Dodgeball, spot the difference and Arteta’s practical jokes: The story of Arsenal’s season
In the euphoric moments that followed Arsenal’s most dramatic victory of the season, Mikel Arteta encouraged his players and staff to go out and enjoy themselves. They had just beaten Bournemouth 3-2, with a 97th-minute winner from Reiss Nelson prompting perhaps the wildest celebrations the Emirates Stadium had ever seen, and Arteta wanted each of them to savour the moment.
Bukayo Saka was among the players who went into central London that March evening. He headed for a meal at Novikov, a high-end restaurant in Mayfair. It is a trendy sort of place, often frequented by footballers and other celebrities, and you never know which famous face you might spot on a nearby table.
One person Saka did not expect to see, though, was his manager. But there was Arteta, enjoying a night out of his own, in that exact same part of the capital at the exact same time. A complete coincidence and, strangely enough, it was not the only time this happened over the course of the season. Arteta and Saka are aligned in their views of football and, evidently, they also share an interest in fine dining.
For Arteta, who said after that victory against Bournemouth that he believed in fate, these unscheduled meetings might well have felt like more than coincidence. At the very least, it was another sign that he and Saka were on the same page, and their laughter at the weirdness of it all will only have helped to build a relationship that was already strong.
Stories such as this, of social lives overlapping and friendships being strengthened, provide a reminder of Arteta’s tender age. The Spaniard is unquestionably the boss at Arsenal but, at 41, he is not that much older than his players. He retired from playing only in 2016 and his memories of being in the dressing room remain fresh in his mind.
Arteta, it should be said, is not as close to all his players as he is with Saka. But one of the reasons for Arsenal’s success this season – an unexpected title challenge, and a long-awaited return to the Champions League – is that the Arsenal manager has been able to get inside the heads of his players, to find out what makes them tick, and helps them perform.
In management speak, this would be called “creating a winning culture”. In practical terms, it is about setting the tone and changing the mood, and knowing when to work hard and when to have fun.
Take Arsenal’s pre-match activities, for example. Arteta often comes across as unflinchingly serious in his media duties but he knows that enjoyment is important, too. Throughout the season, he and his coaching staff have therefore encouraged his players to play games — including things such as dodgeball and “spot the difference” — in the hotel before a match.
Looking the players in their eyes
One of the more memorable of these games took place in October, in the hours before a north London derby against Tottenham Hotspur. The premise was simple: the squad was told to hide coins in the shoes of a few players, while the coaches left the room. Arteta and his staff would then return and look their players in the eyes, before guessing who had the coins stashed in their trainers.
It was presented to the players as a chance for the coaches to demonstrate how closely they know them. By simply looking in their faces, the coaches said, they would be able to tell who was hiding something. And, when the moment of truth came, the coaches were spot on. They had a whole squad to choose from, and they did so correctly.
The players, obviously, were in disbelief. How could the coaches have known? Then came the big reveal: Arteta and his assistants had been watching through CCTV cameras the whole time. A sneaky trick, yes, but one that prompted hilarity and washed away any tension that the players might have been feeling ahead of one of their biggest matches of the season. A few hours later, Arsenal won 3-1.
Clearly, such practical jokes are not the secret of Arsenal’s success on the pitch. But Arteta is obsessed with the little details and tiny margins, and he will no doubt argue that it all adds up to a happier environment and better performances. He wants the club to be a friendlier, warmer place, and further evidence of this can be seen in the latest addition to the training ground: a chocolate labrador called Win.
Something had changed at the club
Arteta is often the first to arrive at the club’s London Colney headquarters. He wakes early, sometimes before 5am, and on those days he is the man to open the doors at the training base. These hours are precious, giving him time to think and plan in peace; no disturbances, no knocks on the door.
The Arsenal manager will often go for a walk on his own at the training ground, to mull things over. He also likes to read books about leadership, psychology and success. He is part of a group of coaches from different sports, including the NFL and rugby union, who swap tips and share their experiences over Zoom meetings.
Within the squad, meanwhile, it was clear from the start of pre-season that something had changed at the club. Players could sense a different hunger and ambition, fuelled by their failure to secure a top-four finish last season, and the arrival of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko altered the dynamic of the team.
From the moment they stepped through the doors, Zinchenko and Jesus told their new team-mates to dream big. They had won the league at Manchester City and they were convinced that Arsenal had what it took to do the same.
On the tour of the United States last summer, a feeling grew that something special might be possible. The wider footballing world did not read too much into a 4-0 friendly win over Chelsea, but Arsenal’s players did.
In the US they worked hard at building togetherness: a table plan ensured that everyone mingled with different players and staff each day, defender Gabriel Magalhaes led the initiation ceremonies for some of the new faces and sporting director Edu encouraged all new signings to learn English as quickly as possible.
With Zinchenko and Jesus in the side, and with William Saliba looking imperious at centre-back throughout the summer, Arsenal hit the ground running at the start of the campaign. By the time the season paused for the World Cup, they had won 12 of their 14 matches in the Premier League.
The World Cup, and an injury to Jesus, did not slow them down. Eddie Nketiah stepped up in the absence of the Brazilian — the players sang Nketiah’s name in the dressing room following his winner against Manchester United in January — and Leandro Trossard offered a new attacking option following his move from Brighton.
Throughout it all, certain players took the lead. At the start of the season it was Jesus, then it was Saka. Martin Odegaard, too, has enjoyed an exceptional campaign. With 15 goals, Odegaard is the club’s joint top-scorer and he has embraced the role of captain.
Odegaard often speaks with Arteta [usually in Spanish] during matches and, behind the scenes, he has happily fulfilled his duties as captain. Before the under-18s played in the FA Youth Cup final in April, Odegaard made sure to visit the team to wish them luck. When the new artwork around the Emirates Stadium was unveiled, Odegaard was there to meet supporters and club legends.
To be clear, the Norwegian has had help. He is part of a three-man leadership group with Granit Xhaka and Jesus (who was promoted to that role within a few weeks of joining) and, together, they offer a balance. Odegaard is the more softly spoken and measured of the three, while Xhaka is the more forceful and strident. Jesus, as a personality, sits somewhere in between.
On the pitch, there were times at the start of 2023 when it felt as if Arsenal were riding a wave of emotion that would never crash. Late wins against United, Aston Villa and Bournemouth added to the sense of belief, and created a feeling among the supporters that this team would somehow always find a way through. The atmosphere at the Emirates, according to some long-time observers, was better than it had ever been.
Of course, it was not to be. And now, with City confirmed as champions after Arsenal’s late-season collapse, it seems clear that the turning point of their campaign came on March 16, when Arteta’s side faced Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League. Within the space of 12 first-half minutes, Arsenal lost both Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu to serious injuries.
At various points in the campaign, Arsenal had shown themselves capable of thriving without Jesus, Zinchenko, Thomas Partey and even — briefly — Odegaard. To lose Saliba, though, was a blow of savage proportions. With Tomiyasu’s absence meaning that Ben White had to remain at right-back, Arsenal’s defensive structure subsequently disintegrated.
In 10 league matches without Saliba, Arsenal have conceded 18 goals and won only four times. In that same time, City have won every league match they have played. As Arsenal stumbled, they were hunted down and overtaken by a bigger, stronger and better beast.
The accusations of “bottling” the league title have not sat well with Arteta or his players. Clearly, there is a feeling of intense disappointment and sadness at their inability to hold off City’s charge. But there is also perspective, and Arteta has been quick to remind the team of how far they have come this season.
The challenge now, for Arteta and his players, is to prove that this season’s push for the title was not a one-off. It helps that they are young (the second-youngest team in the division) and that so many of their players are expected to improve.
Gabriel, Aaron Ramsdale, Gabriel Martinelli and Saka have all signed new contracts, and Arsenal hope there are more extensions to follow. This season may have ended in pain, but that does not erase the joy of the journey, and within the club there remains a feeling that the best is yet to come.