LONDON -- Arsenal may have exceeded all expectations to top the Premier League in mid-March, but manager Mikel Arteta is just getting started.
When Arteta, 40, laid out his blueprint for restoring the Gunners to pre-eminence in conversation with the Kroenke family upon his appointment in December 2019, his plan had five distinct phases. At that time Arsenal were out of the Champions League, 10th in the table and swallowed by the shadow of their former glories. Arteta's predecessor, Unai Emery, had proved incapable of dragging them back into the light.
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Monday night's London Football Awards were a reflection of how far they have come. Arteta was named Manager of the Year, Martin Odegaard took home Premier League Player of the Year, Bukayo Saka was chosen as Young Player of the Year and Aaron Ramsdale Goalkeeper of the Year. It is the first time in the history of the awards that one club has won all four categories in the same year.
It would be tempting to assume, then, that Arteta's five-point plan is close to fruition. But when he sits down backstage at London's Roundhouse to discuss Arsenal's journey under his guidance, the answer is different.
What phase are we in now? "Phase 3," he tells ESPN. "Phase 3 is a period of time, and we're a little bit ahead of schedule."
Only a "little bit." Arsenal are five points clear at the top of the Premier League and will aim to reach the Europa League quarterfinals on Thursday when facing Sporting CP at Emirates Stadium, a tie positioned slightly in their favour after last week's 2-2 first-leg draw.
Arteta is notoriously protective of the club's inner workings, but it felt worth a try to ask a little about the phases of his plan that have already passed, the reasons he is sat with one of the first significant honours of his fledgling managerial career.
"It's something a little bit private," he continues. "It's just my understanding and vision of what the club was, and what we have to capture and develop.
"I like to do it looking forward first and then you have to do it backwards. It just my idea of the club and the decisions we have to take to move it forward. Obviously you need a team, all together thinking the same way and in the same direction and we're lucky to have that at the club."
Some of the elements of those first two phases are public knowledge. A dramatic overhaul at multiple levels of the club took place, most obviously to the playing staff as no fewer than seven players including big names like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil had their contracts ripped up amid Arteta's concerns about divisions within the group. The recruitment strategy was streamlined with many of the club's overseas scouts moved on, while clearer pathways from Arsenal's Hale End academy were established to maximise internal development.
Arteta, a player and captain at Arsenal between 2011 and 2016, tried to forge a new spirit infused with the club's values, attempting to bring people closer together at a time when COVID-19 demanded we were all kept apart. Arsenal won the 2020 FA Cup final in what proved a valuable vindication of a young manager's methods, but by the end of that year the Gunners were languishing in midtable, the football was flawed and Arteta found himself under pressure.
Perhaps without the FA Cup success, he would not have lasted in the job. "I don't know," Arteta says. "Looking back, obviously a lot of things have happened. To start your managerial career with no experience at any level and face straight away that success and then having two years of COVID, with all the challenges that we have internally at the club, externally at the club, probably I am lucky to be sitting here today looking back with how it could have developed.
"I have always been fascinated with the journey and living every single day like it is the last and I think you have to take this job especially like this because every day there are lessons, there are challenges.
"But as well there are great opportunities. I like to think as well outside of the box and learn straight away from that and just try to be the best possible manager for Arsenal and what Arsenal needs today from me to make them better. In one month, it will be different and in two years' time maybe they need something else but it is about today."
Arteta is steeped in Arsenal's history. Arsene Wenger was a longtime supporter of Willow, the charity behind the London Football Awards, due to a long-standing friendship with co-founders Bob Wilson and his wife, Megs. Wilson, a former double winner with Arsenal in the 1970s, was the club's goalkeeping coach and remains close with Wenger. Arteta has sought to extend that relationship with the club this week, inviting Bob and Megs to their London Colney training base to further strengthen Arsenal's relationship with Willow, which provides unique special days for terminally ill young adults aged 16-40. It is another aspect of that sense of community Arteta was determined to build. None of it could have been possible, however, had the owners not held their nerve.
Arteta was under considerable pressure, but the emergence of Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, among others, began to create a new identity while successive transfer windows focusing on younger players -- including Odegaard, Ramsdale and Ben White -- helped accelerate a rapid transformation. Kroenke Sports Enterprises has been heavily criticised ever since Stan Kroenke took a controlling stake in 2011. Some supporters will never warm to their American owners, many of whom feel have prioritised finances over football. Arsenal's status as league leaders makes it easy to forget it is less than two years since widespread protests took place at Emirates Stadium, initially triggered by a backlash against the club's inclusion in the failed European Super League project. In reality that only stirred long-standing resentment. But after supporting Arteta so resolutely and spending approximately £270 million on transfers in the past two years, is it time the owners were cut some slack?
"It took some time to position themselves where they wanted, in terms of how much of the club they own and how much they could decide and how much they could really benefit the club in the way they believe is the right way to take it," Arteta says. "I believe they were really patient in exactly the right way. Now they have shown they are fully committed, they have big ambitions and they are fully behind the club to give everything they can to make it successful.
"I am convinced the owners will continue to do everything they can to make us very successful and continue to invest in the club in the right way."
Arteta believes that support will continue this summer. Arsenal ended up signing Leandro Trossard and Jorginho in January, two shrewd acquisitions but alternatives to higher-priced targets on whom they missed out. Mykhailo Mudryk joined Chelsea from Shakhtar Donetsk for £88.5m, while Brighton retained Moises Caicedo despite Arsenal's £70m offer. Arteta insists the club remain willing to compete at the top end of the transfer market.
"When it is necessary for the right profile of players and we can afford it, it will make sense," he says. "But only if it is the right profile, the right price and we can afford it without damaging ourselves. That's a really, really thin line and I think we have to have a lot of discipline as well."
Before then, however, there is the small matter of a Premier League title race to win. Arteta's innovative team talks were a feature of Arsenal's recent Amazon "All or Nothing" documentary, and he continues to tap into the club's lifeblood to keep his players on track; after last Sunday's 3-0 win at Fulham, a picture emerged of Arsenal's players in the away dressing room with a replica timepiece symbolising the Clock End stand which originated at Arsenal's old stadium, Highbury. The hands were pointing at 11 and 2, which some interpreted as a nod to there being 11 games left in the title race, but Arteta insisted there was no significance in those numbers.
"It was something I related to a few days before on where we were as a team and club and what we have to stand for," he said. "It was something private in the dressing room just before the game and something that's in the history of our club. We have to be really conscious of that and when we have that history and we use it in the right way, that's a really powerful thing to have.
"The reality is that every game is so important, the margins are so small and we are now going to have to do something incredible until the end of the season to earn the right to be there."
Winning the title would cement Arteta's legacy. It would also give him the chance to build a dynasty similar to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, under whom he served as assistant coach before taking the Arsenal job, and Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. Is that something he wants to do?
"If I'm in that position, it would mean we've done a lot of great things," Arteta says. "But I take it daily. It's the only thing you can do when you're a manager. There are so many decisions, so many things that happen throughout the day that you have to be focussed on that. And not get too lost. The bigger picture is clear. I know what I would like to do and what I would like the club to be in certain months but we have to impact today's decisions in the best way to be where we want to be."
Perhaps "building a dynasty" is Phase 5.