Arsenal overcame mental scars with help from Prince William and Tom Cruise

Mikel Arteta speaks to his Arsenal players during the win over Bournemouth
Mikel Arteta has guided Arsenal to their most wins in a league season - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

The floodlights were on, the cameras were rolling and a drone was buzzing in the sky. This was an Arsenal training session, but not like the players and coaches had experienced before. For one night only, the Emirates Stadium had become a makeshift film studio, as the club’s production team began work on a special project.

Their task was to create a pre-match video, to be published ahead of that weekend’s crucial game against Liverpool. It had to be rousing, emotional and intense. It had to capture the magnitude of the occasion, to make it clear to the Arsenal supporters that only the best possible atmosphere would do.

Mikel Arteta was not the director of the film, and he was not controlling the drone as it zoomed above the pitch, but Telegraph Sport understands the Arsenal manager was integral to its production. The intention was to stir the soul of the club’s support and generate an energy more powerful than had been seen before in North London.

At 9am on the morning of February 4th, a few hours before kick-off against Liverpool, the video went live. Arteta, who rarely uses social media, shared it on his own personal page. Millions saw it online, and 60,000 Arsenal supporters responded to it as was intended: as a call to arms.

“The atmosphere that we generated in the stadium is the best I have seen this season,” Arteta said that evening, after a breathless 3-1 victory which kept his team in the Premier League title race. The game had ended with Arteta sprinting down the touchline, roaring in delight.

Of course, the pre-match hype video was not the reason for Arsenal’s triumph that day. An error by Liverpool’s Alisson Becker was the main cause of victory. But the thinking behind the video, and Arteta’s involvement in it, was another example of his obsession with the small details that, over the course of a season, can make all the difference.

This, after all, is a coach who prepares for a match not only by watching the recent performances of that weekend’s opposition, but also by studying the press conferences of their manager. He is always searching for an opportunity and seeking the tiny detail that might just boost his team’s chances.

On Sunday, Arsenal face Everton in the final match of their campaign. They have won 27 games this season – the most of any Arsenal side in Premier League history. They have scored 89 goals, the most ever by an Arsenal team in the Premier League. They have the best defensive record in the division, and the best goal difference.

What they do not have, though, is their hands on the trophy. Arsenal are two points behind a Manchester City machine that seemingly never stops whirring, and there is little expectation within the fanbase that the title will be theirs by Monday morning.

Only the most narrow-minded of Arsenal supporters would describe a second-placed finish as failure. Yes, Arsenal want more. This is a club that demands trophies. But for Arteta, his coaches, the players and the supporters, there remains a feeling of progress and promise, of a journey continuing on the most thrilling of trajectories.

If last season represented the return of Arsenal to the top table, then this year must be regarded as a strengthening of that position. Arsenal are back in the conversation again, and they have shown that they are here to stay. Irrespective of what happens on Sunday, the future looks bright.

It is not all about looking forward, however. Back in August, for one afternoon at the Emirates Stadium, it was the past that briefly took priority. Former manager Arsene Wenger was in town to see his new statue, and the club did all it could to further repair a relationship that had been damaged by the nature of his exit in 2018.

Around 100 guests — including former players, executives and the current hierarchy — were invited to a lunch in Wenger’s honour. The meal was put on by French chef Raymond Blanc. Wenger wanted the occasion to be as private as possible, and spoke to the people there about his pride of working for the club.

Arteta was also in attendance, having said in previous years that he wanted Wenger to be “much closer” to the club. Arteta’s view of Arsenal is that it should be a family (he even recruited a chocolate labrador, Win) and Wenger, evidently, remains a paternal figure. To many in attendance, it must have felt like a day of healing.

Arsenal Therapy Dog Win –
Arsenal's love of dogs is nothing new – the team pictured with Win - Getty Images/David Price

Arsenal have worked hard in recent seasons to create a sense of unity that simply did not exist under Unai Emery, the previous head coach, and at the start of Arteta’s tenure.

Families of the players and staff were invited to join the club’s pre-season tour of the United States, for example. The players trained hard, but it was no military bootcamp. At one point, in Los Angeles, new signing Declan Rice asked his mother to fetch him some moisturiser from the shops. The club put on enormous barbecues in the California sun and produced seating plans to ensure that everyone mixed.

It was a similar situation for Arsenal’s mid-season break in Dubai. Families were encouraged to join the players and staff, who were in need of a reset after a run of four games without victory.

New friendships were made on that trip, especially between the wives and girlfriends of the players, and those relationships have only been strengthened. In the spring, a group of partners organised a getaway in Oxfordshire for some of the players. A collection of wives and girlfriends now travel together to away matches, almost another team behind the team.

Arsenal’s coaches and executives want the players to feel like they are at home, even on tough away trips.. When they faced Porto away in the Champions League, the players arrived to see posters of their own faces lining the corridors of the Estadio do Dragao.

For the biggest stars, these off-field comforts have helped them cope with the growing pressures and demands that come with being regarded as part of football’s elite.

Bukayo Saka, for one, is no longer seen as a young up-and-comer. He is a genuine world star now – with his own sauce at Nando’s - and has had to manage that shift while leading Arsenal’s attack. After one away game this season, Saka hurried back off the team bus after learning that Thierry Henry wanted to speak to him. Not so long ago, it would have been Saka desperately hoping to grab Henry.

Arteta, too, has experienced a change in status. Just this week, he received a prestigious honour at the Spanish embassy in London. Earlier this year, he attended a London Air Ambulance fundraising dinner, where he sat next to the Prince of Wales. Two seats down from them was Tom Cruise. Arteta must have known then, if he did not already, that he is becoming an A-lister.

Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff at the Spanish Embassy
Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff after he was awarded the Royal Order of Isabella the Catholic at the Spanish Embassy - Getty Images/Stuart MacFarlane

This is all a consequence of Arsenal’s work on the pitch. Arteta has been in charge of this team since December 2019 and his philosophy is now ingrained in the minds of the players. As a result he has, at times, been more willing to hand responsibility to his squad this season, to let them think for themselves.

But that is not to say he no longer obsesses over the details. Such is Arteta’s focus on the tiny margins, he even guides the players on which of their team-mate’s feet they should pass to in each situation. Training is often broken down into separate units, with the right-hand side of the team, for example, working together away from the others.

As the season has progressed, and new signings such as Rice, David Raya and Kai Havertz have learned the demands of their roles, Arsenal have hit new heights. They have lost only once in the league in 2024 and have played with a control and maturity that was often missing last season.

They have also been dominant on set pieces, in large part thanks to the work of specialist coach Nicolas Jover. Set pieces are not the most visually appealing part of the Arteta philosophy, but they are fundamental to it. At the club’s indoor training area, the surrounding walls are emblazoned with the words: “Win the games on set pieces”.

Arteta has transformed Arsenal from a mess into a force

Arsenal’s progress cannot be fully understood without reflecting on the state of the club before the start of Arteta’s revolution. It should never be forgotten how far this team has come since the disastrous end of Emery’s tenure.

When Arteta first arrived, he turned all the chairs upside down in a meeting room, scattering them over the room, to demonstrate to the team how much of a mess they had become. Telegraph Sport has been told of one high-profile player who, a few months before Arteta’s appointment, was seen “smoking like a chimney” after training. The standards that exist now, the levels that define the current Arsenal, were not in place before.

Much of the credit for the squad-building must go to sporting director Edu and his recruitment team, for identifying the right players and personalities. The likes of Martin Odegaard, Ben White, Jorginho, Rice and Havertz have proven to be hugely important additions. Last summer, Arsenal’s executives were decisive in signing Rice, Havertz and Jurrien Timber early in the transfer window, to allow them to have a proper pre-season.

As ever in football, it has not always been smooth. Arsenal have certainly had their issues this season, not least in the first half of the campaign when they appeared to be on course for a potentially disastrous collision with the Football Association and the Premier League’s referees.

Mikel Arteta speaking to fourth official Graham Scott during Arsenal's defeat at Newcastle
Arteta's touchline behaviour has attracted criticism though he has stayed out of trouble in recent months - Getty Images/Stu Forster

Arteta’s remarkable outburst after defeat at Newcastle United, in which he described the decision to allow Newcastle’s winner as a “disgrace”, brought unwanted attention. The chief executive of Ref Support UK described Arteta’s touchline behaviour as “the worst in the league”, and the club was criticised for a statement in which they backed their manager.

The truth is that the club’s statement was more about showing strong support for Arteta and his players than it was a complaint about specific decisions. There is also crucial context here: Arsenal had been in discussions with refereeing body PGMOL for some time, expressing their frustration that referees did not understand their game model. There has also been long-term irritation that aggressive fouls, early in matches, are not penalised as strongly as they should be.

Since escaping punishment for his post-Newcastle rant and since the turn of the year, Arteta has been far more measured in his comments. After their recent victory over Bournemouth, he said he had deliberately not watched replays of the controversial incidents because he knew he would be asked about them afterwards.

A sign of growth? Perhaps. Such growth would certainly be in keeping with Arsenal’s development as a collective this season. This is a club that remains in pursuit of those small improvements, those little steps that will ultimately take them closer to where they want to be, and the feeling in north London is that they are taking more of those strides with each passing month. They might even reach their ultimate destination this weekend, of course, if City drop points and they beat Everton.

Far more likely is that Arteta’s side will remain second in the league, with City just out of reach. But this team is getting stronger and better by the year. While there will be disappointment at not lifting the Premier League trophy, there is also genuine belief that Arsenal’s time is coming.

The moments that have defined Arsenal’s Premier League season

21 August, Crystal Palace 0 Arsenal 1

An important win for Arsenal, for two reasons. One, because it was the day that Declan Rice “clicked” for his new club, following his £105 million move from West Ham. Two, because it was the first demonstration of their defensive resilience. Mikel Arteta’s side played for almost half an hour with 10 men after Takehiro Tomiyasu’s red card, and stood firm. A sign of what was to come from the league’s best defence.

23 September, Manchester City 2 Nottingham Forest 0

On paper, a straightforward victory for Pep Guardiola’s side. But this was actually a crucial day in the title race, because of the red card shown to Rodri in the 46th minute. The City midfielder’s absence proved to be an enormous problem for his team: they lost their next two league matches (away to Forest and Arsenal) without him.

30 September, Tottenham Hotspur 2 Liverpool 1

Liverpool had started the season in excellent form and were unbeaten when they arrived at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. A 96th-minute own goal by Joel Matip proved decisive, but the most memorable aspect of the evening was the incorrect VAR decision which led to Luis Diaz’s goal being ruled out. Refereeing body PGMOL later described it as a “significant human error”. Liverpool did not lose another league game until February.

8 October, Arsenal 1 Manchester City 0

A statement victory for Arsenal and a sign that they were finally ready to go toe-to-toe with City. Gabriel Martinelli’s late winner brought Arsenal their first league victory over City since December 2015, and put Arsenal on top of the table (level with Tottenham Hotspur).

Gabriel Martinelli celebrating his goal for Arsenal against Man City
Gabriel Martinelli's goal earned Arsenal a first league win over Man City since 2015 - Reuters/David Klein

4 November, Newcastle United 1 Arsenal 0

Arsenal’s first defeat of the league season and the start of an almighty storm involving Arteta, the Football Association and PGMOL. The Arsenal manager described the decision to allow Newcastle’s winning goal as “embarrassing” and a “disgrace”. More than a month later, he was eventually cleared by an independent regulatory commission.

12 November - 6 December, City’s big wobble

By City’s usual standards, this was a disastrous period in their season. For the first time in more than seven years, they went four games without a victory. Guardiola’s team drew three consecutive games — against Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs — before losing at Aston Villa. “We are struggling,” Guardiola admitted.

28 December - 31 December, Arsenal’s sudden dip

Arsenal had the chance to go top of the league when they hosted West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium. A controversial Tomas Soucek goal, followed by a Konstantinos Mavropanos header, condemned them to a shock defeat. A few days later, they produced their worst display of the season as they lost at Fulham. The wheels appeared to be coming off.

Arsenal's players after their defeat at Fulham
Arsenal's performance on New Year's Eve at Fulham was their worst of the season - Reuters/Peter Cziborra

13 January, Newcastle United 2 Manchester City 3

Perhaps the biggest victory of City’s season, and not just because of the dramatic nature of the result (secured by Oscar Bobb’s stoppage-time strike). Crucially, this was the game that marked the return of Kevin De Bruyne to Premier League action after months out injured. De Bruyne scored one brilliant goal and then assisted the winner. He was back. Since then, he has registered 16 assists in all competitions — and City have not lost in the league.

4 February, Arsenal 3 Liverpool 1

On a day when defeat was unthinkable for Arsenal, they produced a seismic performance to defeat Liverpool and reduce the gap to Jurgen Klopp’s side to just two points. Victory might well have ruled Arsenal out of the race, but they capitalised on a dreadful error by Liverpool’s Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk. Arteta, knowing how crucial this was, sprinted down the touchline in celebration. It was also the game that marked the start of Kai Havertz’s shift from midfield to centre-forward, a move which helped Arsenal to unlock their attacking potential.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta celebrates after the final whistle after the win over Liverpool
Arsenal's celebrations after the win against Liverpool were some of the most jubilant of their season - PA/John Walton

7 April, Manchester United 2 Liverpool 2

With a chance to go top of the table, Liverpool arrived at Old Trafford to face a dysfunctional Manchester United side and had 15 shots in the first half, to United’s zero. In a bizarre and barely-believable game, United somehow struck two world-class goals out of nothing after the break, leading to Liverpool requiring a late Mohamed Salah penalty to salvage a draw. It was the start of a run of just one win in five league games for Liverpool, and represented the beginning of the end of their title challenge in Klopp’s final season.

14 April, Arsenal 0  Aston Villa 2, Liverpool 0 Crystal Palace 1

One of the most significant days of the season. Arsenal’s shock defeat by Aston Villa, who were outstanding in the second half at the Emirates Stadium, left City in pole position. Earlier on the same day, Liverpool had lost at home to Crystal Palace. Guardiola’s side had been lurking ominously, and now they had their noses in front.

14 May, Tottenham Hotspur 0 Manchester City 2

With 86 minutes on the clock, and City leading by a single goal, Spurs captain Son Heung-min ran through on goal. An equaliser for Spurs would have given Arsenal control of the title race again, with one game remaining. Instead, his effort was saved by City goalkeeper Stefan Ortega. The single biggest moment of the title race.