From shambles to champagne: How Arteta turned Arsenal’s season around By Charles Watts
The Gunners head coach ended his first campaign in charge in style on Saturday when he lifted the FA Cup at Wembley
Those two simple words from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang said an awful lot. Arsenal’s FA Cup final hero was still celebrating in the Wembley Stadium changing room when he picked up his phone and tweeted his message to the world.
Alongside those two words was a picture of Aubameyang and Mikel Arteta, trophy in hand, celebrating Arsenal’s record 14th success in the world’s most famous domestic club competition.
Aubameyang’s two goals have quite rightly seen him grab the headlines, but Arteta has been the mastermind behind it all. This was a cup win that seemed almost impossible just a matter of months ago, yet his arrival in December has breathed new life into a club that was stagnating badly.
When the decision was finally taken to dismiss Unai Emery, Arsenal were in a mess. The players were broken and any thoughts of silverware seemed a million miles away.
In a short space of time Arteta has walked in and reinvigorated a squad through quality coaching and exceptional man-management. Emery lost the changing room; Arteta has come in and already has his players in the palm of his hand.
“He’s a man who has given us a structure,” said goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez following’s Saturday’s victory over Chelsea. “He’s given us hope and given us a game plan in every single game so when you are on the pitch you see that the game plan that he does in training actually works.
“He’s a great manager. He’s been here six or seven months and he’s already won his first trophy. He should be really proud of himself.”
Saturday’s triumph was the result of months of hard work from Arteta. From the moment he arrived in December he set about installing a new type of mentality at Arsenal.
Players who had perhaps had it easy under Arsene Wenger and Emery soon found out that London Colney was no longer going to be a holiday camp. Arteta was the man in charge, not the players.
“We have to build a culture that can sustain everything else," he said at his unveiling in December. "If you do not have the right culture, in the difficult moments the tree is going to shake.
"So, my job is to convince everybody that this is how we are going to live, and if you are going to be part of this organisation, it has to be on these terms.
“What I have learnt is mostly that you have to be ruthless. You have to be consistent and you have to work on the culture of the club every day to create a winning mentality.”
Arteta has certainly been ruthless. If you don’t live up to his expectations and behave or work to the standards he expects, then you will be soon be on the outside looking in.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dani Ceballos found that out to their cost in the early days, and now Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil have been cast aside for their approach behind the scenes.
Ozil, Arsenal's highest-earning player, wasn’t even at Wembley. He had been given permission to travel to Turkey in the days leading up to the final, a clear example of his standing within the squad now.
Guendouzi meanwhile hasn’t been involved since the defeat at Brighton in June, when he clashed with Neal Maupay in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat on the south coast.
It wasn’t Guendouzi’s antics at the Amex Stadium that angered Arteta, but it was his refusal to apologise and fall into line during the subsequent disciplinary meetings that were held behind closed doors at London Colney.
Guendouzi has found out the consequences of what happens if you step out on line and will now leave this summer, with Arsenal offering him out to clubs across Europe. He could have been celebrating his first major trophy on Saturday but instead had to watch from home.
It’s all part of the new standards that Pep Guardiola’s former assistant has looked to bring to the Emirates. Discipline is key to the way he works.
A wheel of fortune fine system has been introduced at the training ground. Should a player be late for a session or be spotted on his phone in the wrong place, his punishment will be decided by a spin of the wheel.
It is what Arsenal needed after the days of Emery, who had lost all respect from the majority of his squad long before head of football Raul Sanllehi finally put him out of his misery in December.
Arteta has picked up the pieces and set out a clear vision of how he expects his squad to perform - on and off the pitch.
A defence and midfield that many deemed uncoachable just a short time ago now looks like a well-drilled unit. The work done behind the scenes has been exceptional, especially when you consider the backdrop of a global pandemic, and at a time when Arteta has had to deal with difficult and potentially damaging talks over wage cuts with his players.
For a new and inexperienced coach, discussions as sensitive as those could have been tough to handle, but it was the Spaniard who broke the deadlock in the talks when he made a personal plea to his players and spelt out why the cuts being proposed by the club were so essential.
That showed he had already earned the trust of his squad and the scenes after the full-time whistle at Wembley on Saturday, when every one of his players made a beeline for him to celebrate their success, highlighted once again the impact he has had.
Players like Granit Xhaka, who was on his way out under Emery after his ugly clash with the Arsenal fans in October, has been revitalised under the Spaniard.
"I was very, very close to leaving the club,” he said. “Mikel turned me around and gave me a second chance. He showed me he trusted me and I have tried to give him everything back.
“Since Mikel came to this club a lot of things have changed. He has changed the mentality, the spirit, not only for us players, but in the group. Everyone knows exactly what their job is. We have a clear game plan. We are coming to training with happiness, we do amazing work."
There is no doubt that massive improvements still need to be made. An eighth-placed finish in the Premier League tells its own story and Saturday’s FA Cup success - as great as it was - can't paper over the cracks that have been clear for all to see in north London.
However, for the first time in a long time it feels like Arsenal are on the right path. The club has been united again by one man. “My manager”, as Aubameyang told the world on Saturday night.
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