It’s at this time of winter, supporters of Arsenal recognise, that Mikel Arteta makes his really tough calls. Even from where the most irritable, critical fans sit in the Emirates stadium in North London, it is those big, turn-of-the-year decisions that have helped define their young coach as a man of strong convictions. And to earn him respect.
Three years ago Arteta, replacing the sacked Unai Emery and taking the reins from caretaker Freddie Ljungberg, managed a senior club team for the first time. Arsenal were at Bournemouth and the novice on the touchline, a former Arsenal captain and ex-assistant coach to Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, made a telling statement with his first line-up.
Granit Xhaka started in midfield. It was a signal of faith. Xhaka had for several previous weeks been excluded from selection, following an exchange of insults between the player and some Arsenal spectators. It had been widely anticipated he would leave in the winter transfer window.
Fast-forward to late December 2022 and Xhaka is still an Arsenal player. An appreciated one, too. He has been a key driver in pushing Arsenal to the summit of the Premier League; in the Europa League, where they are among the competition’s favourites, Xhaka has been wearing the captain’s armband that was stripped from him after that angry incident in late 2019.
Last January, Arteta was taking a firm position on another captain. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was invited to leave - he joined Barcelona - the end of a story of steadily breaking trust in the striker’s relationship with his coach. In the previous winter transfer window, Arteta had waved goodbye to Mesut Ozil, another high-profile former icon. With each of those turn-of-the-year watershed moments, all ultimately signed off by the club’s executives, the Arteta era was being defined.
It is one where the board members who initially employed him and the players he guides are asked to “trust the process”, understand that there are principles he holds that are unyielding - Aubameyang and Ozil strained at them - and a clear set of directions for where he wants the club to go.
Arteta wants this new year to provide signposts as powerful as in each of his previous Januarys: recruits are needed, he says. “This squad does not have the luxury of not maximising every single transfer window,” he said, urging his bosses to make available funds for significant incoming transfers after trading opens next month and to capitalise on how attractive Arsenal’s current position, and their playing style, would be to elite footballers looking to move. “We are going to be active, and active means looking to strengthen the team.”
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There is also a clear and immediate setback to cover for, ideally with a new forward. Gabriel Jesus, the spearhead of Arsenal’s attack and a hugely successful buy in the summer transfer window at £45m from Manchester City, is recovering from knee surgery after an injury picked up while with Brazil at the World Cup. His return date is unclear but February is the optimistic forecast.
“Impossible to replace, he’s such an important player” Arteta said of Jesus, whose impact on a league season where only five points have been dropped so far goes beyond the impressive statistics. Jesus has scored five Premier League goals and set up six more while setting an example of the sort of controlled aggression and industry, all over the pitch, that sets the standard for this season’s Arsenal.
Opportunity, in Jesus’s absence, falls, as of Monday's hosting of West Ham United, to Eddie Nketiah, the 23-year-old striker who finished last season with a strong scoring run but has been used off the bench since August. “Eddie’s work-rate, attitude and application are phenomenal,” said Arteta, “I’m happy to have him here.” Arteta will be happier still once Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard, the young musketeers of Arsenal’s front line, can welcome fresh talent to their ranks once the market opens.
At five points clear of second-placed City in the table, a win would ensure Arsenal go into 2023 leading the Premier League. The last time they achieved that? In 2013-14, when they were just in front of City. Arteta was the Arsenal captain for most of that season. He’ll recall that transfer activity that winter was unusually subdued, that momentum then fell away abruptly between February and April. Arsenal went on to finish third, City claiming the title.