On Monday, February 6, Mikel Arteta called his players into a team meeting. Addressing his squad in an intimate room at their London Colney HQ, the Arsenal manager stressed the value of resilience.
His team had just suffered back-to-back defeats against Manchester City in the FA Cup and Everton in the Premier League.
The loss at Goodison Park, which marked Sean Dyche’s first game in charge of the Toffees, was only Arsenal’s first league defeat since September – a run of 13 matches – so this wasn’t by any means a crisis meeting.
Yet Arteta felt compelled enough to emphasise that overcoming disappointments is what champions are required to do.
Given his time working under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, the Spaniard can speak with authority on the dos and don’ts of winning titles.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal came from behind to beat Aston Villa on Saturday after a fiery half-time team talk
The Gunners found a winner in injury time as Jorginho’s shot bounced in off of Emiliano Martinez after hitting the crossbar
The result puts Arsenal two points clear with a game in hand after Man City could only draw with Nottingham Forest
Arteta told his players their reaction to that shock loss on Merseyside started in training that very day – not on the Saturday when they would face Brentford.
The Arsenal manager was happy with his players’ application and attitude that week, he felt sure the team were primed to provide the response he’d passionately demanded.
However, they drew against Brentford, though Lee Mason’s now infamous VAR aberration at Stockley Park that allowed Ivan Toney’s equaliser to stand when it should have been disallowed for offside was the key mitigation in Arsenal’s failure to win that day.
Four days later, Arsenal were losing again – this time to City at the Emirates Stadium.
The positive response Arteta had implored his team to make had transitioned into a four match winless run. Not only that, they’d relinquished control of the title race to City.
On Saturday, Arsenal were staring the prospect of a fourth loss in five matches square in the face. Aston Villa – managed by their former head coach Unai Emery – had taken 2-1 half-time lead.
As the whistle to end the first-half arrived, Arteta knew his next team-talk could well define their season which, at this point, appeared to be slipping away.
Arteta sat his players down – instructing them to remain composed.
What followed was honest and forthright. Arteta told his players in no uncertain terms that their first-half performance had dropped below the standards they strive for, collectively and individually.
Arsenal’s comeback could be vital as they gun for a first Premier League title since 2004
Jorginho has revealed Arteta told the players to go ‘back to basics’ at the break
But this wasn’t a moment for negativity, Arteta knew he had to choose his words carefully.
The Spaniard rallied his troops, demanding them to show the face of their game that propelled them to the very top of the table. He called on the players to trust each other, to show the sort of character that has typified their season.
He asked them to fight – because that is what they’d done the entire season. No excuses, champions always find a way.
Analyst and coach Miguel Molina perhaps took Arteta’s words too literally, he was ejected from the press box in the second half following an angry confrontation with Villa rival Victor Manas.
‘Individually our level was right down and we stopped doing the basic things right, said Arteta.
‘At half-time we said ‘the moment is now guys’. We have to raise the individual level and look each other in the face and much more if we want to come out and win the game.’
Arsenal players emerged for the second half a couple of minutes early. Buoyed by their manager’s inspirational words, they held their own huddle on the pitch as they waited for Villa to arrive.
Where Arteta’s address to his players 12 days prior may not have had the desired effect, this one most certainly did.
At the end of the season, we may well view those 10 minutes or so in the confines of the Villa Park away dressing room as the moment that revitalised Arsenal’s title challenge.
Arsenal were much improved in the second half, though they were indebted to two injury time goals from Jorginho – via an unfortunate ricochet off Villa keeper Emiliano Martinez’s head – and Gabriel Martinelli for their victory.
Arsenal will next be in action against an in-form Leicester side next Saturday
The fact Manchester City could only draw at Nottingham Forest later in the afternoon only served to embolden Arsenal’s title dream.
This may well have been the most critical weekend in the Premier League title race and Arteta’s halt-time intervention shouldn’t be underestimated.
In reality, the title race will swing depending on what happens on the pitch and not directly because of what is said in the sanctuary of the Arsenal dressing room.
But it’s good to talk, just ask Arteta.
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