Layth's Take: Arteta's Arsenal promises revolutionary new era
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 01: Mikel Arteta, Manager of Arsenal gives his team instructions during the Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Manchester United at Emirates Stadium on January 01, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

The greeting was cordial and the handshake firm as the new Arsenal head coach fixed you in the eye.

Mikel Arteta nodded imperceptibly, perhaps out of politeness or even a glimmer of recognition from a previous meeting, yet he had no intention of lingering, or making small talk - for he was a man with a revolution to launch at the start of a new decade.

The former Gunners midfielder was about to give his first press conference at the club’s training ground and beating heart, London Colney, after leaving his mentor Pep Guardiola at Manchester City for the challenge of restoring Arsenal’s fortunes at the top table of English football.

If Arteta had nerves he certainly did not reveal them, nor did he falter when he spoke, unlike his predecessor, Unai Emery, whose spluttering reign already seems like an underwhelming prologue to a far more rewarding era.

All or nothing

For a club of Arsenal’s size, the final few years of the long-serving patrician monarch Arsene Wenger were pockmarked with discord and rancour off the pitch allied with underachievement and frustration on the field of play.

It was not a good combination. When Guardiola, and Arteta, combined to see their effervescent City side dismantle Arsenal twice in four days during the Beast from the East in the freezing winter of 2018 - including lifting the League Cup by emphatically eclipsing a disjointed Gunners side 3-0 in the showpiece final at Wembley - the then chief executive Ivan Gazidis, along with the club’s absentee owner ‘Silent’ Stan Kroenke, decided to act by forcing Wenger out.

It was instructive to watch the documentary All or Nothing which captured City’s season on film to see what Guardiola thought of Wenger’s brittle, underperforming Arsenal.

Arteta was filmed in a restaurant with his boss, the enigmatic but steely-eyed Guardiola. The pair, along with the rest of the Basque’s inner circle, were watching Arsenal play Chelsea in the League Cup semi-final a month before the final. The Gunners crucial second leg tie was being played at the Emirates and saw the home side win through.

Immediately when the final whistle was blown in N5, 200 miles north the plotting to undermine Arsenal had begun.

In a fascinating insight into how important Arteta was to Guardiola the manager shouted across the restaurant table to his highly-rated 37-year-old aide and confidant: "I want you to write a report on Arsenal for me."

Arteta duly penned the detailed document and the fading Gunners were promptly humiliated at Wembley.

Yet there was more than a hint of superiority and belief that City would prevail - located in the tone of voice that Guardiola used when he issued his demands to the impressive Arteta for a deadly dossier – and both men knew it, no matter how hard they tried to hide it with banal platitudes to the camera.

Arteta's upward trajectory

The powers-that-be at Arsenal duly took note.

And when Wenger rode off into the sunset they pondered on Arteta as the man to take over the reins of this great club, led for so long by the Frenchman.

How close they came to appointing Arteta in May 2018 will never be known. Suffice to say I was messaged by a trusted source deep inside the club at the time to say Arteta was a ‘nearly a done deal’. Yet having seen previous favourite Max Allegri fall by the wayside I was reluctant to go public on such a specious claim.

It was just as well because the dignified, if ultimately doomed, Emery was anointed by now-departed kingmaker Gazidis instead – even if Kroenke’s son Josh and future heir was hugely impressed by Arteta and promised to closely monitor his upward trajectory at City.

Fast forward 18 months with Arsenal struggling for form and fitness, points and passion, hard work and harmony. Emery was gone, a dignified man forever to be depicted as the wrong man for the wrong club at the wrong time.

A rise in Sterling

Arteta meanwhile continued to be a vital component in the City staff which helped the players storm to the Premier League title in 2019, boosted by the superlative form of Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year, Raheem Sterling.    

Another fascinating vignette in that City documentary of the previous season was when Sterling missed a chance in a fraught match at Selhurst Park.

Guardiola and Arteta were pictured in private deep discussion afterwards. The passionate Pep is recounting what Sterling told him after he fluffed the sitter in question. "You know what he told me when I asked Raheem why he missed?" the City boss tells Arteta.

“He told me: ‘It was because I didn’t do what Mikel told me.’”

No wonder Sterling – and Guardiola – attribute plenty of Sterling’s rise to Arteta’s influence.

The start of an era at the end of a disappointing decade

Woe betide the Arsenal players under Arteta’s command failing to buy into his pressing ethos and ‘five-second recovery rule’ he has taken with him from the Etihad to the Emirates.

I sat in the media room at Colney a few seats away from Arteta only a matter of days before Christmas.

It might have been the end of the decade but it was the start of an era as the 37-year-old Arsenal boss spoke as eloquently as Wenger, with the passion of Guardiola and the articulacy and eloquence in English so lacking from Emery.

He talked of values, of pride, of a clarity of vision in a performance as mesmerising as it was exciting to fans of the north London side – for too long faced with mediocrity and melodrama over the past decade.

“The priority is what we are going to transmit to the team is a reflection of the demands we are going to put on them every day in training,” Arteta said, with that steely look in his eye.

“I want commitment, accountability, aggression and passion to play this sport and to represent this football club.

“This is the basic I am going to demand from them, and from there we can start to build things an improve things.”

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Arteta's army launches its revolution

Judging by the herculean effort his side put in against Manchester United on New Year’s Day, the process has begun in earnest as Arteta’s Army launches his revolution.  

Goals from the previously misfiring Nicolas Pepe and Sokratis sealed the win, their first at the Emirates in the league since early October. The team ended a run of four home defeats in a row to ease back into the top half of the table, only nine points off the promised land of the top four.

His side were organised, tenacious and together. In a matter of days the values, principles, ethos and tactics he so impressively talked about at Colney were already showing in a previously underperforming side.

He also displayed effective leadership by instilling a new motivation in Arsenal players including Pepe, Mesut Ozil, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka.

Arteta’s recalibrated Arsenal looked well-balanced with a renewed focus and intensity.

He rejuvenated Torreira simply by playing him in his preferred position of defensive midfield, prompting you to wonder just what Emery was thinking of when he thought the Uruguayan could possibly be an attacking midfielder.

By restoring a previously recalcitrant Xhaka to the fold he showed decisiveness, empathy and sensitivity somewhat lacking in Emery. Arteta has amazed some by also extracting maximum effort from Ozil.

Emirates New Year joy

What joy it was to be at the Emirates against United and watch Ozil track back, fuelled by an adherence to Arteta’s five second rule where players must attempt to win the ball back in that time – regardless of how cossetted they were previously.

Of course there is a long way to go in restoring Arsenal’s fortunes but Arteta’s revolution will see a far higher tempo allied with increased stamina and fitness levels while offering the type of channelled aggression which so overwhelmed a shellshocked United side on the first day of the decade.

And Arsenal supporters will savour every minute of it if he continues on his desired path to revive this great club.

No wonder Arteta was in such a rush on his first day at Colney with no intention of lingering or making small talk - for he was a man with a revolution to launch at the start of a new decade.