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Guillem Balague: How Arteta has led Arsenal to brink of Champions League after six-year absence

One of the things Mikel Arteta has done while in charge of Arsenal is plant an olive tree in the grounds outside his office.

He bought it not just as a reflection of his Spanish culture but also as a metaphor for Arsenal Football Club. While the fruit and leaves are the showpiece of the tree – the top players if you like – they are no more vital to its flourishing than the branches that hold them and the roots that grow beneath it.

For Arteta, those roots are the people who help the first team flourish and embody the core values that will make the club bigger and richer – such as respect, humility, a willingness to suffer and a no-blame culture.

Without these roots, the top of the tree would wither and die.

In April, after a run of three defeats against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton, Arteta held a team meeting around that olive tree, where he talked them through this philosophy.

It might well be a coincidence but Arsenal have won four straight games since that meeting and are a win against Tottenham on Thursday away from qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2015-16.

The thinking that shapes Arteta’s vision

The injuries Arteta, now 40, suffered at the end of his playing career made him think long and hard about his profession. He would spend up to 12 hours a day attached to scanners, speaking to doctors, being treated by physios and so on.

He tried everything he could to recover – a battle he was destined to lose – and gradually he had to accept his playing time was at an end. He has never forgotten that something he loved so dearly was taken away from him, a feeling that still drives him.

His playing CV boasted 14 years in the top flight of English and Scottish football, having grown up in the Barcelona youth system and also played at Paris St-Germain, where he crossed paths with Mauricio Pochettino, then a player at the team he now manages.

His career has also been touched by managers like David Moyes at Everton and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, and he later drew on that experience to build a working relationship with Pep Guardiola, spending plenty of their time together on the Manchester City coaching staff asking questions in his quest to improve.

The experience he gained working with Guardiola was priceless, not least because it helped him to refine his thinking process and establish his own philosophy.

He has always been a student of the game and, after looking deeply into the Premier League, now understands every aspect of it, from the interaction needed with the media, referees and fans, to knowing all about other teams.

In the last year of his coaching apprenticeship at City, he knew he was ready to take on a big job.

He was interviewed by Arsenal before they appointed Unai Emery in 2018, while other clubs such as Lyon and Newcastle were also interested in signing him.

Style-wise he is similar to his mentor Guardiola, although more along the lines of Premier League Pep – circa 2020 – rather than the Barcelona or Bayern Munich Pep of 2008 or 2012.

But in terms of his leadership, he is totally different to his great friend and former colleague. We will get to that.

Having been an assistant, one of his primary aims on joining Arsenal was to make sure he had the right coaching staff around him.

Arriving with him was assistant manager Steve Round, who brought with him a wealth of experience from working at clubs including Everton, Manchester United, Derby and Aston Villa. There was also Albert Stuivenberg, the former coach at Belgium club Genk and former assistant manager of Manchester United and Wales.

He brought them in because he trusted them to ask the right questions, to have similar expectations, the same standards and integrity, and the necessary understanding of leadership, tactics and gameplans that could help Arsenal to win at this level.

They also had to ask themselves whether they had a synergy with Arteta that would help him succeed at the start of his coaching journey. The answer was positive and they all came to north London to win.

But first came the necessary step of changing the culture of a club that has not qualified for the Champions League since Wenger was in charge.

What is Arteta like to work with?

Mikel Arteta
Victory for Arsenal over Tottenham on Thursday would secure them their highest Premier League finish (at least fourth) since the 2015-16 campaign, when they finished second

Working with Arteta on a daily basis is never going to be easy because he expects from those around him the kind of energy, passion and drive he expects from himself.

Most days he arrives at the training ground at around 8am and he ensures everyone is on their toes from the very start. I have heard people compare him to their favourite schoolteacher, someone whose expectations of you can be intimidating but similarly someone who you are genuinely fond of and who you know can bring the very best out of you.

He is a non-stop, perpetually driven ball of energy – but also fundamentally a man of compassion, a caring person with a natural sense of justice and someone whose main aim is to seek happiness and harmony in the dressing room.

It means he has to build and design a group that can create that required dynamic. That meant players like Shkodran Mustafi, Mesut Ozil, Sead Kolasinac and most recently Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were never going to last too long with Arteta at the helm.

Once he makes his mind up about the way he wants to go, he is unmovable. The pressure on all fronts for him to make peace with Ozil was as pointless as it was remorseless. Once he decided the German was surplus to requirements – a football decision based on his performance and attitude – his judgement was backed by the board and the German’s stay at the club was over.

How he set about making a first impression

In his first club-wide meetings at Arsenal, Arteta spoke to the first team and all the staff about how lucky and privileged he was to have been given one of the great jobs in football at one of its top clubs in one of the greatest cities in the world.

But the fine words came with a caveat – namely that while they should all enjoy every privileged minute they had, they were all still going to have to work hard and to suffer. But they should enjoy the hard work that lay ahead.

It is said that one of Wenger’s obsessions was loyalty to all those around him, which in the end made it difficult for him to implement much-needed changes. Also everything went through him, and in a modern club that is no longer an efficient way to run things.

Arteta is much more ruthless than Wenger, especially when working out just what somebody can bring to the club. He will not hesitate to grasp the nettle when it comes to making career-defining decisions regarding players.

Wenger’s loyalty frequently clouded his judgement and the unwillingness of those close to him to change or adapt helped create the malaise that affected the club by the time of his departure.

Under Arteta there are new methods in place, creating a new energy. Emery helped by instilling a competitiveness at all levels but Arteta, considered more empathetic by the people who have known both regimes, has taken that to another level.

Gradually the message is coming across and the culture is being transformed.

The players are now finding themselves constantly challenged; competitiveness rather than a comfort blanket of mediocrity is now everywhere at the club. He has introduced maths and mind games, competitions among players and, above all, he and his staff spend much of the time noticing who leads the discussions, who is the most proactive and who consistently fails to join in. He realises the devil is always in the minor details.

It is for that reason he loves the contribution now being made by Martin Odegaard – intelligent, intuitive, empathetic, always willing to put the team first, constantly looking to improve.

Gone are the ‘sick note’ excuses that used to exist at Arsenal, with players looking for reasons not to play. That has been replaced with a desire from everyone to play every game, or at least do whatever is needed to put themselves in contention.

Arteta and his team will always look to those players who will go that extra mile not for themselves but for the team.

He also makes a point of getting close to the players and all their families. When a key member of staff was considering another job offer, Arteta made it his business to contact his wife directly and ask her what she needed to make sure both she and her husband were happy at the club.

It is that attention to detail that marks much of the difference in this new regime.

His match talks – be they pre-match, half-time or full-time – are genuinely inspirational and he always somehow seems to get the right tone with an intensity I am reliably informed brings out goose bumps on the most seasoned professionals.

He is not the quickest to admit when he has made a mistake, although he invariably knows when he has done so. He is also not averse to taking risks if he feels that is the right thing to do, even against the judgement sometimes of those close to him. That means sometimes he probably feels a bit isolated, with his mind constantly looking forward, always a step ahead.

How are things working with the board?

At the moment the relationship is very good with owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh, with whom Arteta has the most interaction. His message to them has always been that the most important thing at the club is its structure, and while he continually tries to get the best players to the club, equally important to him is striving to be – and be seen to be – the best at getting those players to climb aboard the Arsenal train.

Sometimes it means there are difficult conversations. He has had meetings with the club owners where, pen in hand, he has defined what his vision for the club is in the short, medium and long term. Things like this would suggest he already carries the club on his shoulders.

His relationship with technical director Edu is so close that many assume they have known each other for years. The reality is the two men’s paths never crossed in their Arsenal playing days and they only met for the first time shortly before the interview stage for the manager’s job – although the bond is now so strong that they are helping each other to create that competitive culture.

The first time they ever spoke was on the phone and they spent the first hour talking about everything other than football. The connection that existed between the two was palpable from the outset and has gone from strength to strength in some darkish moments.

When Edu arrived at the club, there were things that were missing – it certainly wasn’t the club he had left as a player in 2005 – so he needed little persuading in trying to create the new culture Arteta was looking for. He saw in Arteta a well-prepared coach with the style and clear ideology to take the club forward and a man who wanted the same as he did for the club.

Edu also knew it would take a while to put in place that style and structure, and Arteta knows it is still a work in progress and that he has to build it day in, day out. The Spaniard is not averse to taking advice from those in power at the club and even from those around him but he is fundamentally his own man, one who knows his own mind and is definitely not for turning. He is well aware the buck stops with him.

How involved is he on the coaching side?

Mikel Arteta celebrates at the end of a match
A win over Tottenham on Thursday would make this the first season since 2015-16 that Arsenal have finished above their north London rivals

Arteta can be found on the training pitch every day but he also delegates to his extensive coaching staff when work is needed in specific areas.

He will also get involved even if, for whatever reason, there are only a few of the senior players present, because he believes it is his duty to be seen to be doing his work.

Like so many of those in his pressured profession, he does not deal particularly well with defeat and will spend hours looking at the mistakes his team have made – but also ones he might have made himself.

The woeful performance that led to a 3-0 loss at Crystal Palace at the start of April came out of the blue and was then compounded by an arguably worse one in their home defeat by Brighton.

To say it shocked Arteta would be an understatement, although he dealt with it by telling his players he was going to go home and take a long hard look at himself and then try to work out what the mistakes were. He told them it would make him suffer and that if he was prepared to do that then he expected his players to be big enough to do the same thing.

He realises he can only pick 11 starters and use three substitutes per game and, to that end, he goes out of his way to connect with those players who do not make the cut for the big games, emphasising to them that it is not personal and stressing just how important and integral a part they are of the whole project.

At the start of the season when things were not looking rosy and they lost their first three games, he never lost the dressing room and not a single player or member of his coaching team said a bad word about him. That is certainly something that was not always true during the reigns of Wenger or Emery.

How is he away from the pitch and the training ground?

Arteta is not renowned for being a joker and his way of thanking people and getting closer to them is to spend time with them. He is not totally divorced from the British sense of humour but prefers to build relationships via events like barbecues and other informal gatherings.

He frequently invites his friends and colleagues to his house to break bread and display his culinary skills.

Many clubs take their teams to places like Dubai during international breaks but not all of them do as Arsenal did recently and take all the families with them. It was a chance for the manager to show his more relaxed side, surrounded by his nearest and dearest.

If there is a bereavement at the club he will always send flowers. He always celebrates Christmas, which includes a huge Iberico ham from his Spanish home of San Sebastian, of which he is so proud.

And what happens when he needs help?

His family is his rock, especially his best friend and wife, Lorena Bernal, who has temporarily parked her career as a model and actress to help her husband settle in his new professional role.

He is also a frequent visitor to the home of Edu. The Brazilian has become someone he can turn to during the most difficult and trying times, as at the beginning of the season or during their bad run in early April, someone who will pat him on the back, tell him to relax and reassure him that things are going in the right direction.

Fundamentally everyone at the club, including Edu, recognises how good a coach he is and how potentially great he could become. He obviously can’t do it on his own and they are clearly not yet where they want to be.

He realises his own limitations and knows perhaps he needs to address such things as his behaviour on the touchline, or an excess of meetings and the length of them – but much of it is caused by the fact he is so intense, so involved. With time a more balanced approach will appear.

With a top-four finish still not assured, the Arsenal board have shown their faith in him with a contract extension that could see him at the club until at least the end of the 2024-25 season.

But before then there is much work to be done, which will probably include three or four squad changes before he genuinely feels he has under his control a dressing room he can call his own.

The fear of course is that the intensity that is his calling card will lead to eventual burnout. But we are a million miles away from that and for the time being he has the passion, energy and dedication to ensure he takes this Arsenal side back to where their supporters feel they belong.

Guillem Balague writes a regular column throughout the season and also appears every Thursday on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily podcast, when the focus is on European football.

You can download the latest Football Daily podcast here.

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