When Mikel Arteta walks through the walls of Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium on Super Sunday, he will likely be reminded of the tough nature of football management – and how far his side have come in a year.
Thirteen months ago, the Arsenal side traveled to Brentford on the opening day of last season and were humiliated 2-0 – the start of three straight defeats to start the latest campaign.
Even after just one game and the season in its infancy, questions were being asked of the Spaniard’s direction as to whether he was the right man to take Arsenal forward. Some of them were in Arteta’s own mind.
“I doubted myself, I questioned myself,” he tells exclusively Sky Sports about how he felt when his team was bottom after three games. “This is part of a journey where – if you want to get better – you have to be self-critical.
“You have to have other people around you to tell you the truth and also have the humility to always be willing to improve, improve and explore other opinions and ways of doing your job.”
These critics were tough to deal with. A wave of optimism last season turned into a “tsunami” of criticism, a metaphor coined by the Arsenal manager himself 12 months ago.
“It all built up a lot,” Arteta recalls of the tidal wave of negativity. “The way everyone reacted after the first game of the season, it was huge.
“But it tells you the expectations of the football club you’re at, how much passion and love there is for this club and how quickly you can turn things around. You have to be prepared for that and you have to be analytical about why things happen.”
So what did he learn? “One of the big lessons was: stay in the difficult moments, understand why things happen and move on.”
Fast forward a year and things are looking up for the Gunners. Top of the table after a positive start to the season, with Arteta named Premier League Manager of the Month for August this week. From being riddled with mistakes at Brentford a year ago, Arteta’s side head back to west London with “no weaknesses” in their squad – according to the club’s legendary former manager Arsene Wenger.
“It’s great to hear that from Arsene after being with him every single day!” said Arteta, with Wenger one of his earliest mentors when he decided to make the transition from playing to coaching. “But I see a lot of things that we still need to improve and get better at. We’re heading in the right direction, but we can be much, much better.”
That was no more evident than in their last Premier League game against Manchester United, which ended in a 3-1 defeat. Many analysts are keen to note the similarities between the Brentford game last season and the United defeat this season. Loads of pre-match optimism, favorites for the match on paper, total control in the game but ineffectiveness that lets them down in both boxes.
“Naive” and “a lack of maturity” were words associated with the Gunners at Old Trafford once again. But this week, Arteta is going back to the experience at Brentford a year ago – using exactly the same messages.
“After Manchester United it was very easy,” he says. “I watched the game back and said to the lads: ‘We deserved to win the game with the way we played – but we gave them two chances to do something they are exceptionally good at’.
“It was our mistake – and then you have to move on.
“This is the game at the end of the day – it’s decided in various small fractions of time, moments and details that lead to a football result.
“It can be completely different than what you’ve earned, and our job is to earn the right to win the game. Sometimes it’s margins, mistakes or decisions that are out of your hands.”
Now Arsenal turn their attention to Brentford, who are proving to be a difficult banana skin for teams in this division. The Bees have taken points from Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and the Gunners at their west London home since their top flight last year – and Arteta admits the “any means necessary” approach to beating this Brentford side.
Of course Arteta knows – having posted Brentford striker Ivan Toney’s tweet mocking Arsenal from their defeat 12 months ago in the dressing room for February’s return leg at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners won 2-1 that day – and their Spanish manager wants more of the same.
“Every manager tries to motivate using everything we can with our hands to get the best out of our players and I think at that moment it was the right thing to do,” Arteta said of the Toney tweet.
“Every game has a context. Who you’re playing, the climate, what moment they’re in, what we have to expect, what’s the behavior of the fans, [what happens] when they win [what happens] when they lose. There are a lot of factors we have to be aware of, it’s up to us to use it to our advantage.”
“Hopefully this [Sunday] will be a completely different story,” Arteta added as he reflected on this match a year ago. “But they [Brentford] have shown in recent months that they can perform and get big results against big teams.
“We are aware of that and we are not the only ones who have suffered there and on Sunday they will try to do exactly that again.
– We have to prepare for that.
Watch Brentford vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Super Sunday this weekend from 11 a.m.; kick off at 12 noon.