Mikel Arteta will be up against the managerial rival he held up as a shining example.
Arteta took over at the Emirates in December 2019 and would always stress that it even took Jurgen Klopp a long time to turn Liverpool around. It was nearly four years before Klopp won his first trophy as Liverpool manager – and they have been winning silverware ever since.
Klopp is a master at buying into a club and the Liverpool fans embraced him from day one. But who could forget that celebration in front of the Kop after a 2-2 draw with West Brom back in December 2015?
Many of us just did not understand the key underlying point: get the fans onside and anything is possible. That is exactly what has happened with Arteta this season and it has been a game changer. Three years into Arteta’s reign as Arsenal manager and there have been plenty of bumps along the road, as many lows as highs – but they go into Sunday’s showdown with Liverpool with a new belief and sense of excitement around the club.
Klopp needed time. But there was steady progression each season – top four in 2016/17, Champions League final in 2018 – and then the trophies began to follow. The Champions League in 2019, Premier League title in 2020 and domestic cup double last season. Arteta probably raised expectations by winning the FA Cup in his first season – and then fell short the next year when they flirted with a relegation scrap, then missed out on Europe altogether and suddenly big questions were being asked.
However, the Arsenal hierarchy never wavered, they stuck with their man, refused to listen when the fanbase was getting restless and less patient clubs would have made a change.
Last season there was very obvious progress as they so nearly missed out on a return to the top four and yet they learned valuable lessons along the way.
Arteta was just 37 when he took the Arsenal job at the second time of asking – he was a prime target before Unai Emery succeeded Arsene Wenger in 2018 – and, by his own admission, had much to learn. He is now more humble, has a strong connection with young players and has never been afraid to make big, unpopular decisions.
Offloading Mesut Ozil was one thing, dropping club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang quite another. Then getting Aubameyang out of the door was another thing altogether. It was a statement from a manager who wanted to set standards and do things his own way. It helped create a different culture, a younger dressing room and his relationship with technical director Edu has also been key.
Arsenal spent big in the summer of 2021 when the owners underpinned a spree which included Ben White at £50m, Aaron Ramsdale for £30m and Martin Odegaard for £30m. Fans were pleading with the club to go again last January. They let a lot of players go, trimmed a lopsided and heavy squad on huge contracts but left themselves short of numbers which ultimately cost them in the race for a top-four place.
But there was a very deliberate method in the madness. Far too often in the past, the club have been guilty of diving in, making rushed signings and this time they bided their time, got the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Fabio Vieira. They were worth waiting for.
They also brought back William Saliba who was bought in 2019 but farmed out on loan for three years. He now looks a world beater at centre half, Arteta has played the long game and allowed him to mature and progress before putting him into Arsenal’s line-up.
Arteta’s management of Granit Xhaka has been nothing short of brilliant. This was a guy who was booed off three years ago and his reinvention both as a player and a character is one of the great comebacks. It has been a healing process, the right messages and a very clever words on social media. In today’s world, don’t underestimate that importance. Clever people behind the scenes deserve huge credit.
Xhaka could have left on three separate occasions and yet Arteta made it plain he wanted him to stay. And now Xhaka is a leader and in midfield.
It has been a steady “process” – as Arteta likes to call it. They are playing such good football. Jesus’ arrival has brought out the best in Gabriel Martinelli. They have a telepathic understanding and make space for each other. Arteta has always been intense. His team-mates used to call him “coach” such was his determination to become a manager even in his playing days.
There were a few cringeworthy Ted Lasso-style moments in the Amazon documentary. But generally, he is now more relaxed and rounded this season. Results have helped.
But the biggest single change has been the fans. The atmosphere has never been better at the Emirates. The supporters, the match-going fans, have almost reclaimed their club from the anger and soundbites on social media. They have really bought into Arteta. When Liverpool face Arsenal on Sunday, Klopp’s men will be up against a different Arteta, a different Emirates and a very different opponent.