It was raining and it was cold when Mikel Arteta and his entourage arrived at the Emirates on that late December evening in 2019. The leaving of Manchester City had been hard. Arsenal had come to Arteta’s house in the well-to-do Manchester suburb of Didsbury for talks in the middle of the night and had not asked City first. In the north-west there was a feeling of disrespect that has long since dissipated but stung at the time.

So there was a little tension in the air as Arsenal introduced their new manager. Arteta, just 37, had wrestled with some doubts as to whether he was even ready for the move. At City, he had been assistant to Pep Guardiola. This was different. This was big. Arsenal were a mess. Arsenal were not contenders and had not been for years.

Arsene Wenger had lost his way and lost his judgement. Unai Emery tried to turn his back on Arsenal’s glorious past only for the enormity of the here and now to smack him clean in the face. He had lasted 18 months. So here was Arteta. A former Arsenal captain back at the Emirates. Back home.

He may not have felt it back then but he was at an advantage at least. He knew already what was wrong.

He had been with Guardiola on the touchline in London just days earlier as City had dismantled and embarrassed Arsenal in winning 3-0. Two up after 15 minutes. Three by half-time. Arsenal were ragged and soft. Demotivated. Directionless. Dysfunctional. So, yes, Arteta knew what was wrong. He just had to work out a way to fix it and his first instinct was to fall back on what he knew, what he had learned as a nervous Basque kid at Barcelona’s academy and later at Everton playing for David Moyes and at Arsenal under Wenger.

Mikel Arteta was unveiled as Arsenal boss in December 2019 after private talks with the club

Mikel Arteta was unveiled as Arsenal boss in December 2019 after private talks with the club

Mikel Arteta was unveiled as Arsenal boss in December 2019 after private talks with the club

Arteta had been along Pep Guardiola days earlier as Man City eased to a 3-0 win over Arsenal

Arteta had been along Pep Guardiola days earlier as Man City eased to a 3-0 win over Arsenal

Arteta had been along Pep Guardiola days earlier as Man City eased to a 3-0 win over Arsenal

The Gunners were 3-0 down at half-time with the home side appearing ragged and soft

The Gunners were 3-0 down at half-time with the home side appearing ragged and soft

The Gunners were 3-0 down at half-time with the home side appearing ragged and soft

‘Everybody has to feel privileged to be here and the players will have to accept a different way of things,’ said Arteta, as he sat round a large oak table.

‘We have to build a culture. If players like Bernardo Silva and David Silva at City don’t get bullied, it’s because they defend their position like animals.

‘From now on, that must be us.’

As he delivered that last short sentence, Arteta delivered his right first hard into the middle of his left palm.

Two years on from that night in north London, Arsenal’s sporting director Edu Gaspar took a call from an agent. The subject was the club’s captain and record signing Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.

Arteta had grown tired, and kept a detailed record, of Aubameyang’s poor discipline and had dropped him and requested he be sold.

‘I asked Edu if he really was sure about this and I could tell he wasn’t,’ the agent told Mail Sport this week.

‘Aubameyang was the club’s best player. They needed him. But Edu was determined to back Mikel. He said it was a seminal moment in Mikel’s time at the club.

‘The attitude was: “We have to dig in and send a message to the other players. These are our standards now. These are Mikel’s standards”.

‘I could tell they would see it through. Short-term pain. Long-term gain.’

Aubameyang is now playing for Marseille in France. Arteta and Arsenal are top of the Premier League ahead of Sunday’s game at Manchester City.

Arteta demanded the sale of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang a year on for disciplinary reasons

Arteta demanded the sale of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang a year on for disciplinary reasons

Arteta demanded the sale of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang a year on for disciplinary reasons

Edu was determined to back Arteta's decision and oversaw Aubameyang's exit from the club

Edu was determined to back Arteta's decision and oversaw Aubameyang's exit from the club

Edu was determined to back Arteta’s decision and oversaw Aubameyang’s exit from the club

The sale was a seminal moment coming soon after Aubameyang's goal won Arsenal the FA Cup

The sale was a seminal moment coming soon after Aubameyang's goal won Arsenal the FA Cup

The sale was a seminal moment coming soon after Aubameyang’s goal won Arsenal the FA Cup

Arteta, a father of three, is not an unemotional man but is capable of making unemotional decisions. His three stated principles as a manager are respect, commitment and passion. Aubameyang, like Mesut Ozil before him, had flunked all three but still the decision to jettison a player who had scored an FA Cup winning goal 18 months earlier tells us much about Arteta and the Arsenal he has subsequently built.

‘That was his first line in the sand moment,’ added the agent.

The cleverness and effectiveness of Arteta’s football is clear from watching Arsenal play.

‘He is the most innovative coach in the Premier League,’ a top flight manager told Mail Sport.

‘Mikel is brave and so smart. His team is actually better and cleverer than Pep’s team. Even if I can’t believe I am saying it.’

For that to work, however, Arteta has first had to fix the very bones of what was a broken football club. This has been resurrection from the toes up.

Emery, now doing so well at Aston Villa, had removed all pointers to the glorious first decade of Wenger’s tenure from the walls of Arsenal’s London Colney training ground. Arteta – who played under the Frenchman for five seasons – put them back again. At the players’ entrance at Colney there is now a huge painting of Wenger. Players are encouraged to high five it as they walk out to work.

Arteta is described by several sources as a ‘control freak’. How many top managers aren’t? He can be political, direct and can rub people up the wrong way, including his own players and medical staff. But to him, rules and discipline bring clarity and with that comes accountability.

‘Players are not numbers, they are humans,’ Arteta has said.

‘I need to understand them and to know what happens in their lives. But it has to be two-way traffic. They have to be willing to give.

‘I won’t ask them to put the ball in the top corner every single time. But I will ask them to do the right thing every single day for this club.’

The £72million spent on Nicolas Pepe had been a sign of wayward recruitment at Arsenal

The £72million spent on Nicolas Pepe had been a sign of wayward recruitment at Arsenal

The £72million spent on Nicolas Pepe had been a sign of wayward recruitment at Arsenal

Arteta helped convince Declan Rice to sign after presenting the midfielder with a dossier

Arteta helped convince Declan Rice to sign after presenting the midfielder with a dossier

Arteta helped convince Declan Rice to sign after presenting the midfielder with a dossier

Arteta’s understanding of the power of the collective is traced back to his time as a young player at Barcelona’s academy at La Masia.

‘The essence of La Masia is ego at the door and put your team-mates first,’ Barcelona’s head of methodology Paco Seirulo told the BBC’s excellent Making of Mikel documentary.

‘When the ball arrives at your feet you say thank you. This is what Mikel does now with his players at Arsenal. I can see it.’

With that in mind, the restructuring of both footballers and people during his first difficult seasons at Arsenal was significant and took time. For example, the team that won that Cup Final at the end of his first season was clearly and obviously flawed, pointing to a wayward recruitment policy. Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe cost £175m between them.

Arteta’s policy towards the buying of players is straight forward. His relationship with Edu is strong and bonded by a mutual understanding of the philosophies that ran through Arsenal during the Wenger years. Arteta is also tight with director Josh Kroenke.

When it comes to footballers, though, Arteta is happy to lead. The dossier he presented to Declan Rice at his house early in the pursuit of the former West Ham player was immediately convincing. ‘I have been blown away already,’ Rice said a fortnight after eventually joining last July.

It is understood one major target currently under consideration may yet fail the Arteta ‘good person’ test while Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko were signed from City as a way of injecting a shot of winning culture in to the Arsenal squad as much as for their actual football.

‘That’s typical of Mikel,’ said someone who knows him well.

‘He is constantly reviewing and rechecking what he has and what he does.

Arteta has a strong relationship with Edu and they share philosophies of Arsene Wenger's era

Arteta has a strong relationship with Edu and they share philosophies of Arsene Wenger's era

Arteta has a strong relationship with Edu and they share philosophies of Arsene Wenger’s era

Gabriel Jesus, pictured, and Oleksandr Zinchenko injected a winning culture from Man City

Gabriel Jesus, pictured, and Oleksandr Zinchenko injected a winning culture from Man City

Gabriel Jesus, pictured, and Oleksandr Zinchenko injected a winning culture from Man City

‘Rice fits the culture. So do the two boys from City. One of them, Jesus, just runs all day and the other will just pass the ball to a team-mate all day. He essentially bought a slice of Man City there and that was clever. It was like taking a short cut to where you want to be.’

Interestingly, neither Jesus or Zinchenko are currently always central to Arteta’s team. Just as two former captains and loyal servants have been moved on – Kieran Tierney to Real Sociedad on loan and Granit Xhaka to Bayer Leverkusen – so the wheel has continued to turn in the name of improvement. Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale was bought as an upgrade to Emiliano Martinez and Bernd Leno but has already been replaced by David Raya.

‘Mikel loves his players and that’s one of the things he bonds with Edu over,’ added Mail Sport’s source.

‘They both loved Wenger and that’s the kind of atmosphere they want at the club now.

‘But the search for upgrades never stops. Mikel has no favourites. There is always a next step.’

That next step is all about winning. In an interview with GQ magazine last year, Arteta mentioned that one word – or a derivative of it – 61 times.

Arteta’s pre-match team talks are usually delivered an hour before kick-off and then, just before the Arsenal players leave the dressing room, follows another short one.

Themes can be varied. Love. War. Family. The club photographer – Stuart MacFarlane – was once asked to give one before a game against Tottenham. Arsenal won. On another occasion against Brentford, a provocative tweet from their striker Ivan Toney was shown on a big screen. ‘Today they play in our f***ing house,’ said Arteta to his players. Arsenal won that one, too.

Always, though, there is one common theme, a final non-negotiable instruction that runs through everything Arteta does with his players.

‘Play forward,’ Arteta says.

‘Just play forward’.

Club photographer Stuart MacFarlane gave a team talk before a match with Tottenham

Club photographer Stuart MacFarlane gave a team talk before a match with Tottenham

Club photographer Stuart MacFarlane gave a team talk before a match with Tottenham 

Arteta highlighted a tweet from Ivan Toney pre-match in another quirky talk with his side

Arteta highlighted a tweet from Ivan Toney pre-match in another quirky talk with his side

Arteta highlighted a tweet from Ivan Toney pre-match in another quirky talk with his side

The Arsenal manager has always had this is a central coaching tenet, as basic as it may sound. Doubtless it came from Barcelona where he shared a pitch with Guardiola, Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo and was coached by the great Louis van Gaal.

It ran through his time as a player, too. At Everton, for example, he admired Moyes deeply and to this day talks of the loyalty the Scot would always show publicly to his players. Still, though, Arteta would implore his Everton team-mates to seek more possession and control of a game, in direct contradiction to Moyes’ counter-attack instincts.

Now at Arsenal, Arteta seeks control and speed and a forward direction of travel. Arsenal’s Premier League possession stats have gone from 50 per cent to above 60 per cent during his time at the club.

On the training field, he is involved almost every day. Some Premier League managers prefer distance and occasional impact. Wenger was like that. Arteta isn’t. He is a tracksuit and whistle coach, often asking his players to play without opposition – a favoured trick of Iberian coaches – or setting up positional games where players win points by completing a certain number of passes. The goalkeepers are also involved in this.

Arteta has ticked many of the boxes modern coaches tick. He has read the books on decision making and culture. He has met and interrogated winning coaches from other sports such as Sean McVay of the LA Rams NFL team.

Arteta has met with an interrogated winning coaches including the LA Rams' Sean McVay

Arteta has met with an interrogated winning coaches including the LA Rams' Sean McVay

Arteta has met with an interrogated winning coaches including the LA Rams’ Sean McVay

The Arsenal manager's touchline behaviour has not enamoured everybody in the league

The Arsenal manager's touchline behaviour has not enamoured everybody in the league

The Arsenal manager’s touchline behaviour has not enamoured everybody in the league

But many of his methods are his own. They can be quirky, too.

Seeing comfort as the enemy, Arteta has been known to stand in silence during a session as he feels it encourages players to find their own solutions. He will organise games on smaller pitches to replicate the challenge of finding a way through a packed defence. On one occasion, he asked his staff to throw tennis balls at his players as they dribbled. He has even been known to change the size of the footballs. Anything to knock his players from their stride.

On match day, Arteta is probably the most animated coach in the Premier League. He feeds off a new re-energised atmosphere at the Emirates and an increasingly devoted and committed fanbase are happy to feed it right back.

His behaviour has not enamoured everybody. It has even been raised – in his absence – at a recent League Managers’ Association meeting. It is, however, unlikely to change.

‘You have to realise that this is not Pep and Man City,’ another well-placed source told Mail Sport.

‘Many of Pep’s players have already been there and done it. Arsenal’s have not.

‘Mikel sees the game as a map and he knows the way home. But he doesn’t want to wait until half-time to show his players where the correct path is. This title race feels a little bit like Aintree. Arsenal know where all the fences are now. They just have to get over them.’

Arteta and Guardiola have long been entwined. The City manager is eleven years older and was Barcelona captain when Arteta first appeared on the fringes of the first team more than two decades ago. If Guardiola could choose any rival to fight for a title with it would be this one.

The Arsenal boss is arguably the most animated in the Premier League and feeds off the crowd

The Arsenal boss is arguably the most animated in the Premier League and feeds off the crowd

The Arsenal boss is arguably the most animated in the Premier League and feeds off the crowd

Arteta appeared more reserved and analytical during his time as Guardiola's assistant

Arteta appeared more reserved and analytical during his time as Guardiola's assistant

Arteta appeared more reserved and analytical during his time as Guardiola’s assistant

‘He really looked after me at Barcelona and from that day I got really attached to him,’ Arteta told GQ.

‘I am willing to give my life for him.’

During his three-and-half years at the Etihad as Guardiola’s number two, Arteta was not the emotional, visible man we think we know now. He was more reserved and analytical, just like he was as a player. On the touchline, he was still.

‘He was keen to learn and calm and studious,’ a City source revealed.

‘He wanted to do things properly, a pretty serious guy. It was clear the players loved him and Pep trusted him. It was also clear that at some point we would lose him.’

Everton were actually the first club to offer Arteta a manager’s job. Former football director Marcel Brands spent time at his house in 2019.

‘I moved heaven and earth to bring Arteta to Everton,’ said Brands this week.

‘I immediately saw a top trainer. I was at his house to sound him out and I got so excited. He was so well prepared and that passion came out everywhere. His mouth, his nose and his ears. I thought this is the trainer for the long term.’

Arteta was advised to swerve that one by people close to him who felt an uncertain environment at Everton may suffocate his bright talent before it had even drawn a breath. They may have been right.

In the end it was Guardiola who almost pushed his friend out of the door. ‘If you don’t go I will kick your ass,’ is the quote now enshrined in legend.

‘You can see the influence of Pep when you watch Arsenal,’ said our Premier League manager.

‘But it’s the courage to think outside the box that gets me. In a way he is mimicking Pep by finding new ways to solve old problems.

‘The signing of Jorginho has been a hidden gem, for example. It frees Rice up and look at Rice now. A goal scorer. That’s clever. That’s coaching.’

Marcel Brands said he moved 'heaven and earth' in a bid to bring Arteta to Everton in 2019

Marcel Brands said he moved 'heaven and earth' in a bid to bring Arteta to Everton in 2019

Marcel Brands said he moved ‘heaven and earth’ in a bid to bring Arteta to Everton in 2019

Guardiola eventually pushed for his friend to leave the club to launch his managerial career

Guardiola eventually pushed for his friend to leave the club to launch his managerial career

Guardiola eventually pushed for his friend to leave the club to launch his managerial career

A visit to the Emirates on match day these days is a visceral experience. It’s loud in a way it has never been before. It’s emotional. It’s optimistic.

Arsenal still haven’t won the league for almost 20 years, though. Victory in Manchester on Sunday would take Arteta’s team four points clear of City but they had their chance last season too and came up short.

As that challenge – admirable as it was – fell away, Arteta gathered his players together in a team hotel in Nottingham just days after a chastening 3-0 defeat at home to Brighton.

‘One defeat and you are falling apart,’ he yelled at them because a poor training session.

‘You have to be stronger.’

It didn’t work. They lost at the City Ground the next day.

Arteta’s player management continues to evolve, however.

When he did his coaching badges on the respected Football Association of Wales course in Newport towards the end of his playing days, Arteta was noted for high levels of curiosity, clarity and innovation. His tutors also felt his communication need work, though.

The atmosphere at Arsenal has become emotional and optimistic under Arteta's leadership

The atmosphere at Arsenal has become emotional and optimistic under Arteta's leadership

The atmosphere at Arsenal has become emotional and optimistic under Arteta’s leadership

Arsenal went on a winning run after Arteta took his side to refresh in Dubai following a blip

Arsenal went on a winning run after Arteta took his side to refresh in Dubai following a blip

Arsenal went on a winning run after Arteta took his side to refresh in Dubai following a blip

Arteta had a rough ride at Arsenal but the club can take the giant step to Premier League glory

Arteta had a rough ride at Arsenal but the club can take the giant step to Premier League glory

Arteta had a rough ride at Arsenal but the club can take the giant step to Premier League glory

Indeed at Arsenal Edu commented to Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary cameras during Arteta’s second full season in charge that: ‘When Mikel starts to develop relationships with players he can go to the next level.’

It can be assumed that Arteta is there now. Recently, when Arsenal stumbled at the turn of the year, Arteta took his players to Dubai. They returned to start a run of results that has taken them top. The secrets of that trip have been sought after but the rather prosaic truth is that it was a simple bonding mission. Despite the reservations of some in the group, families went too. It was more BBQs than hard labour and it would appear to have worked.

‘I made a decision to open up with the players and that means I will get hurt,’ Arteta has said.

‘I am honest, direct and very demanding. Respect is not unconditional. It’s determined by results. People see a manager in a way that is not realistic. I suffer. I have feelings. I have kids. I make mistakes. I cry. I laugh. You have fear and you have doubt. You ask: ‘Can I go back tomorrow?’.

It has been a rough ride for Arteta at times. His first three league finishes were 8th, 8th and 5th. But last year Arsenal were second and back in the Champions League for the first time since 2016. And now there is this. Now is there opportunity. The apparent truth is that the more Arteta has been prepared to open himself up to the job, the more it has given him in exchange. Arteta has returned Arsenal to much of what it once was and needed to be again. Just the one, giant step remains.

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