The Mikel Arteta era at Arsenal is up and running following the 2-0 victory over Manchester United on New Year’s Day – and just three games in, there is already evidence of the Spaniard’s impact in north London.
Arteta is in his first managerial position but the former Manchester City coach has wasted little time in making his mark on this Arsenal team.
“We are asking the players to do something different, to play at a different pace, much more aggressive than they’ve been used to,” Arteta wrote in his programme notes ahead of the win over United – and the increased intensity is plain to see in this Arsenal team.
Transformed from the drifting, directionless side they’ve been for much of this season, Arsenal now press high in packs, rush back to help team-mates overload attackers and play with pace and precision in the opposition half when they have the ball.
They covered 114.2km against United, their highest figure in the Premier League this season.
Under Unai Emery Arsenal had averaged 107.1km per game and 108km during Freddie Ljungberg’s interim spell.
Their average tally of 94 sprints per game was crushed with 116 on Wednesday, the joint-most they’ve made this term.
The recent results of all that hard work have been two superb first-half performances against Chelsea and United.
Fitness is an issue – as David Luiz revealingly noted in his post-match interview – and Arsenal have been pinned back in the latter stages of those last two fixtures.
But Arteta is adamant with more time on the training ground he will get the players up to the levels required to sustain the high-energy, intense football he’s demanding.
“It will come,” he said. “It is part of the process and the way we train – but at the moment we don’t have much time to do so.”
So how do you convince a disillusioned team to suddenly shift through the gears for you?
It takes persuasion – and instilling a belief in the squad that Arteta’s way is the path to success is the Spaniard’s real success in his early days.
A manager with no track record to date has this Arsenal squad all on board with his methods.
“I said to them, ‘without you guys I won’t be able to do it. You have to open that door and believe that I can bring something different to the club’,” Arteta said of his initial talk to his players.
A first clean sheet at home in three months – especially one achieved with a backs-to-the-wall effort in the second half against United – underlines the renewed spirit in this Arsenal camp.
So, too, does the sight of Mesut Ozil winning the ball back on 11 occasions, more than any of his team-mates.
He had only made that many recoveries two times in the past five Premier League seasons.
“I really liked the resilience and I liked to see them suffer together,” said Arteta. “When they had to defend deeper I wanted to see that reaction.
“Instead of getting annoyed with each other when someone was giving the ball away it was all positive reactions and everyone was tracking back.”
The confidence-boost of beating a side in the top half of the Premier League for the first time this season will be valuable to this Arsenal team but so will the re-found connection with their supporters.
Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta says he enjoyed his side having to defend deep in the second half against Manchester United.
Arteta has spoken to his players about the importance of their body language and how that affects the home fans at the Emirates and the crowd responded emphatically to the efforts of their players on Wednesday.
“When they are right behind them you can tell that the confidence, the things they tried and the energy they had towards the game was much better,” said Arteta.
Ozil and Granit Xhaka were two players who summed up the breakdown in relations between those on the pitch and those in the stands during the dreadful final days of Emery.
Both were dropped completely out of contention under the former manager and both seemed on their way out of the club. But now they appear reinvigorated and central to Arteta’s plans.
Arteta has spoken of his admiration for the qualities of Xhaka and he revealed on Wednesday the midfielder has told him he intends to make a u-turn on what seemed to be an inevitable departure and stay to fight for the cause.
David Luiz, another player exiled by Emery, is back in the XI, too, with defensive midfielders Xhaka and Torreira – whose position and role in the side was routinely changed by Emery – screening the centre-backs and giving Arsenal more solidity as part of a compact defensive unit.
At the other end of the pitch, Arteta fielded a front four of Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang against Manchester United – the very first time those four players had played together.
It’s an exciting combination with the players marrying their creative and attacking flair with a real work ethic out of possession.
With record signing Pepe scoring, hitting a post and creating the joint-most number of chances he’s made in a match in just 62 minutes it could be the way to get the most out of Arsenal’s expensive summer investment, too.
It’s early days but there is real optimism at Arsenal right now. Arteta looks to have this team heading in the right direction once again.