Home Arsenal Mikel Arteta: The rejection and determination that made a manager

Mikel Arteta: The rejection and determination that made a manager

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If Arsenal manages to defeat Wolves in their final match on Sunday, they will secure the highest number of points in a single Premier League campaign since the remarkable title-winning season of ‘the Invincibles’ in 2003-04.

Pepe Reina’s face brightens with a broad smile as he recalls an incident that unfolded in the dorm room of a Barcelona farmhouse, which was once their shared home. Reina, the former goalkeeper for Liverpool and Napoli, vividly remembers the injustice suffered by Mikel Arteta.

In those days, Reina occupied the top bunk while Arteta slept below, but the noise disturbing their fellow roommates came from Arteta.

“I was the one snoring, and the other guys in the room were getting annoyed,” explains Reina. “So they began throwing shinpads, shoes, flip-flops… anything they could find. However, since I was on the top bunk and he was on the bottom, many of the items ended up hitting Mikel. Sharing that bed cost him many sleepless nights and nearly strained our relationship!”

Reina and Arteta, recognized as two of the most talented young players in Spain, left Madrid and San Sebastian respectively in their mid-teens to join La Masia. FC Barcelona’s renowned residential academy has produced football legends like Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta. Until 2011, La Masia was situated in a stone farmhouse across from the iconic Nou Camp stadium.

Reina firmly believes that it was during their time at La Masia that Arteta developed the qualities that have propelled him to become one of Europe’s most promising managers. In the recently concluded season, Arteta guided his young Arsenal side to a second-place finish in the Premier League and secured Champions League football for the club for the first time since 2016-17, despite a dip in form towards the end.

“It was really challenging,” Reina tells presenter John Bennett in the BBC World Service documentary, “Arteta: The Making of Mikel.”

“We were 13 or 14-year-old kids, and we missed our brothers, sisters, and parents. I remember reading letters from home during that time, and tears were shed. It builds character. That resilience, strong mentality, and determination to win a trophy or achieve your goals are qualities you need to develop to survive in La Masia.”

“We shared the same dreams, nightmares, and fears, and we supported each other like brothers.”

Apart from developing mental strength, Arteta also imbibed the Barcelona philosophy of ball possession, selflessness, and positional flexibility. This philosophy has transformed modern club football, with Pep Guardiola, the current coach of Manchester City, being its leading exponent. Both Xavi, the current Barcelona coach, and Arteta are disciples of Guardiola.

Reina believes it’s no coincidence that all three players excelled in midfield.

“The education in Barcelona, especially in Arteta’s position, is particularly strong,” he says. “It was only natural for those players to understand football better than others in their positions.”

“I believe Mikel was born to be a manager. His intelligence on the pitch is evident off it.”

Paco Seirul-lo, a mentor to both Guardiola and Arteta, is an authority on the Barcelona way. He served as the first-team fitness coach under Johan Cruyff in 1994 and later held the prestigious title of “Head of Methodology.”

“The philosophy revolves around putting your teammate above yourself,” he explains. “This means leaving your ego behind. Some players couldn’t accept it and didn’t succeed. Others understood that it wasn’t about sacrificing themselves, but rather tailoring their game to benefit their teammates.”

“Arteta and Guardiola exemplified this approach. When a player received the ball, they said ‘thank you’ because it arrived exactly where they wanted it. Arteta, like Pep, was selfless and played for others. His essence was working for the team and helping others thrive.”

“This is precisely what he does now with his players: he trains them to prioritize collaboration with their teammates. Arteta strives to create an environment that fosters creativity.”

Arteta’s success as both a player and a coach fills the people of San Sebastian, the Basque seaside city where his footballing journey commenced, with immense pride.

The clubhouse of Antiguoko FC, Arteta’s boyhood club, may go unnoticed at first glance. Tucked away in a small courtyard between a hair salon and a concrete apartment block, its entrance is marked by a wooden front door.

However, inside, one can witness the significant role this club has played not only in Arteta’s career but also in the development of many other top players. One wall is adorned with framed shirts representing 20 out of 35 Antiguoko youth players who have gone on to play in Spain’s top flight. Another wall is dedicated entirely to photos and memorabilia of the club’s two golden boys: Arteta and Xabi Alonso.

Roberto Montiel, Arteta’s former coach at Antiguoko and currently the club’s vice-president, reminisces about their time together.

“We played many tournaments with Mikel and Xabi on the same team,” he recalls. “The three of us used to travel to France for competitions, and it was fantastic. We had an excellent team.”

Montiel, who oversaw Antiguoko’s youth program for over two decades, insists that there was something special about Arteta.

“He stood out from the rest,” he says. “It was a joy to witness such quality in that tiny body. He was like Messi. When you watch videos of Messi as a kid, you can see many similarities.”

“Mikel had an exceptional understanding of the game. It was as if he was watching it from above. Such players are a little bit special. They see things on the pitch that others can only observe from the stands.”

“He caught my attention during my tactical talks before the games. Unlike other kids who would get distracted, talk to each other, or joke around, he was always attentive. He often told me the opponent’s formation, whether it was a 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1. He was already observing the team’s tactics and formations.”

Despite his undeniable talent, Arteta never had the opportunity to make a competitive appearance for Barcelona’s first team. His path was blocked by world-class players like Xavi, Iniesta, and a mature Guardiola.

In the middle of the 2000-01 season, Barcelona loaned him to Paris St-Germain, where he played alongside established stars such as Ronaldinho, Jay-Jay Okocha, and Nicolas Anelka. Eighteen months later, after impressing in a UEFA Cup match against Rangers, Arteta joined the Scottish giants, where he displayed his fearless character.

On the final day of the 2002-03 season, Rangers and their arch-rivals Celtic were tied on points, goal difference, and goals scored. The title race was so close that a helicopter hovered overhead, ready to deliver the trophy to the winner.

In a crucial moment, with Rangers leading by a narrow margin, they were awarded a penalty that could seal the title and secure a domestic treble. Despite being surrounded by experienced players, 21-year-old Arteta stepped up to take the penalty.

“I could barely watch; I had my back turned to the penalty spot because I knew how important it

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