Mikel Arteta has had time to sleep on Arsenal’s performance against Olympiakos – albeit not much time, given he is back at London Colney for a 9am start – but his assessment the following morning is no less scathing than the one he gave after the game.
“Not acceptable,” he tells Sky Sports with a shake of the head. “Our demands internally and individually have to be much higher than that. We cannot just accept losing a game. We are qualified, we are happy. But we know if we continue to do that we will be in trouble.”
As ever with Arteta, the message is clear. His Arsenal side have developed a habit of making life difficult for themselves. Their last four games, starting with the 1-1 draw against Burnley and including Sunday’s 2-1 win over Tottenham, are proof of that.
But there is no doubting Arteta’s determination to rectify the issues and there seems little danger of his standards slipping.
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Just ask Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, dropped against Spurs after reporting late on the morning of the game. Or any of the players pushed towards the exit since his appointment.
“When you have clear ideas and principles, it’s about applying them,” explains Arteta. “There’s no point just telling people what we expect from them, then not making the decisions when those things are not accomplished.”
The Spaniard is trying to build something at Arsenal, and while he is under no illusions about the areas in need of further attention – of which there are plenty – it is worth listening when he says, as he did last week, that his project is primed to explode into life.
“There are still margins for improvement,” he said. “Sometimes it’s been the game management. Sometimes it’s been the poor decision-making. Sometimes it’s been a lack of discipline. Those are the things we have to eradicate if we want to fight with the top teams.
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“But I’m seeing the direction that we’re taking. I’m seeing the energy that we play with, that we train with. I’m seeing the environment that we are creating around Colney and how involved everyone is, including the staff, the board, everybody.
“That gives me a positive feeling, that if we make some good, positive decisions, we will be really strong.”
For now, Arsenal remain 10th in the Premier League, a long way from where Arteta wants them to be. But performances have improved markedly in recent months. The Boxing Day win over Chelsea was the catalyst and the table since Christmas has them in fourth.
The frustration, of course, is that they would be higher if not for those familiar acts of self-sabotage but the underlying numbers suggest better results will come. Opta’s expected goals model shows Arsenal have become more dangerous at the top end of the pitch and more resilient at the other.
“I think the ratio of what we are creating and conceding is really, really positive,” Arteta said. “When we look at all the stats in the games, the winning probability is really high all the time.”
Even, he points out, during Thursday night’s defeat to Olympiakos.
“Again, I insist that in possession we weren’t at our best, but we still created more than enough chances to win the game,” he added. “It was probably not a fair result for what we did on the pitch.”
The challenge is to increase efficiency in front of goal – “the solutions have to be found from the players we have,” Arteta says – and cut out the errors when playing out from the back. He can only do so much from the dugout but insists both areas are his responsibility.
“I think it’s always my responsibility when it’s related to things that happen on the pitch,” he said. “We have some rules and some principles we have to apply. The worst thing is to send someone out to do certain things and them be scared to do them.
“That’s when we have to stay strong. It’s about risk and reward. Where you do it and when you do it. You have to get that feeling right and that’s obviously a decision for the players to make on the pitch.”
“It’s true that sometimes, when conceding very little [in terms of chances], we have conceded a goal,” Arteta adds, using the recent meetings with Wolves and Burnley as examples.
“We need more clean sheets and we have talked about that. We haven’t had enough, even though the defensive performances have been really, really strong.”
Arteta will hope to see progress in that department against West Ham on Sunday but his Arsenal side is already a lot closer to what he wants than it was in the first half of the season.
He puts the improvement, in large part, down to the comings and goings of the January transfer window, when Arsenal trimmed their squad of Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi and others while also recruiting Martin Odegaard and goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
Arteta felt the upheaval was necessary.
“I think what we did in January is unprecedented,” he says. “If you look at the amount of changes that we’ve made in 12 months, it’s incredible.
“That has consequences as well because you need some stability. You have to get to a point where you can do two or three things [in a window] and it’s done.
“But we had to establish ourselves as a squad as well as a team. We are no longer 32 players, which was impossible to manage. We’ve got some players who have given us a real boost. I’m talking about the young players but also senior players who started to raise their level.
“We changed our formation, which helped us as well, and we started to find more chemistry around the players and more fluidity. We were much more of a goal threat, and we got more confidence when we started to get results, which in football is one of the main parts.”
The mood around the club is now transformed from the first half of the season, when a run of one win from 10 Premier League games between October and December put Arsenal on the brink of crisis.
But as challenging as that period was for everyone at the club, not least the rookie manager at the middle of it all, Arteta believes it also taught him valuable lessons about his players.
“I think it was necessary,” he says. “Sometimes you have to reach those levels to have a better picture of why you are there, but also to see who is going to react when those difficult moments come, because you are going to have difficult moments in a season.
“You want to see who stands in front of people and says, ‘I’m ready to push’, and who just holds the boat.
“Then you can make some decisions.
“I’m really proud the way we managed that situation because there were a lot of things going on – and not just on the pitch.
“To manage that, in this environment, when we can’t really spend a lot of time together as well because of the Covid situation, I think we did it well. I’m thankful to everyone that was there because they really pushed to be where we are now.”
Arsenal’s squad is tighter as a result, and Arteta believes the improved chemistry is helping them on the pitch.
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“Every day, you see their faces when they walk to the training ground, always paying attention, and then how they connect with each other and how they talk to the staff,” he says.
“When they are doing any activity, where is the energy there? What is the focus when they are training? How much attention are they paying to what we are demanding to do? How do they interact with each other when things aren’t going that well?
“And, for me, the most important thing in the end is when they talk about the club, about how they are feeling here, how is their body language? What are the words that they use to describe how they are? When that’s positive, I think you are in the right direction.”
That is not to say Arteta isn’t keeping them on their toes.
Aubameyang’s absence against Spurs was a reminder that the manager’s stance on his “non-negotiables” is unchanged.
“It’s our platform, it’s the way we live together, and if there is not respect, if there is not trust, if there are not values that we represent every day, nothing is going to happen to achieve what we want to do,” Arteta added.
“We have to be so stable. We have to be so specific, so detailed and so good to challenge the top teams in this country and in Europe, that if you don’t have that discipline and that togetherness, you’re not going to achieve it, I’m 100 per cent sure, because quality-wise we are still not there.”
Arsenal hope to add more quality this summer. Arteta says he is already in “constant communication” with technical director Edu about potential targets and areas in which they can strengthen.
“We are planning everything for the summer, the same with the board, with [chief executive] Vinai [Venkatesham], with [non-executive director] Tim [Lewis], and with the owners,” he says.
“We are very clear on how we want to do it.
“When you have to change 10 or 12 things in one window [as in January] it’s a lot, and that has some consequences with what has happened in previous months and what is going to happen in the following months.
“We still have to do quite a lot of things to do, but we will get to the point, hopefully, where it’s just ticking off a few things and the stability is there, because you need that as well to be consistent and be competitive.”
One important consideration for Arteta when it comes to this summer’s recruitment is ensuring pathways are not blocked for the club’s young players.
Academy graduates Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have become key figures for Arsenal in recent months while Gabriel Martinelli’s late cameo against Olympiakos, following a period out of the side, was a reminder of his considerable talent.
For Arteta, it is a question of striking the right balance between patience and opportunity.
“It’s about doing things in the right moments, when they can shine, when they protected and when they have the right players around them as well,” he says.
“It’s not about playing all the young players in every game, but we are putting a plan together, so they have space around the squad, space in the team, and we have the right flow between the players so they can become really important at the club. That path is being created.”
It is just another reason for optimism about what Arteta is doing at Arsenal. The Premier League table does not yet reflect their progress and results like Thursday’s are a reminder of the work ahead. But the future looks brighter with him at the helm – even if there are a few more of those scathing assessments still to come.
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