Mikel Arteta had responded enthusiastically to an invitation to praise Shkodran Mustafi when the next query bore certain similarities: same question, but about Granit Xhaka instead. There have been times in recent years when inquiries about Mustafi and Xhaka would automatically have had a negative slant.
Not now. Not in Arteta’s misfit revolution. The Spaniard’s management has had an idealistic edge, as shown by his faith in youth, but there has also been a pragmatic bent. He has turned around the Arsenal careers of some of their most maligned players. In a sense, he has had to. It is easy to play Football Manager with the squad he inherited, to imagine a clearout featuring David Luiz, Mesut Ozil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Sead Kolasinac, Xhaka, Mustafi and the rest of the biggest group of banter footballers in the Premier League.
Practically, however, that was unrealistic, even before a pandemic reduced Arsenal’s budget further. The wisdom of giving David Luiz a new contract can be questioned but Arteta has shown a willingness to look for the ability in supposed liabilities.
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Mustafi and Xhaka arrived for a combined cost of around £70m and if those numbers can be used to damn Arsenal, they can also illustrate the esteem in which they were held. And, if only by Arteta, may be again.
Mustafi began his Arsenal career by going unbeaten in 22 games. Now he is the only man to have started all six of their summer fixtures. A bastion of dependability in the 2-0 win at Molineux could be a talisman again. “Musti’s attitude, the way he’s training, the attention level, the questions he is asking, how much he wants to help everybody has been really good,” said Arteta.
Xhaka, meanwhile has been rehabilitated after being stripped of the captaincy and restored to prominence after Arteta had to talk him out of leaving. “I know his character, he’s a great personality as well and he’s so focused that he deserves to be helped,” the Spaniard said. Xhaka now seems the first-choice central midfielder. Mustafi is one of seven centre-backs who will be at the Emirates Stadium next season but, rather than being the premier candidate for a cull, he could be a mainstay. Certainly Arteta is trying to benefit from Arsenal’s annual inability to sell Mustafi.
They have six clean sheets in nine games now, a greater feat because David Luiz’s meltdown at Manchester City was a reminder Arsenal possess pratfall-prone players. “They can make mistakes, but if they are willing and happy to try again after, I think they will get rewarded,” Arteta added.
If to err is human, Arsenal sometimes feel the most human of teams. Part of the task is making those mistakes rarer. Another is to transform Arsenal’s results in major matches. They have not won away at big-six opponents in the Premier League since 2015, but they beat a top-six team, in Wolves, on their travels. A week where Leicester and Tottenham await presents further examination of their prowess against their peers; in the Foxes’ case, another top-six outfit.
Arteta’s time alongside Pep Guardiola can make him feel the Arsenal aesthete. Now he seeks solace in earthier values as he looks for his flawed favourites to display the resolve they showed at Molineux. “At the moment we don’t have the ability to batter teams for 95 minutes so you have to be able to compete and play as a team,” he said. That team, notably, does not include Ozil. The implication is that he has not displayed the kind of commitment to the collective that Mustafi and Xhaka exude. That attitude is required in a world where there is a possibility that David Luiz is going to David Luiz.
“When you suffer together, when you see your team-mates giving absolutely everything for you, when someone makes a mistake and the other one puts it right it makes you feel proud of where you are,” Arteta said. Where Arsenal are – outside the top six – may not appear auspicious, but turning the derided into assets may give them a platform to spring back up.