Having been covered ad infinitum elsewhere I won’t delve too much into the details of our butterfly-like emergence from the chrysalis of financial restraint, lest to say that it brought about a welcome change in our ability to compete for the world’s best players.
For years we were forced to make do with signings like Super Squillaci and Andre the Giant Drugs Cheat*, but in recent times the calibre of players we have managed to secure has been exceptionally uplifting, and testament to the long-term of vision of the club.
While the last two summers in particular have seen a noticeable deviation from the past – our transfer record not only smashed to pieces, but then those pieces themselves stamped on again and again until they were really quite small - I would argue that the summer before (three summers ago) brought with it an equally impressive acquisition.
The arrival of each of Cazorla, Ozil and Sanchez were pivotal moments in our recent history for different reasons, and all three have helped to elevate us bit-by-bit from of our trophy-less abyss. But which one of them was the most important? Which of these genuinely international-class superstars signified our seminal venture into transfer land?
Well, in my humble opinion, it was none of them.
See, I’ve tricked you there. The above preamble has been nothing but a mildly intelligent ruse designed to confuse and confound your simple minds.
Because it is not our ambisextrous** Spanish magician, nor our current player or the year, nor our most expensive signing in history that I believe is deserving of this honour, but instead a man with only 850 minutes, 12 appearances and multiple injuries to his name last season. And his name is Captain Black.
You may not know this about me, but I am doomed to spend eternity in the fires of hell watching Obafemi Martin’s goal on repeat while braiding Robbie Savage’s hair. The reason for my punishment? Being resolutely against Arsenal buying Mikel Arteta Amatriain in 2011.
I remember vividly being sat on my sofa, my desperation spinning out of control, with the final deadline fast approaching and rumours of a deal for Arteta having fallen through. Even then – even then, ladies and gentleman – my reaction to his subsequent signing was something along the lines “I would have preferred Marvin Martin, but I suppose that will do.”
Marvin who?! The shame.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Even 4 years on Mikel Arteta’s impact on the club is still underappreciated, even amongst our own fans.
He’s too slow. He’s not really a DM. He’s not top quality. These are all phrases which have been uttered repeatedly since his arrival, and despite his rise from last minute bargain to first team captain.
But the truth is this: while Cazorla, Ozil and Sanchez were all unbelievable signings, they were – especially the latter two blockbuster deals – bought with the aim of building. Mikel was a different story – he was the most prominent amongst a motley crew of new recruits brought in almost exclusively to repair. And without him we would surely have fallen apart.
It’s difficult to forget how horrible things felt for us fans at that time, but I think it’s still easy to overlook how precarious a situation the club were in. A promising season in which a title challenge had for a while seemed inevitable had ended in unmitigated failure, and lead to the loss of two key players, including our captain. Our abject end to the season had seen us not only lose a final in embarrassing fashion, but also finish behind the ominously improving Manchester City for the first time.
With our own quality significantly reduced, the confidence and belief of those still at the club severely shaken, and those around us improving, it was not only our top 4 place but our future in serious jeopardy. A make or break season lay ahead of us, where any slip could be critical, and we looked more off-balance than ever.
We had just lost 8-2 to Manchester United, and time in the window was running out fast. The media was calling us a shambles, the fans were calling for Wenger’s head, and it was at this late stage – as late as was feasibly possible - that Arteta entered the fray.
And as Arsenal’s biggest signing of the summer, all eyes were on him to fill Fabregas’ place and return Arsenal to their former ‘glory’. But Arteta wasn’t signed to push Arsenal to new heights, but instead to steady the ship – and that’s exactly what he did.
He brought structure and intelligence to a raggedy midfield consisting of unlovable rogue Alex Song and an under pressure and under confident Aaron Ramsey thrust into the spotlight in a role he was unsuited for. He glued the midfield together, and constantly made up for his teammates’ deficiencies at both ends of the pitch, ending the season with almost as many tackles and interceptions p/game as Song, and providing almost as many goals and assists as Ramsey and Rosicky combined.
It didn’t come immediately – he still had to adapt to a new club in the midst of an actual, bonafide, legitimately-labelled crisis – but his quality was evident from the get go.
Our squad, rocked as it was, would have crumbled without his influence that season. Our best player, some guy called Ronald I think, had the best year of his career - he could not have done any more. That extra 5-10% - the difference between gasping our last breath as the turbulent current pulled us under and grasping the life preserver with our outstretched hand - would have to come from someone else. In a team with an equally moderate smattering of talent and brain cells we desperately needed another leader – on the pitch and off it - to help shepherd the masses.
And Arteta was that man.
Now before everyone starts telling me that Ozil or Sanchez is a far better player than Arteta, regardless of my views on the matter we are not here to compare the skill nor quality of any of our fantastic acquisitions. The point is that, without the signing of Arteta there would be no Ozil or Sanchez. There would almost certainly be no double FA Cup glory either.
There may well have been Europa League misery though. And perhaps even a new manager for good measure.
Let’s play out an entirely plausible scenario:
Before 2011/12 we lose Fabregas and Nasri, we don’t sign Arteta, we don’t make the CL.
Before 2012/13 we still lose Ronald and Song, but without the lure of CL and CL money we don’t sign Cazorla.
Middle of 2012/13 Theo holds us for ransom, and having seen others leave before him, and given that we can’t offer him what he’s looking for, he leaves.
Beginning of 13/14 we haven’t achieved our target of CL football every year, and CL is no longer seen as a guarantee, so our commercial deals and status don’t allow us to sign Ozil.
And you think Wenger would still be here now if we hadn’t signed Arteta? He was strongly tipped to leave if we lost the FA Cup final, having already gotten us that far and signed Mesut Ozil! With no Ozil, no FA Cup and maybe even no CL football the big man may well have called time, and we would be in the middle of another rebuilding project as we speak.
I’m not saying that Arteta is the sole reason for our recent climb, but I’m sure that without him we would have stumbled before we reached the first step.
And all the above so brazenly ignores his ongoing impact since that debut year. Adapting to a deeper role – far removed from his role at Everton - his performances only served to further highlight his importance, while off the pitch he quickly became the most important player at the club. If anything, as his legs have tired his influence has grown and it’s telling that Mertesacker insisted he lift the trophy with him in May despite his minimal (visible) contribution to winning it.
There’s a logical, scientific reason that Mikel Arteta is now the captain of our fine club, and the reason is that he’s fuc*ing quality. And though we may never call him our best signing ever, he’s certainly one of my favourites. And without a doubt our most important in recent history.
Now if you would please be so kind as to bow down. Cheers.
* ’Giant’ drugs cheat is probably a little harsh but I wanted to get Andre the Giant in there so… yeah
** By which I mean he’s sexy with both feet and not a hermaphrodite