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Mikel Arteta rolls with the rickets in pursuit of Arsenal passing perfection | Arsenal

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The most striking constant during Arsenal’s season of exasperating form has been Mikel Arteta’s contention that it is all, essentially, a test of nerve. That applies directly to those who could theoretically bring the curtain down in an instant: more decorated managers have been sacked for delivering far better outcomes than Arteta will produce this year. What he and his employers share is an unshakable conviction that this long, hairpin-bending road will eventually lead them over a shimmering horizon.

They are nowhere near it yet and Tottenham, themselves far short of being a dominant force, may well reinforce the point on Sunday afternoon. Arteta will know that deep down but he has begun to afford himself some more bullish proclamations about what the future, as fashioned by him, ought to hold.

A few days ago he predicted Arsenal will “go bang” in a post‑pandemic setting, while it was instructive to hear him talking on Friday morning, hours after a significant win at Olympiakos, about the wider context in which a north London derby should be viewed. The Premier League table says Arsenal are London’s fourth-best team; Arteta was asked whether that is good enough and shot straight for the stars. “No, we want to be the best – and not in London,” he said. “We want to be the best in the league. That is the standard we have to try to reach because of the expectation we have and what the club has done over the years. I’m not interested in London, I’m interested about the whole country and being the best in the country.”

Arteta wants everyone to know perfection is the aim and, public relations-wise, it is a high-wire act. Compared with the side that staggered through the autumn, Arsenal now purr. They have become a genuinely appealing team to watch: that holds doubly true from a neutral perspective, though, given nobody can be sure where the next calamity will spring from.

Should Arsenal commit the errors in passing from the back that cost them points at Burnley and should have brought greater damage in Piraeus, they will be savaged by Spurs, West Ham and Liverpool in the next three weeks. It would be a waste of breath suggesting they adopt a different approach: this is uncompromisingly the method by which Arteta will stand or fall and he is clear the problems are related more to “how” and “when” than his guiding principle.

 'I want to be more ruthless' says Mikel Arteta after Arsenal's win over Olympiacos – video
‘I want to be more ruthless’ says Mikel Arteta after Arsenal’s win over Olympiacos – video

Granit Xhaka could have swept a first-time pass out to David Luiz at Turf Moor, and Chris Wood would have been too late to close the angle; Bernd Leno could have looked right, rather than straight ahead to a pressured Dani Ceballos, and Olympiakos would have had little chance to briefly raise the prospect of another Europa League humbling. Neither was a zero-sum confrontation between knocking it long and shipping a goal. “Sometimes, when you go have to go through a process like this, you have to be ready to take or go through these situations,” Arteta said.

Again, that test of resolve, the certainty that this too shall pass, albeit sometimes very sloppily. Teams that play this way will always concede goals: losing defensive possession just one time in 100 will usually yield a chance in a dangerous area, while opponents are becoming more sophisticated in their pressing.

The calculation is that, eventually, the rewards will regularly overcome the risk. Those painstakingly plotted sequences against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and Liverpool in the Community Shield were arguments in Arteta’s favour; so, among others, was the goal by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that preceded Xhaka’s embarrassment against Burnley.

There is a nagging thought that, as far back as September 2019, Arsenal were floundering in similar fashion. A hapless 2-2 draw at Watford, when a backline including Leno and David Luiz offered up countless openings with loose passes, began a run that led to Unai Emery being dismissed and Arteta appointed.

Arteta still needs more reliable personnel in certain areas and enlisting them has been a gradual, grinding process largely beyond his control. But, while elegantly conceived goals and glaring rickets can be totted up and dissected, the bottom line is that results must eventually start rolling in.

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After Arteta outlined his quest to dominate the league, he was asked: how long will it take to get there? “I don’t know,” he said. “If I would know, I would give you a date. What I know is that tomorrow it has to be a better team than today.” That needs to be the firm direction of travel from here; if Arsenal improve sufficiently to overcome Tottenham then it might feel easier for everyone concerned to keep holding their breath.

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