“You have to be ahead of the game,” Mikel Arteta tells Sky Sports with a smile. “You have to try to understand what can happen next, and how you are going to be first to make that decision and take advantage of it.”
In a first-floor meeting room at London Colney, Arteta is discussing the challenge of building a club up and, specifically, his efforts to turn Arsenal into a side capable of winning major honours again.
We are speaking a few days after Jurgen Klopp signed a new contract at Liverpool, extending a seven-year managerial reign during which he has totally transformed the club’s fortunes.
Elsewhere, Manchester United find themselves at a very different stage of their development having turned to Ajax’s Erik ten Hag to take over from interim boss Ralf Rangnick in the summer.
Arsenal, meanwhile, lie somewhere in between the two.
Arteta has overseen steady improvement since his appointment two and a half years ago. A Champions League finish is within reach. But the road to the top is a long one and he is adamant Arsenal must plot their own route in order to get there.
“There are things you can try to compare, and you can acknowledge how other clubs have been through these processes and these phases of a project, like Liverpool,” says Arteta.
“But what the league was six years ago and what the league is today is completely different. Those leagues were won with 83, 84, 86 points. Now you need 95, 96 or 100 points to win the league.
“The context is completely different, so what was good three or five years ago is not good anymore, because the standards are so high. We need to focus on what we want to do and how we are going to execute it, and not look too far ahead.”
Arteta’s immediate focus is Sunday’s meeting with West Ham at the London Stadium, where Arsenal will attempt to consolidate their position in fourth place. Beyond that, though, a crucial summer looms.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher recently said Arsenal’s next signings must be equivalent to Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk in terms of how they elevate the side if they are to close the gap to the elite. But Arteta is also bound by the resources available to him.
Alisson and Van Dijk transformed Liverpool. But they also came at a combined cost of £142m. “I don’t think we are in a position where we can do that, so we have to find other ways to do it,” says Arteta.
“Liverpool, as well, have improved their players immensely, which is as important as bringing players in. And then, the ones that you buy, [it’s important] that they can have an impact straight away.
“That’s a big decision they have to make in recruitment, and then they are human beings as well. They have to adapt, and sometimes that’s a tricky question to answer before they are actually here.”
Arsenal enjoyed success on that front last summer, with all six of their new recruits contributing positively this season, while the progress of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe in particular shows Arteta has also improved the players he already had.
Qualifying for the Champions League would be an important achievement, and something very necessary and powerful for the club moving forward
Still, though, there is a clear need for further strengthening. There are gaps in the squad up front and elsewhere, and Arteta confirms plans are already in place to fill them – albeit with an understanding of how quickly plans can change.
“We want to make the squad stronger, we want to make the starting XI stronger, we want to make the specificity and the personality of our players stronger, and that’s what we are going to be seeking to do,” says Arteta.
“It will depend on many factors… How many players are back from their loans, with the commitments we still have with them; our financial position in relation to where we finish; the clubs’ demands when we want to buy players or sell players.
“There are a lot of question marks there, but this is football.” Arteta smiles. “We’ve been through a lot in the last two seasons and we are going to try to manage it in the best possible way.
“The good thing is that the plan is clear, but the plan is just the plan until you start to work through that plan. Then, every decision and every situation is going to allow you – or not allow you – to be as close as possible to that plan, which is our aim.”
Nketiah, Elneny and adapting to injuries
What happens in the summer remains to be seen but Arteta has already had to make major adjustments on the pitch.
Earlier this month, Arsenal were rocked by long-term injuries to Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney in the space of a few days.
“We have a really short squad and we knew that in the beginning, especially after what happened in the January transfer window, so we have had to adapt,” says Arteta.
“Obviously, we didn’t expect those long-term injuries to come at the same time, but the team has now found a way to try to compete, play well and win football matches, and it is all about that.”
Their recent wins have come in exhilarating style, with Arsenal putting four goals past Chelsea at Stamford Bridge then beating Manchester United 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium having previously lost to Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton.
But their performances in those games also featured a level of openness not normally associated with Arteta’s Arsenal.
In the absence of Partey, in particular, has Arteta had to sacrifice defensive stability in order to unlock his attack?
“We didn’t concede a lot of chances in the three games that we lost,” he says. “We conceded a little bit more in the other two, which I wasn’t happy with because we want to control the games better, but it’s true that going forward, we have been a real threat.
“It’s about finding the balance and that is what we are trying to achieve.”
Is it also about making the side more unpredictable? Arsenal dominated many of the games they lost but Alexandre Lacazette was largely nullified and cutting edge was sorely lacking.
“More efficient, I would say, especially in the final third,” replies Arteta.
“We got into so many situations, we had so many shots and we weren’t efficient enough in the final third or in and around the box to find the right pass and hit the target much more often than we did.
“It’s something that we’ve been working on a lot and in the last two games we’ve been better.”
Their improvement owes a lot to some unlikely individuals.
Eddie Nketiah scored twice against Chelsea on only his second Premier League start of the season, while the previously out of favour Mohamed Elneny has impressed since being drafted into midfield.
Even Nuno Tavares has returned to the fore having suffered the ignominy of being substituted before half-time during Arsenal’s FA Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest in January.
“The pathway of a young player is so unpredictable,” says Arteta. “What they need for sure is support and clarity all the time and I think Nuno has had both of those things – in the good moments and in the difficult ones.
“The line is really thin when you make a decision to protect the player, and when you make a decision to protect the team,” he adds. “It’s inevitable at some stages that one has to happen in favour of the other.”
Arteta has handled Tavares’ return to the side carefully and feels the recent contributions of players such as him, Nketiah and Elneny after months on the periphery reflect the togetherness and commitment of his young squad as a whole.
“It shows the respect the players have between each other, with the coaching staff and the club, then the honesty that we have to try to look after each other and tell things as they are, whether they like them or not, or whether we like them or not.
“The role of every player in the team has to be very clear. Then the aim, all the time, is to challenge the player in that position, to challenge the manager, and to get better.
“That’s what they have been doing when they haven’t been playing and that’s why they are performing when they have the chance to play.
“Of course, I would like to give more minutes to the players that haven’t had enough, that’s for sure, independently of who they are, but the reality is that if someone else is playing, it is for a reason, and the players need to understand that.
“This is football, it is not tennis. It is not an individual sport. You know that you are going to go through these periods. Then it’s about how you go about them and how you try to change them.”
Handling pressure and using Invincibles
From here on in, much will depend on how Arsenal’s young players handle the pressure of the top-four race, especially with a potentially pivotal north London derby at Tottenham still to come.
According to Arteta, who experienced that pressure himself as an Arsenal player, the best way to do it is to remain focused on the task at hand and stick to the principles already in place.
“It is to try to keep doing what we are doing better every single day,” he says. “Our aim to improve in every single training session, to learn more, to be more efficient.
“That doesn’t change and that’s going to give us the opportunity to fight right until the end to get what we want. Doing something that we’ve never done before would probably make us go backwards.
“We know where we want to go and how we want to do it.”
That means being able to deal with setbacks too. “A bad result cannot influence what happens in the next game,” adds Arteta, “because we don’t want to be changing too many things.
“We want to continue to do what we want, and then be critical in the right way, to try to keep improving, because there are still a lot of things that we can do – and have to do – better to win football matches more comfortably.”
Arteta hopes his players will take inspiration from the club’s past and was pleased to see Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and several other members of Arsenal’s Invincibles in attendance during the recent 3-1 win over Manchester United.
“I always said they are all welcome here,” he says. “The experiences they had together, what they transmitted as a team, and what they actually achieved was phenomenal.
“That’s for the history and the legacy of the Premier League, so for us to have contact, for them to feel welcome here, and for them to be supportive with what we want to do, I think it’s something really valuable and important.
“I was really pleased to see them back here with smiles on their faces, feeling relaxed and doing something that is natural, and that should happen in a natural way because it’s their club. The way Arsenal is viewed today is because of players and people like them.”
Arsenal’s past holds plenty of lessons for his players but right now, Arteta’s priority is to plot the club’s future success – and to try and remain ahead of the game as he does it.
“We are where we are,” he says with a smile when asked if Arsenal’s top-four challenge has come sooner than he anticipated.
“For me, we are always behind where we should be because we are always seeking to improve and to do things better.
“We are always looking ahead.”
In the latest episode of the Essential Football Podcast, Sky Sports features writer Nick Wright sits down with Mikel Arteta for an exclusive interview at Arsenal’s London Colney training centre.
Ahead of the Gunners’ crucial Premier League clash with West Ham – which is live on Sky Sports on Sunday – the Arsenal boss discusses how his side have adapted after injuries to Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey, the club’s summer transfer plans, why they cannot copy Liverpool’s route to the top and how his Arsenal project is developing.
In Part 2, Nick is then joined by Sky Sports senior football journalist Oliver Yew to discuss the interview and all things Arsenal ahead of a pivotal few weeks for the club as they bid to return to the Champions League.
Watch West Ham vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4pm on Sunday; kick-off 4.30pm