LONDON — Mikel Arteta has already acquired a taste for winning at Wembley as Arsenal manager, and Liverpool became the Spaniard’s latest victims in the Community Shield on Saturday. Less than a year into the job at the Emirates, the former Gunners midfielder has delivered silverware in the FA Cup and Community Shield at a rate of success that his coaching mentor, Pep Guardiola, would be proud of. He also secured a big FA Cup semifinal victory against Guardiola’s Manchester City en route to last season’s win against Chelsea in the final, so there can be no questioning Arteta’s success so far in reviving Arsenal and getting his team to perform against the elite when it matters.
The Community Shield win against champions Liverpool may have been sealed with a penalty shootout after the game had finished as a 1-1 draw, but every trophy counts and each one that Arteta wins will strengthen his position as he embarks on the daunting challenge of making Arsenal challengers for the Premier League title again. That may happen sooner rather than later, but if Arsenal fans expected Arteta to build his team in the style of Guardiola, this win against Liverpool suggested otherwise.
Arteta spent three and a half years learning his trade as a coach as Guardiola’s assistant at City. He also enjoyed a five-year stint playing under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal before calling time on his playing career to join Guardiola at the Etihad in 2016.
But despite so many formative years working with two of the most aesthetically pleasing coaches in football, Arteta has taken a pragmatic approach to his job at Arsenal. In many ways, he is following the ethos of another of his old managers — David Moyes at Everton — by building from the back and making Arsenal durable and organised before even thinking about adding the style.
The presence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in his team allows Arteta to build a solid foundation because he knows that the Gabon forward has the pace and finishing ability to offer a threat at the other end of the pitch, as he did against Liverpool with a stunning first-half goal that gave Arsenal the lead. Aubameyang is a natural finisher — a striker who would add something to even the greatest teams with his eye for goal — and Arteta can work on making Arsenal solid at the back and in midfield because his star striker and captain will always give his team a cutting edge.
But his predecessors in the job — Wenger and Unai Emery — consistently overlooked the need to resolve Arsenal’s defensive frailties and toughen up the soft centre. Had Arteta chosen to follow the Guardiola or Wenger blueprint of overloading his team with flair players, the same old problems would have been an issue again.
But since taking charge Arteta has focused on organisation, and against Liverpool it looked as the pieces are beginning to fall into place. Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin are both now showing themselves to be reliable full-backs who can defend as well as attack, while David Luiz has (for now) eradicated the mistakes and improved his concentration at centre-half.
But Arteta is not being complacent judging by his summer transfer dealings to date. Defender William Saliba has arrived, after signing from Saint-Etienne in a £27 million deal that saw him remain at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on loan for the 2019-20 season, and Arsenal are close to sealing a deal for Lille centre-half Gabriel.
In the past, Arsenal have been guilty of focusing too much on attacking signings rather than defensive additions, but Arteta is addressing that shortcoming.
Arteta’s midfield of Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, whose future at the club remains uncertain, was another example of prioritising substance over style. This selection was certainly more Moyes than Guardiola or Wenger, but Arsenal dominated the central area of the pitch, albeit against a Liverpool team playing without injured captain Jordan Henderson. Willian, the summer signing from Chelsea, will add further industry to the team when he is added to the fray, but Mesut Ozil can expect to stay out in the cold with the German clearly completely unsuited to the way that Arteta wants to play.
Arsenal are certainly on an upwards curve under Arteta, but the Community Shield is never a reliable gauge when assessing a team’s prospects for the season, so perspective is required when judging both theirs and Liverpool’s performance.
Liverpool, runaway winners of the Premier League last season, were missing key men such as Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but their lack of serious investment since the summer of 2018 is beginning to show. Takumi Minamino, a £7.25m January signing from FC Salzburg, finally scored his first goal for Liverpool with a second-half equaliser, but the Japan forward is the only attacking player the club have signed in more than two years. Konstantinos Tsimikas, a summer signing from Olympiakos, is a second-choice left-back recruited to compete with Andy Robertson, so the club have not spent big for a while.
Liverpool remain a force and they will continue to be so this season, but they risk standing still while the likes of Arsenal close the gap. It is a big gap, but under Arteta, Arsenal finally appear to be on their way to challenging again.