Arsenal: Cautious optimism surrounds resurgence with fans uniting behind Mikel Arteta
It’s all looking very positive at Arsenal football club this season.
The men’s team sits atop the English Premier League, with a manager full of ideas and a fearless new generation breaking through into the first team.
The atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium is the best it’s ever been and the frustrations that have surrounded the club in recent years seem to be a thing of the past.
Arsenal fans expect their club to be challenging for titles and mixing it with the very best teams in the world but that hasn’t been the case following Arsene Wenger’s decision to step down as manager in 2018.
The club hasn’t featured in the Champions League since 2017 and has been light-years away from challenging the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League.
Its brief membership of the failed European Super League only created further division between the club’s American owners and the fans but, whisper it quietly, Arsenal might be on its way back.
“Right now it feels like there’s a big change, a big difference, back to the football that we once loved,” presenter of Arsenal fan channel, AFTV, Cecil Jee Thomas told CNN Sport.
“The way we’re playing and the connection between the club and the fans is the best I’ve seen at the Emirates.
“This is the best start Arsenal have had in many years. It’s amazing to be a fan right now. I’ll be honest, it feels really nice.”
Thomas’ work with AFTV means he’s immersed in Arsenal’s fanbase and he’s been enjoying speaking to supporters this season.
He says the majority of fans are now united behind Spanish manager Mikel Arteta who had previously split opinion, especially after the club finished eighth in his first two years in charge.
But a fifth place finish last season showed progression and the team’s development seemingly accelerated over the off-season. It’s won 10 out of its 12 games in the league so far, losing just once to Manchester United.
Arteta’s Arsenal now leads Manchester City in the Premier League – a team that is touted for greatness – and shows very little signs of slowing down.
Arsenal also breezed through Europa League qualification, cementing top spot in the group after a 1-0 win against Zurich on Thursday.
“Winning helps winning. The atmosphere in the dressing room is much better after a win than a loss,” Arteta said after the game.
Arteta, who was schooled by Pep Guardiola during his time as an assistant at Manchester City, seems to have laid the foundations of the team’s return to the top.
The summer signings of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from the Etihad has provided some quality and experience which has blended perfectly with the host of young players coming through Arsenal’s ranks.
Academy graduate Bukayo Saka and Brazilian youngster Gabriel Martinelli are busy establishing themselves as top-class Premier League attackers and even the Arsenal defense, something that has long been deemed too soft, looks to have clicked into gear.
Despite not scoring in eight games now, Jesus continues to offer so much as a striker.
His tenacious pressing and expert hold-up play has helped Arsenal dominate matches and his manager is fully aware of his importance.
“That’s going to change,” Arteta told reporters when asked about the Brazilian’s bad luck in front of goal on Thursday.
“He’s getting the situations, he’s getting the chances, he’s contributing to the team an awful lot, he’s helping to win matches, the way he competes for every ball in every single action is incredible.
“It will come, he needs to be patient, he’s been through that in the past and he needs to learn those lessons and don’t stop doing those other things that he’s doing so well, because that’s going to maintain the level of him and the team.”
Fans have enjoyed watching Arsenal’s rebuilding process and have been able to do so more closely than ever before.
The club’s Amazon ‘All or Nothing’ series was released at the start of the season and documented Arsenal’s previous campaign.
It included behind-the-scenes footage of training, the changing room and meetings between the club’s hierarchy.
The series allowed fans to see the human side of players who have recently been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism – none more so than Granit Xhaka.
The midfielder’s time at the club looking to be over in 2019 after he reacted angrily to boos from the crowd after being subbed off. He took his shirt off, swore at the Arsenal fans and stormed down the tunnel in what looked to be his last act as a player for the club.
But two seasons later and the midfield general is one of Arteta’s most important and consistent performers. The decision to give Xhaka another chance was yet another big call that Arteta got right.
The Amazon series did, however, highlight some novel ways in which Arteta looked to motivate his team – from the use of drawings to playing Liverpool’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” anthem during training before the game.
“I think before it came out, a lot of fans were worried to see what it was going to be, whether it would be something to be laughed at,” Thomas said.
“But I think it depicted Arsenal in such a great way, the way Arteta is with his players and how much he puts emphasis on trying to build the relationship between the fans and the team.”
AFTV has continued to grow as a channel, though it has sometimes drawn criticism for being too negative about the team.
But it now seems the club’s leadership team is determined to rebuild the relationship with its fans, especially after the protests around the proposed European Super League.
Technical director Edu, a former player at the club who is now responsible for player recruitment, appears to be leading that charge and has also been praised for helping to create an identity around this current team that fans have been able to connect with.
“I don’t believe they realized how powerful the fans were,” Thomas said.
The club’s subsequent hard work has reaped rewards and Arteta has been able to create a warmth around the club, demonstrating the potential reward for owners who stick by their manager through tough times.
The unity is perhaps best demonstrated by the new anthem ‘North London Forever’ which is sung at the Emirates Stadium before every home game.
“Arteta addresses the fans in his press conferences as well and he says how important we are,” Thomas added, saying some fans have even begun tentatively warming to the club’s owners, the Kroenke family.
“The unity that we have is so different and it’s so lovely to be a part of. It’s something that I’m really appreciating.
“Fans were saying the owners weren’t connected to us and this is all about business and money, but now they [owners] seem to play a bit more of a part when it comes to the success of this club.”
In truth, there have been multiple false dawns at Arsenal since it last won a league title in 2004 and Thomas says fans aren’t getting carried away just yet.
Squad depth in certain positions is still not what many would hope for. Jesus, for example, has been a revelation upfront but should he get injured, there isn’t a replacement at the same level.
The realistic expectation, then, is not necessarily to win the Premier League title but to cement itself back in the Champions League.
“Right now we are sitting top of the Premier League and we are in a conversation for the title but I think the expectation is top four,” Thomas concedes.
‘If you get a second, you still get Champions League football. If you get fourth, you still get Champions League football – you don’t get a trophy for either of those positions.
“So for me and for many others, top four is definitely the expectation and if we get a trophy on top of that, for me that’s a bonus.”
Given the momentum at the club as of late, the World Cup in Qatar could not have come at a worse time.
The Premier League will pause for over a month as many of Arsenal’s players will travel to the Gulf nation to join their respective teams.
It’s impact on the season is somewhat of a unknown quantity but fans will be hope the team can continue its good form going into the break.
It faces a tough fixture against Chelsea on Sunday before a midweek tie against Brighton in the EFL Cup on Wednesday.
If it comes through those fixtures unscathed then reasons to not believe in Arteta’s Arsenal will quickly be running out.