In the immediate aftermath of the crushing 8-2 defeat to Manchester United in August of 2011, Mikel Arteta was one of a number of players brought in to bolster a squad reeling from the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in the summer transfer window. Far from an ill-considered panic-buy, the Spaniard proved to be a shrewd acquisition, the then 29 year-old complementing Arsenal’s possession-based style of play, with his long years of Premier League experience at Everton also adding wisdom and cunning to a youthful midfield.
Although primarily thought of as an attacking midfield player, often deployed in advanced, central positions or even on the wing during his time on Merseyside, Arteta was forced to adjust to a more withdrawn role at the base of the midfield, reinventing himself as a deep-lying playmaker, especially after Alex Song’s departure to Barcelona in 2012. Very quickly, he established himself as a calming, stabilising influence on the team, dictating the pace of play with his metronomic distribution, initiating moves with an impressive range of passing, and stifling opposition attacks with his intelligent positioning and ability to read the game.
Indeed, Arteta became so integral to the side that his presence on the pitch was practically a prerequisite for victory, with Arsenal only mustering one victory during the six league matches that he missed through injury during the 2011/12 season, compared to a 65.8 win percentage with him in the starting XI. However, despite another impressive season in 2012/13, Mikel’s future at the club currently seems uncertain to say the least; such is the nature of football. Now aged 32, faced with growing concerns about his continued ability to perform at the highest level, and with just a year left on his current contract, Arteta seems to have reached something of a cross-roads in his career.
Unlike the 33 year-old Tomáš Rosický, who recently signed another one year deal to stay at the club, there appears to be no willingness on the club’s part to offer him a new contract. Although never the most athletic of players, Arteta’s deteriorating pace has often left the defence exposed by swift counter-attacks by the opposition this season, and there can be no doubting that his influence on the team has diminished, replaced in large part by the dynamic Welshman, Aaron Ramsey, as Arsenal’s midfield talisman.
Nevertheless, whilst the fans claiming that he is too pedestrian to dominate matches against top-quality opposition may have a point, he has still been good enough to stave off attempts by Mathieu Flamini to replace him as first-choice holding-midfielder, and has performed the role of de facto captain admirably whilst Thomas Vermaelen has warmed the bench. Especially against lesser opposition where he is afforded more time and space, Arteta can still excel (his recent display against Newcastle comes to mind), and overall, Wenger continues to prefer the Spaniard’s calm head and assured technique over Flamini’s mobility, aggression, and tough tackling.
Therefore, the question of Arteta’s future at the club is not an easy one to answer. Perhaps in an ideal world, he would be sold this summer, recouping at least a small portion of his £10 million transfer fee, and replaced by a “big-name” new signing, with Bayer Leverkusen’s Lars Bender touted by some as a possible long-term solution. Nevertheless, those calling for Arteta’s head may yet be advised to speak cautiously, lest they be made to eat their words. Having recently witnessed the renaissance of deep-lying playmaker extraordinaire, Andrea Pirlo, still majestically gracing the Juventus midfield with a beguiling genius at the grand old age of 34, there is no reason to suspect that the perfectly groomed Spaniard will not recover from, by his own high standards, a poor season, and be back to his imperious best next term, having adjusted his game further to compensate for his loss of pace.
The fans will not be happy if his prolonged stay prevents the signing of a new, long-term midfield presence, but I don’t think we should be too surprised to see Arteta stay with the club for at least another season to see out his contract.
Time will tell.
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Photo via Ronnie MacDonald