It was October 17, 2020 and I was into my second month writing for Sportsmail. Arsenal had made a bright start to the season and I wanted to assess their prospects.
I liked what I’d seen from Mikel Arteta’s team, to the point that I had no hesitation in making the following statement: ‘I thought it would be a long way back for them but it has proven to be anything but — nobody is laughing at Arsenal any more.’
The Gunners lost 1-0 to Manchester City that afternoon, the start of a run of six defeats in eight games. They took four points out of 24 and, not surprisingly, a lot of people laughed at me and reminded me of those words.
I always believed Mikel Arteta would be the man to turn the situation at Arsenal around
Arteta, I was told from his time at City, was single-minded, direct, innovative and assertive
This is football now. It is so reactive, more so than ever before. Win and you are the best in the world, lose and you are clueless. Patience, unfortunately, is no longer a virtue and there is an unwillingness from many to look at the bigger picture.
Thankfully, Arsenal’s board bucked the modern trend. When results dipped last season, they stood behind Arteta and did likewise at the start of this campaign after their opening three defeats to Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City, when they failed to even score a goal.
Once again, people dug out my line from the previous autumn and posted it to me on social media. Did I regret saying it? No chance. I explained at length why I believed Arteta would be the man to turn the situation around and I knew what he could do, given time.
My confidence came from the reports I’d heard about his work at City alongside Pep Guardiola. The players there had the utmost respect for him and had no hesitation in buying into his sessions. Arteta, I was told, was single-minded, direct, innovative and assertive.
Thankfully, Arsenal’s board bucked the modern trend when results dipped at the start of the season
The best coaches have a way of getting their message across, simply and quickly. I found it under men such as Steve Wigley and Eddie Niedzwiecki, Frankie Bunn, Alex Gibson and Paul Power — they were never afraid to step in and stop things if the session was not going as they wanted. Arteta was the same.
I also had belief in the squad he was assembling. Arsenal have invested in young players and Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Odegaard, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Kieran Tierney and Ben White are all flourishing.
Football is evolving and Arteta is from the new school of managers, a man who not long ago was playing and can understand what a dressing room needs to run smoothly. He will know what his squad needs to keep them happy, on and off the pitch.
You should not forget, either, that Arteta has been brave. It was a big call to allow Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s sale to Barcelona in January. If he had signed Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina as his replacement, the transfer window would have been perfect.
My confidence in him came from the reports I’d heard about his work at City alongside Pep Guardiola
Arteta always looked the right fit to get Arsenal back into the top four, which they took for granted under Arsene Wenger, and over the next two months we will see if he can deliver on the promise.
What an outstanding opportunity is in front of them. Without European football this season, I felt Arsenal would have an edge to get into the top four because of the clear weeks they had to prepare for games — it has enabled them to build a solid base.
They go into this weekend three points ahead of Tottenham, with a game in hand, and it is important to capitalise from here, because the difference it could make to their fortunes for the next number of years is huge.
Should Arsenal qualify for the Champions League next season, think of the strength it will add to their hand in the transfer market. They already have a great history, a fantastic stadium and training ground, while areas such as Hampstead are unbelievable places for potential targets to live.
I also had belief in the squad he was assembling, with Arsenal having invested in young players like Bukayo Saka (R) and Emile Smith-Rowe (L)
When you then add in the prospect of playing in the best competition of all, why wouldn’t you sign for Arsenal?
Let me put it another way — when Leicester won the league, nobody really believed their new status would enable them to buy a higher level of player.
Arsenal being back in the Champions League, on the other hand, will definitely enable them to buy a higher level of player and that is why so much is at stake in these final 10 games, starting against Crystal Palace on Monday.
Arteta has been brave, allowing striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to join Barcelona
I would not subscribe to Wenger’s famous old theory that finishing in the top four was like winning a trophy, but achieving that now would be potentially transformative after so many years when their critics laughed at them.
It will not be easy. Tottenham are on their shoulders and will see a sequence of games later this month, when Arsenal face Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham in the space of 10 days, as a point where they could take advantage before the North London derby.
But if Arsenal are serious about making a statement, this is where we will see their true colours.
I have no doubts about the manager. It’s now time for everyone to deliver.
Fans were pathetic to abuse Maguire
I wouldn’t have agreed with Gareth Southgate being booed at Wembley for picking Harry Maguire, but I would have understood it.
Maguire was included in the England squad when he was out of form, while his Manchester United team-mate Jadon Sancho, who is in fine form, was not. If fans want to vent their anger at a manager over a selection decision, fair enough. I’d never condone it but I could at least see the logic.
For England fans to boo Harry Maguire though, was pathetic. Does it make those who boo feel better? What do they think it achieves? It seems that some of the negativity and abuse on social media has moved offline and I can’t say I like it.
For England fans to boo Harry Maguire against Ivory Coast earlier this week was pathetic
Mancini was right to be cautious
When I saw Roberto Mancini in Florence at the end of January, we concluded our chat with a discussion about the World Cup.
With Italy having won the Euros, I couldn’t entertain the idea my old boss would not be pursuing the second leg of the ultimate football double in Qatar. He smiled and said ‘Yes of course I have to win!’ but, quickly, his demeanour changed.
Mancini corrected me when I suggested the first part of the play-offs would be easy. He put his hand on my arm and said: ‘Just think about one game — the next game. Nothing more.’
For all his caution, I expected Italy to beat North Macedonia — I’m sure we all did. So when that shock result came through last week, I was speechless. How is a second consecutive World Cup taking place without Italy?
How different things would have been if Jorginho had converted a penalty against Switzerland last autumn. How much more potent would Italy have been had Federico Chiesa not been injured?
North Macedonia reminded us that football is all about taking advantage of big moments. Mancini, who will be heart- broken, knew about the dangers and his instinct was right.
Micah’s Man of the Week
A little word on Jack Grealish. I’m going to make an analogy about chicken always tasting better when you have marinaded it and cooked it slowly and it looks to me that Grealish is ready to be served!
I have never been in doubt that he would take off at Manchester City. He has needed some time to adjust, but there have been signs recently that he is about to hit his best form.
Critics say he hasn’t done enough for City so far but we are now at the business end of the season. A few important goals in the run-in will change all that.
What he does from here matters more than anything — and I feel he’s ready to produce.
I have never been in doubt that Jack Grealish would take off at Manchester City