It was back in August, with the transfer deadline looming, that Arsenal began to think seriously about signing Barcelona’s promising 22-year-old right-back Emerson Royal. Talks were at an advanced stage and the club’s technical director, Edu, had already got in touch with the player to establish a relationship. But there was a stumbling block. Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, had doubts.
Never mind that the analytics department had run the numbers and given Royal their stamp of approval. Never mind that the club were bottom of the Premier League table, the fans were in uproar and time was running out to sign a right-back. Never mind the fact that if Arsenal passed up the chance to sign Royal, he would almost certainly join Tottenham instead.
Arteta was not convinced, and so Arsenal pulled the plug. Meanwhile Tottenham, scenting an opportunity to pull off an audacious deadline-day coup over their rivals, swooped in with a bid of about £26m, a sum which – quoting the Telegraph – “sources claim Barcelona still cannot believe Spurs offered to pay”. No matter. Tottenham had won the battle Royal, along with all of its associated headlines and bragging rights.
Five months down the line – and without wishing to be overly unkind to Royal, who played very well at Real Betis last season – it is possible to observe that Arteta’s misgivings over his ability to adapt to English football may have had some merit. Royal is both a fine athlete and a sound technical player. But rarely, alas, at the same time.
Ask him to combine two or more skillsets – run and cross, chase and tackle, control and shield – and immediately you can see the panic begin to set in, the limbs malfunctioning, the mainframe overheating like a browser with too many tabs open. He’s not terrible. He’s just not a £26m player, or an Antonio Conte player, or the sort of player Tottenham should be aspiring to sign, which is why Tottenham are now willing to pay top dollar to replace him with Adama Traoré.
As for Arsenal, they plumped for Takehiro Tomiyasu of Bologna, a long-standing right-back target who has been quietly revelatory: a poised and fearless defender with a fine record in aerial duels and a habit of doing the simple things well. And yes, sometimes these things just work out. Yet it was hardly the first time that Arteta and Arsenal had decided against taking the easy short-term option, doing the obvious crowd-pleasing thing, throwing some red meat to their base.
Whether in transfer strategy, team selections or the decision to freeze out senior players like Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal have consistently taken the long-term view, even at the risk of short-term ridicule. And as they prepare to take their withered squad to Tottenham, this is perhaps the sharpest point of contrast between the north London rivals. Increasingly, it is Arsenal who are prepared to take the hard choices; Tottenham the club addicted to shock treatments, knee-jerk reactions and short-term fixes.
This is a distinction that manifests itself well beyond the transfer market. Indeed, perhaps the primary example is Arteta himself, who on Sunday will face his third Tottenham manager in as many meetings. Nothing about this was inevitable: Arteta has endured some dreadful runs of form in his two years in charge. Three straight defeats in August was their worst start to a season since 1954. At Christmas 2020 they were 15th and widely believed to be in a relegation battle. Each time, given Arteta’s inexperience and the rage of the fanbase, cutting him loose was probably the easiest thing to do.
Instead Arsenal have not simply backed their man, but backed his vision. In contrast to Royal, the transfers of Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale in the summer were both pushed over the line despite their premium fees, in large part on Arteta’s insistence. Once pivotal players, like Willian, Aubameyang, Bernd Leno and Sead Kolasinac, have been gently eased towards the exit.
Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah are likely to follow in the summer (and contrast Arteta’s intense relaxation at losing his top scorer with the uneasy truce between Harry Kane and Tottenham). For the first time since he joined this feels like Arteta’s squad, even if injuries and illness have temporarily reduced it to a skeleton.
This is the key point. Arsenal are one of the few clubs that can basically will itself into crisis. Indeed, there is a whole cottage industry based around the idea of Arsenal being permanently in crisis, the ineradicable urge to keep ripping things up and keep starting again. Defeat at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup; the temporary absences of Thomas Partey and Nicolas Pépé at the Africa Cup of Nations; the stand-off over Nketiah and Lacazette’s contracts: all these could, given a fair wind, be the ingredients for a seismic January flip-out. Should Arsenal slip up at Tottenham and fall behind them in the league table – a fair bet, given the thinness of their resources – the lust for reinvention and revolution, fresh faces and fresh blood, will doubtless kick into gear again.
And yet perhaps the bravest thing Arsenal could do is to keep the faith.
Results can be deceptive. You don’t always get what you deserve. The league table lies all the time. What seems the obvious solution now may not seem it later. These are not always the easiest things to say in football, and yet the story of Arteta’s time at Arsenal suggests that it is the only real way of building something that lasts. At the very least, you feel the least he deserves right now is a little patience.