Unsung Heroes #1: Mikel Arteta
Right now it seems appropriate to kick off CoA’s summer series “Unsung Heroes” with a tribute to Mikel Arteta – the Spaniard has just been named Arsenal’s 5th best player this season on the official website poll. You might consider this a good thing, however, it just goes to show how unappreciated Arteta still is. Along with Laurent Koscielny and Robin van Persie, Arteta has been one of Arsenal’s three most consistent players, and without him the Gunners struggled massively.
So what better way for me to blow the dust off of my metaphorical blogging typewriter than to write glowingly about the midfielder after he received a paltry 4.1% of the votes in the Player of the Season poll? Although perhaps therein lies the problem with the poll – most would have voted for Robin van Persie, leaving the remaining places essentially a popularity contest. If the voting was for the top 3 players of the season, perhaps the result would have been more accurate, as the top 3 surely had to be Koscielny, Arteta and van Persie. But I’ve already digressed enough.
It seems traditional/clichéd when praising a player to begin with a somewhat nostalgic flash-back to when they first joined the club, so here goes. In a flurry of deadline day activity at Arsenal, the midfield was seen as the most pressing concern, considering that Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas had left and their playmaking abilities were yet to be replaced. A number of midfield names were linked, before it boiled down to Arteta, a slightly under-whelming choice at the time, seeing as Mario Goetze had been rumoured, among others.
But after some twists in the tale, Arteta eventually made the move to Arsenal, which was admittedly met with some cynicism within the Arsenal fanbase. A good player, yes, but he had injury problems, was quite old, and was nowhere near the calibre of Cesc Fabregas. However, it became clear that Arsene Wenger had not planned for Arteta to replace Fabregas, but instead had decided upon a midfield reshuffling: Arteta and Alex Song sitting in front of the defence, with another player in the “Fabregas role”; Aaron Ramsey was earmarked, but Jack Wilshere seemed the best choice, once he returned from that brief injury lay-off.
With Arteta’s Spanish origin, especially having come from Barcelona’s La Masia academy, it was expected that he would be the more creative of the pivot he was deployed in alongside Alex Song. However, unintentionally or not, Song was the one who roamed more often, while Arteta sat back and gave Arsenal discipline and safety. This was clearly missed sorely when Arteta was absent – Arsenal won just once in the league without him, drawing four times and losing four times.
The metronomic 30-year-old was forever an option while Arsenal had the ball, and was remarkably calm on it, showing superb poise to help Arsenal retain possession and build up attacks patiently. As well as the ball-retention skills he brought to the team, he also brought hard work and the ability to win the ball back and break up opposition attacks; he credits this to his time with Rangers in the SPL, and this “dirty work” was vital to Arsenal.
As well as fulfilling all of the tasks his role demanded him to, when he went on a rare foray forwards it was well-timed and often resulted in success for Arsenal. This usually happened when the Gunners were struggling to break a team down – they pushed further up the field, penning back the opposition, and Arteta went forwards more often. This was most evident against Tottenham when 2-0 down; Arteta played a crucial role in Bacary Sagna’s goal to make it 2-1.
While Alex Song’s assists and the rejuvenation of Tomas Rosicky will possibly trump Arteta in the poll, little notice should be paid to his fifth-placed finish. Although those were both important to Arsenal’s success in gaining Champions League football, what they both lacked was consistency, something Arteta displayed through-out the season (that goes without saying I suppose, as otherwise his consistency would be inconsistent). Not the most spectacular of players, the Spanish midfielder rarely won the man-of-the-match award at Arsenal, but was always a solid performer; ever-reliable in a season when Arsenal desperately needed stability.
It was no fluke either – he says himself that he tries to give balance to the team, despite perhaps wanting more freedom, which he must be given credit for. Arteta is more than happy to go about his business quietly, while others take the plaudits, but after Arsenal’s resurrection, praise must be reserved for their number 8.