Mikel Arteta says his best achievement of a difficult season has been maintaining unity within the Arsenal camp despite the efforts of others, both inside and outside the club, to ‘hurt’ his project.
Hopes were high coming into the campaign that the Gunners would be able to build on August’s FA Cup success and mount a serious challenge for the top four.
By Christmas, those hopes were in tatters and there were question marks over Arteta’s ability to do the job which was exacerbated by a series of leaks from the training ground.
After promising to weed out the offenders, the boss believes those responsible are now out of the club. Incidentally (or not), while our form has still been pretty patchy in the second half of the season, only champions Manchester City and second-place Manchester United have claimed more points since the 3-1 Boxing Day win over Chelsea.
Ahead of Sunday’s final game of the season, Arteta reflected on a roller coaster ride.
“The best thing [this season] has been to keep the team, the staff, the employees and everybody together in those circumstances when you’re not winning and there is so many people, some inside, some outside, that are trying to hurt,” he said.
“To keep them together, to block that and to be so strong, I think that’s some achievement. Normally when that happens, things crack and everything falls. And it didn’t.”
Asked if those trying to ‘hurt’ the unity were still at the club, he replied with an emphatic, “No.” Given the established names that were shuffled out of the door in January, it’s not hard to guess who he might be referring to.
The club’s upturn in results has no doubt coincided with the departures of a number of senior members of the squad in January, the likes of Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis and Sead Kolasinac (loan) all being shown the door as part of the Spaniard’s ruthless rebuild.
Although it is unclear if these experienced figures were the damaging presence inside the club, there’s no denying that putting an end to the long-running saga involving Ozil, in particular, has helped remove potential unwanted distractions at the club.
After admitting the other day that he had “100 per cent” made mistakes this season, he was quizzed on what he’s learned from his first full season as a manager.
“That there are a lot of things that you cannot control,” he said.
“That, I am extremely proud to work with the people I have next to me. That this club is even bigger than I thought. And better than I thought.
“And that I am prepared to do anything that it takes to give the club the most success, joy and a feeling of pertinence and a feeling of being proud of what we’re trying to do. I won’t stop until I do that.”
Asked if the last 12 months have changed him – specifically if he’s become grumpier – he added: “I’ve always been and am very competitive. I just try to be facing the challenges as they come, you know, not hiding from it.
“I know how big the task is, I know how big and how good the level is in this league and what the expectations are with us. We have to manage that and managing it is the hardest thing. As well, it shows you that with the right determination, the right decisions, the potential that we have is huge.
“Then, the biggest question mark is the timeframe; how long does it take you to get what you want to do?”
For many Arsenal fans, the time it’s taking to undo the mistakes of the past, coupled with perceptions that some lessons haven’t been learned, means Arteta, for them, is skating on thin ice. He recognises that supporters are right to demand the best and insists his focus is on delivering the goods.
“Externally, I think every supporter should be hoping for us to be lifting trophies and when that’s not the case, because it’s the dream, they are not going to be happy and they will be disappointed,” he said.
“But I think they know what has been going on and it’s not today, it’s not yesterday or from last year. We know where we are. We know where we were. But that’s the past. Where we can be, that’s the future. And I will be focusing on that.”