Mikel Arteta on track to overhaul Man City and make Arsenal new unstoppable Premier League force

They say you can’t miss what you never had, but try telling that to the Arsenal players as the full time whistle blew at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. Gabriel Martinelli collapsed to the floor. Kai Havertz wiped the tears from his eyes. Martin Odegaard stood motionless in the centre circle not sure what to do with himself.

Arsenal's players and staff allowed maybe 10 minutes to feel sorry for themselves, before the factory settings of sporting competitiveness kicked in.

"We're gonna come back even stronger, even more hungry," Odegaard announced to a rapturous crowd. "We're gonna push to do it and win everything."

You can hardly blame the Arsenal captain for believing they could bounce back from this. They've already done it before.

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After witnessing his side play out a 1-1 draw on a balmy summer evening in Nuremberg, Mikel Arteta came out to greet the press in a huddle. "Gentlemen, how are you, good to see you again," he said as he greeted the three members of the British media present at the Max-Morlock Stadion with a beaming smile, firm handshake and unmissable look of focus in his eyes. This was not a man still suffering from the hangover of the most crushing disappointment of his managerial career.

Few had thought it was possible that Arsenal could challenge for the Premier League in the 2022/23 campaign. Arteta himself has admitted he did not think his team believed they were capable of doing it until midway through the season. They had a run, though, that few will forget. It’s worth remembering that a generation of supporters had never even seen the Gunners in a title race.

The revamped energy off the pitch was matched by mercurial brilliance on it as moments such as Reiss Nelson’s dramatic winner against Bournemouth brought rebuilt bridges between team and fans that had appeared permanently severed in the toxic late-Wenger and Emery eras. Younger generations were introduced to the greatest hits as the Emirates boomed week-on-week in a matter it had never done before.

As they eventually ran out of puff, though, the inevitable question arose: how to write the difficult second album?

Arsenal were no longer the surprise package. They had a target on their heads - just ask the weekly gashes down Bukayo Saka's shins. Still, they found ways to rise above.

The club-record signing of Declan Rice was a message to the rest of the Premier League: Arsenal were here to stay at the top table. The ruthless replacement of Aaron Ramsdale with David Raya ushered in a new era on the pitch. Arsenal were no longer trying to kill their opponents with furious explosions. Their preferred method was now slow asphyxiation.

Admittedly in the early stages this was not as fun to watch. There were teething issues as the perfectly orchestrated symphony that Arteta craved replaced the unpredictable jazz that had come before it. Few players symbolised this more than Kai Havertz. The German took 20 appearances to register his first goal from open play as many asked questions about his £65million price tag. Arteta never lost faith.

Prior to the first international break of the season, he pulled Havertz for a private meeting to reassure him that the click would come. The fact that he has ended the season with 14 goals and seven assists is proof the Arsenal manager was right.

It took a while for people to come round to Arteta’s new vision for his side. After three straight losses to West Ham, Fulham and Liverpool around the festive period, Arsenal looked like a team in need of some rest and recuperation.

Thankfully, Arteta knew just the place. For the third straight year he flew his side out to Dubai for some winter sun. Subtle tactical tweaks were worked on, but training sessions in the Middle East were not intense. Instead players families were welcomed as Arteta looked to take his squad’s mind away from the stresses of the season. It did the trick.

The Gunners have been unstoppable since returning from the winter break. They have scored more goals, won more games and dropped points in only two matches in 2024.

Ultimately, the end result is the same. Any rational person will tell you there's so much more to it than that, however.

Arsenal are no longer a side simply pleased to be in a title race. They will not be satisfied until they win it. This is the biggest progress Arteta feels they have achieved.

"The way they compete, the way they talk about the future, the way they talk about why they are capable of doing what we're capable of doing as a team, I sense a real belief there and they are really determined," he said in his final pre-match press conference of the season. "Before I didn't have that feeling of we really want to win and we're going to go toe-to-toe and look in the eyes of every opponent. Now I feel that."

Where teams have collapsed under the sheer weight of the standards set by Manchester City in the past, there can be little doubt that Arsenal will be able to match the standards they have set for two years now. By the time Arteta next meets us in Nuremberg again in July, you can be certain that focused look will have returned. He has unfinished business in the Premier League.