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    Dodgeball, Spot the Difference & Arteta's Pranks: Arsenal's Story of the Season

    Mikel Arteta's close relationship with Bukayo Saki typified the young coach's bond with his players. Credit: Action Images/Andrew Cooldridge

    In the moments of euphoria that followed Arsenal's most dramatic win of the season, Mikel Arteta urged his players and staff to get out and have fun. They had just beaten Bournemouth 3-2 and Reiss Nelson, who won in the 97th minute, set off perhaps the biggest celebration the Emirates Stadium had ever seen, and Arteta wanted each of them to enjoy the moment.

    Bukayo Saka was among the players who traveled to central London that March evening. He went to dine at Novikov, an upmarket restaurant in Mayfair. It's a trendy place frequented by football players and other celebrities, and you never know what famous face you might see at the next table.

    However, one person Saka didn't expect to see was his manager. But there was Arteta enjoying his own night in the same part of the capital at the same time. A complete coincidence and, oddly enough, this is not the only case during the season. Arteta and Saki have the same views on football, and apparently also have an interest in fine dining.

    For Arteta, who said he believes in fate after that victory over Bournemouth, these unplanned meetings could well seem something more than a coincidence. At the very least, it was another sign that he and Saka were on the same wavelength, and their laughter at the weirdness of it all only helped build a relationship that was already strong.

    Stories like these of crossing social lives and strengthening friendships are reminiscent of Arteta's tender age. The Spaniard is undeniably Arsenal's boss, but at 41, he's not much older than his players. He only retired from the game in 2016 and the memories of being in the locker room are still fresh in his mind.

    It must be said that Arteta is not as close to all of his players as he is to Saka. But one reason for Arsenal's success this season – a surprise title challenge and a long-awaited return to the Champions League – is that the Arsenal manager has been able to get inside his players' heads to figure out what makes them tick and help them. to work.

    In management language, this could be called “creating a culture of victory.” From a practical standpoint, it's about setting the tone and changing the mood, and knowing when to work hard and when to have fun.

    Take, for example, Arsenal's pre-match activity. Arteta often appears unflinchingly serious about his media duties, but he knows that enjoyment is important too. So throughout the season, he and his coaching staff encouraged their players to play games, including dodgeball and spot-the-difference, in the hotel before matches.

    Looking the players in the eye

    One of the most memorable of these games took place in October, just hours before the north London derby against Tottenham Hotspur. The premise was simple: the team was ordered to hide the coins in the shoes of several players, and the coaches left the room. Arteta and his staff would then come back and look their players in the eye before guessing who had the coins hidden in their sneakers.

    He was introduced to the players as a chance for the coaches to show how closely they knew them. According to the coaches, just by looking at their faces, they will be able to tell who is hiding something. And when the moment of truth came, the coaches were at their best. They had a whole team to choose from and they did it right.

    The players were obviously at a loss. How could the coaches know? Then there was a big discovery: Arteta and his assistants had been watching all this time through CCTV cameras. A sneaky stunt, yes, but one that sparked amusement and washed away any tension the players might have had before one of their most important matches of the season. A few hours later, Arsenal won 3-1.

    It is clear that such draws are not the secret of Arsenal's success on the field. But Arteta is obsessed with small details and tiny margins, and he will no doubt argue that all this contributes to a happier setting and better performance. He wants the club to be a friendlier and warmer place, and further evidence of this can be seen in the latest addition to the training ground: a chocolate Labrador named Vin.

    Something has changed in the club

    Arteta is often the first to arrive at the club's headquarters in London Colney. He wakes up early, sometimes before 5 am, and on such days it is he who opens the doors at the training base. These hours are precious, they give him time to calmly think and plan; without interference, without knocking on the door.

    The Arsenal manager often walks around the training ground to think things over. He also enjoys reading books about leadership, psychology, and success. He is part of a group of coaches from various sports, including the NFL and rugby union, who exchange tips and share their experiences during meetings on Zoom.

    Meanwhile, within the team since the beginning of the pre-season, it was clear that something had changed in the club. The players could feel a different hunger and ambition stemming from their inability to secure a top four finish last season, and the arrival of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko changed the dynamics of the team.

    From the moment they crossed the threshold, Zinchenko and Jesus told their new teammates to dream big. They won the championship with Manchester City and were convinced that Arsenal had what it takes to do the same.

    While touring the United States last summer, we got the feeling that something special was possible. The football world as a whole did not attach much importance to the 4-0 friendly victory over Chelsea, but the Arsenal players did.

    Martin Odegaard scored twice in a 2-0 win over Wolverhampton Wolves in November to put Arsenal five points clear of the World Cup leaders. Photo: AFP/Oli Scarff

    In the US, they worked hard to create unity: the table layout ensured that everyone interacted with different players and staff every day, defender Gabriel Magalhaes held initiation ceremonies for some new faces, and sporting director Edu encouraged all newcomers to learn English. As soon as possible.

    With Zinchenko and Jesús in the line-up, and William Saliba looking commanding at centre-back all summer, Arsenal have been in action since the start of the campaign. By the time the season was suspended before the World Cup, they had won 12 out of 14 matches in the Premier League.

    The World Cup and Jesus' injury did not stop them. Eddie Nketiah stepped up in the Brazilian's absence – players sang Nketiah's name in the dressing room after his victory over Manchester United in January – and Leandro Trossar offered a new attack option after his move from Brighton.

    Throughout this time, some players have taken the lead. At the beginning of the season it was Jesus, then Saka. Martin Odegaard also had an exceptional campaign. Ødegaard became the club's top scorer with 15 goals and assumed the role of captain.

    Ødegaard often speaks to Arteta [usually in Spanish] during matches, and backstage he happily takes on his duties as captain. Before the under-18s played in the FA Youth Cup final in April, Ødegaard made sure to visit the team to wish them luck. When the new art around the Emirates Stadium was unveiled, Odegaard met fans and club legends.

    To be clear, the Norwegian had help. He is part of a three-man leaderboard along with Granit Xhaka and Jesus (who was promoted to the role within weeks of joining) and together they provide balance. Of the three, Odegaard is softer and more measured, while Jaka is more assertive and blunt. Jesus as a person is somewhere in between.

    Eddie Nketiah celebrates after defeating Manchester United, who were sacked in January. belief that Arsenal would win the title. Photo: Offside/Mark Leech

    There were times on the pitch in early 2023 when Arsenal seemed to be riding a wave of emotion that would never waver. Late victories over United, Aston Villa and Bournemouth have added confidence and made fans feel that this team will somehow always find a way out. The atmosphere at the Emirates was, according to some longtime observers, better than ever.

    Of course, this was not destined to happen. And now with City confirmed as champions following the collapse of Arsenal at the end of the season, it seems clear that the turning point of their campaign came on March 16, when Arteta's side faced Sporting CP in the Europa League. Within 12 minutes of the first half, Arsenal lost both Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu to serious injuries.

    At various points in the campaign, Arsenal have shown that they can thrive without Jesus, Zinchenko, Thomas Partey and even, briefly, Odegaard. However, the loss of Saliba was a blow of wild proportions. As Tomiyasu's absence meant that Ben White had to remain at right back, Arsenal's defensive structure subsequently fell apart.

    Emile Smith Rowe Reaction during a 3-0 home defeat to Brighton that nearly killed Arsenal's title hopes. Photo: EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Neil Hall

    In 10 league games without Saliba, Arsenal have conceded 18 goals and won only four times. At the same time, City won every league match they played. When Arsenal stumbled, they were tracked down and overtaken by a bigger, stronger, better beast.

    The accusations of “blocking up” the league title didn't sit well with Arteta or his players. It is clear that there is a sense of great disappointment and sadness at their inability to contain City's attack. But there is also perspective, and Arteta was quick to remind the team how far they have come this season.

    The challenge now for Arteta and his players is to prove that this season's pursuit of the title was not a one-off. It helps that they are young (the second youngest team in the division) and many of their players are expected to improve.

    Gabriel, Aaron Ramsdale, Gabriel Martinelli and Saka have signed new contracts and Arsenal are looking forward to that other renewals will follow. This season may have ended painfully, but that doesn't erase the joys of the journey, leaving the club feeling that the best is yet to come.

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