Gary Neville reckons Mikel Arteta should walk away from Arsenal if they qualify for the Champions League – and that really is a nonsense.
Ten teams were ahead of Arsenal in the Premier League on the morning of Mikel Arteta’s opening game in charge; seven sides finished higher than the Gunners at the end of his first full season; four clubs currently rank above them with ten fixtures to play of his second.
It has certainly not always felt as such but progress is both tangible and intangible at the Emirates Stadium. Arteta inherited a squad placed below Sheffield United, Wolves, Newcastle and Burnley and has them in control of their own Champions League qualification fate. The gap to runaway leaders Liverpool on Boxing Day 2019 was 26 points. By the end of that campaign it was 33. Arsenal finished 25 points off the champion pace of Manchester City in 2020/21. They are 19 points behind Pep Guardiola’s side heading into the final stretch of the season, with two games in hand. The deficit to a supposedly untouchable elite has been almost halved through no little time, patience, vision and investment.
That only highlights how peculiar the recent discourse surrounding Arteta has been. His Emirates antecedent Arsene Wenger was famously mocked for claiming “the first trophy is to finish in the top four”, but at least it was never suggested the Frenchman should leave as soon as he achieved it.
Whether it is Stan Collymore pretending Arsenal could push Arteta, or Gary Neville believing he should jump first, rarely has the potential exceeding of pre-season expectations been so thoroughly and bizarrely undermined.
Neville at least left the crust on his sh*t sandwich. “I really like Mikel Arteta, I think he’s a brilliant coach,” the pundit said this week. “I think the team is fantastic in terms of the young players they’ve got. But he gets to fourth [and] if he was really hard about it, he’d probably say ‘right, that’s the best I can do there, I’m going now and getting my next job’.”
Arteta has previously quipped that he could “write a book” based on his first months in management since being appointed in north London; stepping down after securing Champions League qualification in May would be akin to randomly leaving half the pages blank. The idea that he would willingly walk away after completely overhauling a broken squad, implementing a coherent strategy, helping restructure the very foundations of the club’s strategic composition and realigning a disillusioned support with its team, all while successfully navigating a global pandemic and controversial pay cut with no prior managerial experience, is curious.
So, too, is the claim that fourth is “in some ways as good as it gets” for Arsenal. Arteta, the youngest top-flight manager by more than two years, has named the 18 youngest starting line-ups in the Premier League this season. Their two top scorers are 20 and 21-year-old academy graduates and the oldest player they signed last summer – during a window Neville described at the time as “a little bit all over the place” and “not very clear” – was 24-year-old Benjamin White.
This is not close to “a team that he’s getting the maximum out of”; it does not require the most optimistic of imaginations to foresee them improving, not least with the added market pull of Champions League legitimisation if Tottenham, West Ham and Manchester United can be held off over the next 10 games.
With Chelsea’s future rarely quite as uncertain and both Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola far from guaranteed to stay beyond the expiration of their respective contracts in 2024, the top three is hardly locked in for decades to come. Football dominance is cyclical and it can be difficult to predict whose turn it is next. Few would have backed Liverpool to become a commanding force in European football even five years ago and Arsenal are approaching a similar crossroads as the Reds encountered then. Who knows which turn they will take?
But even if fourth does eventually turn out to be the limit of what Arsenal and Arteta can achieve together, it takes a particularly unambitious curmudgeon to think their journey is coming to an end, that they should part because the glass ceiling to the top two and three takes a little extra force to break than previous barriers they would have already overcome. Nothing in Arteta’s career to this point suggests he considers himself some sort of champagne Sam Allardyce, parachuted in to drag teams from mid-table to fourth before leaving triumphantly. The evidence instead points to him being Arsenal’s man for the past, present and future.
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