bury” him and his side.
The fallout from Arsenal’s 2-0 loss to Brentford has been intense but Arteta is defiant. The response among his players has been “incredible”, he says in his press conference. Sunday’s clash with Chelsea is described as an opportunity to change the mood.
If Arteta is feeling the pressure, he is not showing it. “I just have enthusiasm, passion and a will to work, to make this project a magnificent project,” he tells Sky Sports with a smile. “That’s my responsibility, that’s why I’m here, and that’s what I enjoy doing.”
Defeat by Brentford was a setback but Arteta’s belief in what he is trying to achieve at Arsenal is as strong as ever – “from day one to today, there is no difference,” he says – and so too is his determination to set the club up for long-term success.
It can be seen in their recent transfer dealings. Only an hour before this interview, Arsenal confirmed the permanent signing of Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid. The subsequent arrival of goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale pushes their spending north of £125m.
Odegaard and Ramsdale follow Ben White, Nuno Tavares and Albert Sambi Lokonga through the door this summer and one similarity stands out: they are all aged 23 or under.
Arteta raves about Ramsdale’s “huge, huge” potential. He talks of Odegaard’s “immense” capacity for improvement. The focus on youth has lowered the average age of the squad dramatically. The hope is that the new recruits will blossom in Arsenal colours.
It is a strategy designed with the future in mind.
“We have to be sustainable,” says Arteta. “We have to perform now and we also need a plan for the medium and the long term.
“A lot of the decisions we have made over the last 18 months are because we had a big imbalance in certain areas that was putting the club in a difficult position.
“Then, we wanted to recruit talent, specificity, and players with a big capacity to interact with the players who already exist here and who could develop into potential starters and increase the level of the team and the squad.”
Arteta is pleased by how his squad is taking shape – “it is starting to look much more like what we want,” he says – but he has described this summer’s transfer market as one of the most difficult in years and insists navigating it has not been easy.
We have to be sustainable. We have to perform now and we also need a plan for the medium and the long-term
In fact, it has felt all-consuming at times. Arteta is grateful for the backing of the club’s Kroenke owners and for the support of technical director Edu and director of football operations Richard Garlick, who have helped get deals over the line.
“I’ve been in constant contact with the hierarchy of the club, with Eddy [Edu], with Richard [Garlick] and with our coaching team, trying to find the players we want to recruit and trying to be on top of every deal to make it happen in conditions we can afford.
“I think we have created a really strong team who really enjoy working together. Hopefully you will see the fruits of this.”
Arsenal supporters are still waiting for those fruits and patience is wearing thin for some, but the club have certainly been busy.
“We have had seven departures from the side that we had last year, maybe eight,” says Arteta. “With five coming in, we are talking already about a turnaround of 13 players, so it’s huge.
“We are just trying to have the best quality and balance that we possibly can. It’s about increasing the quality and having a healthy squad, which is really important as well.”
Having a healthy squad means reducing numbers and there is still work to do in that regard. Arteta is also aware that after back-to-back eighth-placed Premier League finishes and a failure to qualify for Europe last season, there is a need for immediate improvement as well as long-term promise.
He credits senior players like Granit Xhaka for allowing Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe to shine last season, but as well as helping this summer’s signings adapt in the new campaign, those senior players will need to offer more in terms of their own performances.
“We want to be really competitive from the beginning but in some cases it will take a little bit more time than with others, so we need to get from the senior players what they can give,” Arteta says.
“Last season, in certain moments, the team didn’t perform to the right level. We had other issues that I’m not going to discuss right now but we need to get the best out of everybody.
“That is our job and that is my job in particular.”
One senior player who comes under that category is of course captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The 32-year-old struggled in front of goal last season and his preparations for the new one were interrupted by the positive Covid test which caused him to miss the Brentford game.
Arteta admitted last week that he was unsure whether Aubameyang’s poor form last season was a one-off or evidence of a trend. So does he believe he can get back to his best?
“Absolutely I do because he’s done it his whole career,” says Arteta. “Last year was a really special context for a player to go through. There were a lot of things he had to go through both professionally and in his private life.
I think he’s a player who needs the fans. He is very engaged and linked emotionally to them so I think that’s something that’s going to help him
“We are trying to give all the help and support we can to make him happy – which I think is a really important word for him – in order to perform, to flow, and to play with confidence and do what he has always done.”
Aubameyang was not helped by a lack of creativity behind him last season – Arsenal ranked 12th among Premier League sides for chances created – but Arteta hopes the permanent signing of Odegaard will improve them in that respect and insists the responsibility for Aubameyang’s form must be shared.
“I think it’s a collective thing,” he says. “I think every ingredient, every detail we can add is going to help, between all of us, every department here at the club and him individually.
“It depends on his personal life, how it is going to be, professionally, how he takes himself, and his level of motivation.
“I think he’s a player who needs the fans. He’s very engaged and linked emotionally to them so I think that’s something that’s going to help him.
“I am getting the sense from him that he is ready to kick on but he got Covid and has been away for a while, so now we have to work him back physically to his best condition because that’s also something which is very important in his game.”
Aubameyang’s form could prove decisive one way or the other, and, at the other end of the pitch, much is expected of White, a £50m signing from Brighton whose aerial prowess was questioned in the wake of his battle with Brentford striker Ivan Toney last Friday.
Arteta, though, is quick to defend the 23-year-old.
“Yes, he can improve [in the air], but he won many aerial duels against him in the game as well,” says Arteta. “You are highlighting the ones he didn’t win but Toney will win headers against any defender in this league because that’s a big quality of his.
“You have to accept that it’s an area of the pitch where if you concede those headers, it obviously becomes more dangerous for the team. But he had a good debut.
Ben is an exceptional defender. He can play in a back four, he’s very comfortable playing in a back three, he’s got the league experience, he’s quick, he’s agile, he’s really aggressive in duels
“He hadn’t trained a lot. Bukayo Saka couldn’t feature from the start and he was in the same training plan as Ben but Ben made a big effort. Physically, he’s still not where he needs to be, but I think he has had a positive start.”
Arteta expects White to become a key figure for his side and is keen to stress that is not just because of his eye-catching distribution and his ability to carry the ball out of defence.
“Ben is an exceptional defender,” he says. “He can play in a back four, he’s very comfortable playing in a back three, he’s got the league experience, he’s quick, he’s agile, he’s really aggressive in duels.
“And then, with the ball, he’s got special qualities that I needed for the way we play, to make all the processes better and for us to be composed and dominant in games like we want to be.”
It will be a challenge, of course, to play with composure and dominance against a Chelsea side likely to be spearheaded by the £97.5m Romelu Lukaku at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
Arteta knows a second consecutive defeat would ramp up the pressure but he is unfazed by the criticism he and his side have faced lately and remains adamant, after a summer of investment in the club’s future, that his Arsenal project is heading in a positive direction.
“It’s a beautiful challenge and we have to face it,” he says. “We know the competition that we have in this league and we know what the expectations are. Let’s go for it.”
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