Arteta guides Arsenal beyond summer of panic
"As the Cowardly Lion said to the Wizard of Oz, 'shucks folks, I’m speechless.'" Legendary soccer journalist – and raconteur par excellence - Brian Glanville was uncharacteristically concise after Arsenal staff presented him with a commemorative shirt for his 80th birthday, before Arsenal’s Champions League match with Olympiakos.
If the timeless Glanville is a welcome pillar of constancy in a game whose face sometimes seems to change with almost schizophrenic abandon, these have been turbulent times in the corridors of his favorite football club. Those fans that wrung their hands at the increasingly familiar failures of Arsenal to close out major competitions would probably now give anything for the return of those days of nearly, but not quite. With the departure of the talismanic Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, a portion of the “personality” - as Eurosport writer Tom Adams puts it - of Arsene Wenger’s team drained as well.
As the trophies have dried up in this corner of north London in recent years, it has been in the Champions League that Arsenal has retained the fullest manifestation of that personality, showing the best side of the zealous commitment to a certain purity of style, despite eventually being bested by Pep Guardiola’s incomparable Barcelona in the past two campaigns.
This year, things are different. All too often it is Arsenal that has appeared speechless on the pitch in this new season, with latent talent but without the direction that separates the also-rans from the elite. This was again evident in this first Champions League group stage home game, with the Gunners flying out of the traps thanks to 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s superb early goal and Andre Santos’ second, but becoming lost thereafter, the team stuck in the quagmire of its own nerves and indecision.
Visiting coach Ernesto Valverde stopped to reflect with waiting journalists as he walked towards the Olympiakos team coach post-match, wearing the rueful grin of a man who had seen his winning lottery ticket swept away by a sudden breeze. If this was the Greek champion’s tenth defeat in ten European matches in England, there was a strong sense that a genuine opportunity to end that sorry sequence had been missed. As befits a club that has garnered its domestic championship in 13 of the last 15 seasons, Olympiakos played with a laudable swagger, and had came close to snatching a point when skipper Vasilis Torosidis smashed a dipping second-half effort against Wojciech Szczesny’s crossbar from distance.
It was a different sort of wind that saw the good ship Arsenal home this Wednesday night. Wenger’s much-lampooned, and untypical, last-minute transfer window scramble had received fragments of welcome justification early on in this tie via the decisive contributions of Oxlade-Chamberlain and the Brazilian Santos, but the real hope for a more positive future was elsewhere.
Valverde’s fellow Spaniard, Mikel Arteta, took the occasion of his Champions League home debut with both hands just as Oxlade-Chamberlain did, albeit with considerably less fanfare that a man 11 years his junior. That has been Arteta’s lot since the news of his arrival in London broke to the world. The 29-year-old Basque would have been lauded as a marquee arrival even 12 months back, but Arsenal’s highest caliber summer signing has been, conversely, the one that has caused the most concern.
Schooled in the celebrated climes of Barcelona B after leaving his native San Sebastian at 15, Arteta has seemed the perfect fit for Arsenal for some time. They may be very different players but the parallels between him and Fabregas are undeniable; bred in Spain to subsequently flourish in Britain, as Arteta did firstly with Rangers, and then in a glorious six-and-a-half-year spell with Everton, which took in over 200 matches.
Arsenal’s ranks have rarely been lacking in technical ability in recent years, but a bit of extra Premier League know-how wouldn’t have gone amiss. Arteta was a candidate to provide it to the same extent as, say, Bolton’s Gary Cahill. Such has been the Spaniard’s assimilation in British soccer culture and society that a call-up for the England national side was briefly mooted last year, even if the idea was stymied by an agreement between the home nations on the definition of what constitutes an eligible UK national. Regardless of this issue, Arteta’s classical yet confident expression in the Premier League brings to mind Rakim’s contention that “it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”
Yet the question of fitness lingered over Arteta’s move south. After suffering an awful knee in Everton’s February 2009 match at Newcastle, he had missed close to 12 months of action, and mutterings that the midfielder has never quite been the same since bubbled to the surface as his potential switch edged towards completion. The apparent desperation of Arsenal’s last-minute dealings – including the apparent lack of a medical for another arrival, Yossi Benayoun – suggested any such misgivings had been glossed over in search of a placebo to the club’s early season woes.
Arteta’s assured display against the Greeks suggested that he could become the midfield lynchpin that Arsenal has been searching for. In a game where his side was consistently stretched, he was an oasis of composure, making time to dictate, organize and distribute effectively. With the jitteriness of his team transposed to a restless Emirates Stadium crowd, Arteta remained stoic beside the inexperienced Emmanuel Frimpong and the diminished Tomas Rosicky. Whereas he made his name in England as the architect of Everton’s attacking play – a side to his game he has already displayed for Arsenal - Arteta’s authority deep in midfield more recalled the understated majesty of Guardiola the player, who he admired as a boy. He even popped up on his own goalline to make a crucial clearance from Rafik Djebbour, with the score still at 1-0.
Just as the superb, but sadly short-lived, central midfield partnership of Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini proved in 2007-08, soccer is a game of evolution, and direct replacement is not always the way to go. Fabregas and Flamini was an entirely different fulcrum to the celebrated one provided by Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit during the advent of Wenger’s arrival in England, favoring mobility above strength, but nonetheless highly effective.
With loss and rebuilding comes the chance of renewal and regeneration, and shoots are gingerly sprouting. Arsenal’s fans have already experienced pain and fear, and may experience more yet, but Arteta is the man to be the team’s guiding light in Europe and beyond, and make sure Arsenal is not without a voice for too long.