Deep in the English understanding of football lies a willingness for faith, a yearning for a messiah. Fans want to believe in a hero who will solve all their problems: “We all dreamed of a day when a saviour’d come our way,” as the lyrics of the original 1997-98 Sunderland version of Cheer Up, Peter Reid have it.
There may be complicated psychosocial reasons for that, related to historical governmental and ecclesiastical structures, but at the very least the sense was reinforced by the fact that as football entered its televisual age with the advent of Match of the Day in 1964, the English game was dominated by charismatic leaders.
There was Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Matt Busby at Manchester United and Don Revie at Leeds. They would soon be joined by Brian Clough, Malcolm Allison and Tommy Docherty. All of them, in their own ways and with varying degrees of deliberateness, created a cult around themselves. They were their clubs (albeit at times, in the case of the latter three, often for very short periods of time), and the fortunes of the team rose or fell with them.
It’s an attractive way to think, for fans, players and clubs. There is no need to take personal responsibility or to consider complicated issues such as constructing coherent youth development and scouting programmes or creating a culture and environment conducive to success. Just hope the right genius is in the hot seat and if he says the centre-forward needs a nip of brandy and the goalkeeper a clip round the lughole, that the winger needs to play a bit deeper or possession be retained a little more carefully, believe it will work. And if it doesn’t, this messiah can always be sacrificed to make way for the next one.
Perhaps, half a century ago, it was even true. Clubs were smaller entities, football was less complex. But there is an acceptance now that one man cannot do everything. A manager is still the club’s figurehead, but he does not embody it in the same way. There are commercial, marketing and branding departments, heads of recruitment and vast networks of scouts, data analysts, teams of coaches and technical directors. By the midpoint of the last century, the age of the captain had yielded to the age of the manager; we are now in the age of the CEO.
Yet it is still the manager who fulfils the vital role of scapegoat, the manager who will be discarded if results are poor. Far easier to find a patsy to blame and replace than acknowledge the wider deficiencies undermining a club. But every now and again a manager comes along who does make a palpable difference so fans can forget about the bigger picture and start believing again.
Which brings us to Mikel Arteta. When he arrived at Arsenal last December, it was with a reputation for thoughtfulness. He was one of those players who had always been expected to go into management, so much so that he had been nicknamed “Coach” in the final years of his career. He had impressed as an assistant to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, but that is always a double-edged compliment: there are countless number twos who never quite had the authority or drive or luck to make it as the front man.
As a player Arteta drew up his blueprint for running a club. It included the line: “I will have everyone 120% committed, that’s the first thing. If not, you don’t play for me.”
He has been true to that. During lockdown, players who said they could not make a conference call to discuss Covid restrictions received a brusque voice message from him. Matteo Guendouzi has been discarded. Mesut Özil has been shunted even further to the periphery.
There have been conversations with the vice-chairman, Josh Kroenke, about changing the culture of the club. Concerns persist about recruitment and the influence of one agent in particular, but the culture of the squad, at least, has changed. There is confidence now, seen in the way Arsenal play out from the back, the way they maintained their composure to come from behind to win the FA Cup final, even their demeanour against top sides.
That has translated into results. Between August 2016 and Arteta’s arrival, Arsenal played 44 games against top-six opposition in all competitions, winning eight and losing 21. Under him they have played 10, winning four and losing three and, perhaps most significant, they have won three and drawn one (winning on penalties) of the past four.
A fully focused Liverpool in the Premier League on Monday will be a sterner test than the decelerating team they beat at the Emirates in July or the undercooked side they held (while similarly underprepared themselves) in the Community Shield. But at least, for the first time in five seasons, Arsenal go to Anfield with the realistic possibility of a result.
There is an oddity about this, though. The sense is that Arteta has Arsenal pressing and passing better, but the stats show they pressed higher and more frequently under Unai Emery and even in the final season under Arsène Wenger. Sequences of 10 or more passes have fallen. What matters, perhaps, is less quantity than coherence. There is self-belief and purpose. When they play out from the back, it is with direction. Their pressing is focused.
Understat’s xG table has Arsenal in 22 league games under Arteta picking up nine points more than the data would expect. That suggests a measure of fortune and that a regression to the mean is likely. But efficiency is something data analysis still struggles fully to elucidate.
It may be that is simply the nature of messiahs. Their rainbows are not to be unwoven. Arrive with confidence and a plan, transmit that to the players, and as confidence rises good form soon becomes self-fulfilling. Faith may not move mountains, but it can, as it did last Saturday, turn a scruffy performance into a 2-1 win over West Ham. Even now, in a world dominated by money and analysis, some managers simply inspire belief.