Arsenal: Cautious optimism rekindles as fans rally behind Mikel Arteta




CNN

He looks very positive at Arsenal football club this season.

The men’s team are at the top of the English Premier League, with a coach full of ideas and a new generation fearlessly breaking into the first team.

The atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium is the best it has 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 challenge for titles and mix with the best teams in the world, but that has not been the case following Arsene Wenger’s decision to step down as manager in 2018.

The club has not featured in the Champions League since 2017 and has been light years away from Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League.

The failed European Super League’s brief membership only served to further divide the club’s American owners and fans, but quietly, Arsenal could be on the road to a comeback.

“Right now we feel like there’s a big change, a big difference, to go back to the football we once loved,” Arsenal fan channel presenter Cecil Jee Thomas told CNN Sport.

“The way they play and the connection between the club and the fans is the best I’ve seen at the Emirates.

“This is Arsenal’s best start for many years. It’s amazing to be a fan now. I’ll be honest, it feels really nice.’

Thomas’ work with AFTV means he is immersed in the Arsenal fan base and has enjoyed speaking to supporters this season.

According to him, the majority of the fans are united behind the Spanish coach Mikel Arteta, who until now has divided opinion, especially after the club finished eighth in his first two years.

But last season’s fifth-place finish showed progress and the team’s development seemed to accelerate in the off-season. They have won 10 of their 12 league games so far, losing just once against Manchester United.

Arteta’s Arsenal lead Manchester City in the Premier League – a team praised for their greatness – and show little sign of slowing down.

Arsenal also qualified for the Europa League, consolidating top spot in their group after a 1-0 win over Zurich on Thursday.

“Winning helps to win. The atmosphere in the locker room is much better after a win than after a loss,” said Arteta after the match.

Arteta, during his time under Pep Guardiola as an assistant at Manchester City, seems to have laid the foundations for the team’s comeback.

The summer signings of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko from the Etihad have brought quality and experience, and have combined perfectly with the young players coming through Arsenal’s ranks.

Academy graduate Bukayo Saka and Brazilian youngster Gabriel Martinelli are establishing themselves as Premier League attackers and Arsenal’s defence, long regarded as too soft, also seems to be on the mend.

Despite not scoring a goal in eight games now, Jesus continues to offer so much as a striker.

Firm pressing and expert hold-up play have helped Arsenal dominate games and their manager is fully aware of its importance.

“That will change,” Arteta told reporters on Thursday when asked about the Brazilian’s run of bad luck.

“He’s getting situations, he’s getting chances, he’s helping the team tremendously, he’s helping us win games, the way he competes for every ball in every action is incredible.

“He’ll get there, he’s got to be patient, he’s been through that in the past and he’s got to learn those lessons and not stop doing those other things he does very well because that’s going to keep his level 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 series ‘All or Nothing’ was released at the start of the season and documented Arsenal’s previous campaign.

It included behind-the-scenes footage of training, the dressing room and meetings between the club’s hierarchy.

The series allowed fans to see the human side of players who have received much criticism of late, rather than Granit Xhaka.

The midfielder is set to end his time at the club in 2019 after he was kicked out by a crowd he reacted angrily to. He took off his shirt, swore at Arsenal fans and stormed down the tunnel in his final event as a player for the club.

But two seasons later and the midfield general is one of Arteta’s most important and consistent strikers. The decision to give Xhaka another chance was another big call that Arteta got right.

The Amazon series, however, highlighted some of the new ways Arteta motivates his team, from the use of drawings to playing Liverpool’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” anthem before training.

“I think before it came out, a lot of fans were anxious to see what it was going to be, whether it was going to be something to laugh at,” Thomas said.

“But I think he represented Arsenal in a really great way, the way Arteta is with his players and how much emphasis he puts on trying to build a relationship between the fans and the team.”

The atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium was the best it's ever been, fans say.

AFTV has continued to grow as a channel, although it has sometimes been criticized for being too negative towards the group.

But it now seems that the club’s management team is determined to rebuild their relationship with their fans, especially after the protests over the proposed European Super League.

Technical director Edu, a former player at the club who is now in charge of player recruitment, appears to be leading the charge and has also been praised for helping to create an identity around this current squad that fans have been able to connect with.

“I don’t think the fans realized how strong they were,” Thomas said.

The hard work behind the club has paid off and Arteta has been able to create warmth around the club, showing the reward owners can have for sticking with their manager through tough times.

The unity is perhaps best illustrated by the new anthem ‘North London Forever’ which is sung before every home game at the Emirates Stadium.

“Arteta also speaks to the fans in his press conferences and says how important we are,” Thomas added, adding that some fans have tentatively started fighting with the club’s owners, the Kroenke family.

“The union we have is very different and it is very nice to participate. It’s something I’m really appreciating.

“Fans were saying the owners weren’t connected to us and it’s all about business and money, but now [owners] he seems to play a bit more in terms of the success of this club.’

In truth, there have been many false dawns for Arsenal since they last won the league title in 2004 and Thomas says the fans are still not going away.

The team’s depth at certain positions is still not what many would expect. Jesus, for example, has been a revelation before, but if he were to get injured, there is no replacement at the same level.

The realistic hope, therefore, is not necessarily to win the Premier League title, but to re-consolidate in the Champions League.

“We’re sitting top of the Premier League right now and we’re in the conversation for the title, but I think the expectation is top four,” admits Thomas.

“If you get one second, you get Champions League football. If you finish fourth, you get Champions League football; you don’t get a hat in either of these positions.

“So for me and a lot of others, the first is definitely fourth, and if we get the trophy on top of that, that’s a bonus for me.”

Given the club’s recent momentum, the World Cup in Qatar could not have come at a worse time.

The Premier League will be on hiatus for more than a month, with many Arsenal players heading to the Gulf country to join their respective clubs.

The impact on the season is unknown, but fans will be hoping the team continues their good form heading into the break.

He faces a tough game against Chelsea on Sunday before midweek against Brighton on Wednesday in the EFL Cup.

If he makes it through those fixtures unscathed, Arteta’s reasons for not believing in Arsenal will quickly end.