It is instructive how many managers first zone in on the psychology of a club from the inside as well as from the outside. When Mikel Arteta was appointed at Arsenal, his introductory act was to gather the staff and squad together, pinpointing all the elements he had noted from a distance that was off about their environment and attitude.
Before Arteta could share any of his tactical principles, he needed to create a platform for his approach to thrive by changing the culture, belief and the feeling around the club.
“It has to be an environment that first of all everybody has to respect each other, that we have to work together and we have to express the passion and how we lucky we are to be where we are,” the 38-year-old explained.
“That’s the first one to start with. We can have weaknesses that we have to hide but we cannot have weaknesses within our structure of our club.
“Then we have to maximise our strengths, that we have a lot of, and at that moment I didn’t believe that we were doing that. We have huge potential, we have no limits, it depends on us not the opponent or other clubs. It depends on our stats and that was something that needed to change, so that’s what I was encouraging all the time, to do that.”
When Jurgen Klopp was asked for his evaluation of Arteta’s Arsenal, he underlined the difference in mood before anything else.
The German is all too aware of the importance of a psychological and cultural reset, having overseen one at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, but most especially at Liverpool.
The 25 years without a league title when Klopp arrived on Merseyside hung heavy, restricting the confidence and enjoyment of the players, staff and supporters. He labelled removing that “20kg backpack” as the “biggest job to do” at Liverpool.
The circumstances and situations of two clubs are never comparable, but Klopp clearly appreciates Arteta’s early rebuilding job at Arsenal given his intimate knowledge of how difficult it is to comprehensively shake a club out of bad habits, thoughts and processes.
It is why he labelled him an “exceptional football manager” with the evidence after a “very short period of time.”
Beyond a cultural reset, a clarity of vision that has got the likes of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to commit their futures to the Emirates and streamlining the structure behind the scenes at Arsenal, Arteta has minimised the club’s greatest on-pitch weakness: their organisation without the ball.
According to Klopp, it is now a strength. When he was asked how the Gunners hurt teams under the 38-year-old, the German didn’t hesitate to offer: “it’s the defensive structure, 100 per cent. They defend properly. All the players are involved in their defending, they defend probably in a 5-4-1, which when you have quality players in the team is, for the other team, a pretty tricky situation.
“Then with the speed they have for the counter-attack, that can cause you some trouble. That’s the situation, it’s pretty simple.”
Arteta’s improvement of how Arsenal manage without possession is evidenced in the results against big six rivals and particularly in meetings against Liverpool.
In the 44 matches across all competitions in which the Gunners had lined up against their top-table foes prior to his arrival, there were 21 defeats and just eight victories.
That was instantly remedied with four wins registered in Arteta’s 10 clashes against fellow big six teams – three of those triumphs and a draw have come in the last four to point to progress.
Their performances en route to winning the FA Cup – a cocktail of defensive resilience, more focused pressing, confidence in building from the back, forcing errors and punishing them – speaks to this.
They have not been a familiar light touch, easy to brush aside and blitz.
Klopp’s Liverpool were serious tormentors of pre-Arteta Arsenal at Anfield, bulldozing 18 goals past them in the last five league games.
However, in the two fixtures against the champions since the Basque took charge, they have produced a 2-1 top-flight win at the Emirates and lifted the Community Shield via a shootout after an encouraging performance.
In the former, Klopp admitted Liverpool “helped them slightly because that night we presented the goals on a plate, we made presents. I think that was one of the few games where in moments we dropped concentration; it was late last season and Arsenal were really waiting for these kind of things.”
It is clear that Arteta’s side will again seek to force errors and profit from them. “They are able to constrain the opponent to do very little against them and they can dominate long periods of games,” the Arsenal boss explained.
“You have to be able, when you have the right opportunities and the right moments, to be ruthless – you have to do that. As well, you have to suffer for periods because you know and you have to expect that they’re going to have the experience.
“We want consistent results. We have to be able to go to any ground and get the points, and live with that belief. We’ll try to do that on Monday.”
As Arteta himself conceded, attempting to leave Anfield with a league win is an exacting task. Liverpool are on a 60-match unbeaten streak on their own turf in the division, stretching back to April 2017.
But the fact that Arsenal will arrive optimistic and armed with self-belief is welcome change a distance from Unai Emery joking “we don’t ever want to play against Liverpool.”
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