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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Mikel Arteta has created a winning machine, now Arsenal must keep it together

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Two Spanish former players who have transitioned into management. Two former central midfielders from the Basque region, uncapped at international level. They never played each other either; one retired in the same summer the other returned to LaLiga to play his first senior matches there. And now, two rivals in the dugout for the first time – although not really.

Mikel Arteta and Javi Gracia go head-to-head at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday afternoon having actually already met on one of the biggest stages of the English game: Wembley, no less, and the 2019 FA Cup final. Then, Arteta was merely assistant of course, Pep Guardiola’s sidekick at Man City. Gracia was in charge of Watford, having overseen their revival and run to a first final since 1984.

This time around they meet as equals, if not with equal aims; the Gunners are chasing down a first Premier League title in 19 years, while Leeds remain in the midst of a nine-team scrap to avoid relegation.

While it’s Arsenal who therefore have the perceived easier task on the day, at home to a side two points above the drop zone, it’s also Arsenal who have the greater pressure on them to not slip up – Leeds have three home games in a row to look forward to if they fall short in this particular test.

In the relentless environment of the Premier League, where as few as a couple of defeats has been fatal to title aspirations in recent years, Arteta knows his side simply have to win again, then win again, then keep winning once more.

Setbacks, whenever they do come around, cannot be allowed to spiral – and there, Arteta’s team have twice shown their mettle in that regard of late.

First came the four-game winless streak across January and February. Two defeats and a home draw came after an FA Cup exit, but since then it’s six league wins on the bounce. More recently, a poor Europa League showing meant Arsenal were knocked out by Sporting CP – but bounced back with victory over Crystal Palace last time out.

Another huge positive for Arsenal this season has been the consistency of line-up they have been able to field, with a group of nine players having featured for over 1,800 league minutes so far this term – the equivalent of playing the entirety of 20 of their 28 matches so far.

That’s a core selection which Arteta has not needed to cover for, rotate out too often or worry about losing fluidity around.

By contrast, rivals around the top of the league have had far less consistency: Man United have five players who have reached that threshold and Tottenham six, but Man City and Liverpool only four apiece. Newcastle are the only team who can match Arsenal for a consistent core lineup, but they are outliers in not having had European football to contend with this season at the same time.

Even so, Arteta has managed to coax performances out of those who have needed to step in at times: Eddie Nketiah enjoyed a run while Gabriel Jesus was injured, for example, and Leandro Trossard has performed well since his January arrival.

(Getty Images)

But it’s the core group staying together and playing the majority of the remaining ten matches which will define whether or not Arsenal get over the line ahead of Arteta’s former employers. And that current gap of eight points presents perhaps a slightly false sense of security: Man City can reduce it to five if they win their game in hand, and just two if they win the late-April meeting between the teams.

Suddenly one draw doesn’t seem like much of a buffer, even if both will still drop some points along the way before May.

It makes the absence of centre-back William Saliba all the more pertinent ahead of the run-in, with Arteta confirming he’s en route back to fitness, but not available to face Leeds.

“He is not going to be fit for this game. We are trying, he is trying, to do everything he can to feel better and get him back training – but not yet,” he said in his pre-match press conference.

“I am very hopeful and he is as well. Back injuries are a bit tricky, how they evolve with the load that you put as well in certain areas. But he is very positive about it, the medical staff are positive about it. Let’s push it every day and see how he can cope with that and how the pain develops as well. He is obviously so willing as well to be back with the team.”

For that is what Arteta has created and made the most of more than anything else this season: a team. Keep it together a little longer and a two-decade stretch without a title could come to an end.

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