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Mikel Arteta: The perseverance and rejection that turned me into a manager

Pepe Reina recalls the injustice meted out to Mikel Arteta in the dorm room of the Barcelona farmhouse they once called home, and a wide smile spreads across his tanned cheeks.

There was no question where the noise was coming from even though Reina was on the top bed and Arteta was on the bottom.

The other boys in the room were getting agitated because I was snoring, says the former Liverpool and Napoli goalie.

“So they started throwing everything they could get their hands on, including shin guards, shoes, and flip-flops.

But several of them wound up hitting Mikel since I was on top and he was at the bottom. He spent a lot of sleepless nights due to our shared bed, almost ruining our friendship.”

La Masia, FC Barcelona’s renowned residential academy that has produced Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta, was housed in a stone farmhouse across the street from the Nou Camp, the club’s illustrious stadium, until 2011. Reina and Arteta were plucked from Madrid and San Sebastian respectively as some of the brightest young talents in Spain, and left home in their mid-teens to join La Masia.

Listen to Arteta’s “Mikel: The Making of”
In spite of faltering in the final few games, Arteta’s young Arsenal team finished second in the Premier League and qualified for the Champions League for the first time since 2016–17, according to Reina, who is convinced that Arteta developed some of the traits that have helped him emerge as one of Europe’s most promising young managers during this time.

View of La Masia in Barcelona from the Nou Camp
Photographed from the Nou Camp, La Masia is the stone farmhouse toward the center of the picture.
Reina says, “It was really tough,” in the BBC World Service documentary Arteta: The making of Mikel.

“When we were 13 or 14 years old, we missed our parents, siblings, and siblings. I recall crying as I read the letters from home at the time. People may be seen sobbing.

You have to acquire perseverance, a strong mentality, and a desire to win the trophy or accomplish your goals in order to survive in La Masia, so it’s really character-building.

We were all together supporting one other like brothers while experiencing the same dreams, nightmares, and worries.

Along with developing mental toughness, Arteta was also taught the Barcelona philosophy of ball retention, selflessness, and positional flexibility, which has revolutionized contemporary club football. Pep Guardiola of Manchester City is its leading exponent, and Arteta of Arsenal is also a disciple of current Barcelona coach Xavi.

Reina claims it’s no accident that all three of them were midfielders.

“I think the education in Barcelona as a player, especially in his position, is particularly strong,” the player claims.

“It was only natural that players in those positions would eventually have a better understanding of football than others.

“Mikel was born to be a manager, I believe; his intelligence has been shown both on and off the field.”

Paco Seirul-lo, a mentor to both Guardiola and Arteta, is an expert on the Barcelona way. In 1994, Johan Cruyff appointed him as the first-team fitness coach. A decade later, the prestigious position of “Head of Methodology” was bestowed upon him.

In August 1999, Mikel Arteta represented Barcelona in a friendly matchup against Hertha Berlin.
Arteta left Barcelona without making a competitive first-team appearance, as seen above after taking Pep Guardiola’s place in a friendly match against Hertha Berlin in August 1999.
He continues, “The principle is that you put your teammate above yourself. “To do this, you must check your ego at the door.

“Some athletes failed because they refused to accept it. Others recognized that the key was to adjust your strategy to the demands of your teammate rather than giving up on yourself.

When a player received the ball, Arteta and Guardiola used to have them say, “Thank you, since it arrived just how I wanted it.

“Like Pep, Arteta was selfless and played for others. His core motivation was to contribute to the group and make others successful.

Arteta attempts to foster an environment where creativity can flourish, and this is what he does now with his players: he trains them so that their main priority is to work with their team-mates.

brief grey presentation line
When he was a youngster, Mikel Arteta posed with a personal trophy and a member of his family.
Barcelona accepted Arteta into their renowned youth academy due to his abilities as a young player.
The Basque seaside city of San Sebastian, where Arteta’s footballing career began, takes great satisfaction in the success of both his playing and coaching careers.

The clubhouse of Antiguoko FC is simple to overlook. Its front door is made of wood paneling and is located in a tiny courtyard between a hair salon and a concrete apartment building.

When you come out the other side, you realize how important a role this club played in Arteta’s career and the careers of many other elite athletes.

Twenty of the 35 Antiguoko young players who went on to play in Spain’s top division have their framed shirts displayed on one wall, and Arteta and Xabi Alonso, the team’s two golden boys, have their entire wall filled with pictures and memorabilia.

According to their former coach Roberto Montiel, who is currently vice president of Antiguoko, “we played many tournaments with Mikel and Xabi in the same team.”

“The three of us used to go to France to play in competitions, and it was superb: that was a very good team.”

For more than 20 years, Montiel directed Antiguoko’s youth program, but he is adamant that there was “something special” about the young Arteta.

The memorial plaque honoring Arteta in Antiguoko
In the Antiguoko clubhouse, a portion of the wall is covered with memorabilia from Arteta’s career.
He claims that “he stood out from the rest.” He was like Messi; when you see Messi’s films, you can notice many similarities between the two of them when they were little. It was nice to witness such quality in that little body.

“Mikel had an excellent read on the game; he saw the plays before the other players. He appeared to be observing the game from above. Such players are a little bit unique. They observe on the field what others could only observe from the upper decks of the stands.

“He also caught my attention because, in my tactical talks before the games, he was not like other kids, who got distracted, talked to each other, and joked around… Instead, he was very attentive. He often told me: they are playing in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 system. He was already observing the team’s formations and tactics.”

A youthful Mikel Arteta poses in a group photo with his teammates from the Antiguoko club.
One of the many players who have gone on to have a professional career after playing for boyhood club Antiguoko in the Basque city of San Sebastian is Arteta, front row, far right. Front row, far left: Xabi Alonso, a future midfielder for Liverpool and Real Madrid.
Despite his obvious talent, Arteta was never able to compete for the Barcelona first squad due to the presence of elite players like Xavi, Iniesta, and an aging Guardiola.

Midway through the 2000–01 campaign, the team loaned him out to Paris St-Germain, where he was able to play alongside established talents like Nicolas Anelka, Jay-Jay Okocha, and Ronaldinho.

After making an impression in a Uefa Cup match against Rangers 18 months later, Arteta joined the Scottish powerhouses and quickly made his reckless nature known.

Against AC Milan, Mikel Areta will be playing for Paris St. Germain.
While on loan from Paris St. Germain, 18-year-old Areta pursues AC Milan’s Brazilian sensation Leonardo during a Champions League game.
Rangers and Celtic, their fierce rivals, were tied on points and goal differential going into the last day of the 2002–03 campaign, with Rangers leading on goals scored.

Celtic temporarily led the battle for the championship earlier in the day, but with 92 minutes remaining in both matches—Rangers 5-1 up over Dunfermline Athletic at Ibrox and Celtic 4-0 up against Kilmarnock—Arteta’s team retained the slimmest of leads.

A helicopter was hovering overhead, ready to deliver the trophy to the victor. It was that close.

A penalty was then won by Rangers, giving them a chance to win the championship and the domestic treble. A 21-year-old named Arteta stepped up on a team that was loaded with experience.

Having his back to the penalty spot because he knew how crucial it was, Ronald de Boer, a teammate at Rangers and 12 years Arteta’s senior, says he could hardly watch.

Mikel took the ball, I’m sure he had nervousness, but he hid them beautifully, and he scored a perfect penalty. I think Barry Ferguson was our top penalty taker.

De Boer recalls his enthusiasm for the teenage midfielder as Arteta wheeled off while swinging his arms at the ecstatic Ibrox crowd.

“That was a big responsibility from him,” he continues. “Nobody really expected it, but he took charge and stood up when it mattered.

We knew he was a wonderful player, but it was impressive of him to assume that kind of responsibility at such a young age in such a crucial match and time of that pivotal title fight versus Celtic.

He had the potential to fail, but that didn’t occur, making him the victor.

Arteta started to establish himself as a leader in the locker room with his next club, Everton, if it was at Rangers where he initially asserted himself on the field.

According to his former Everton teammate Alan Stubbs, “Mikel was very influential in our evolution into a more dynamic team when we signed Mikel.”

There were a few times when we came in at halftime and were losing or drawing the game; he wasn’t afraid to give an opinion and say we need to be braver and dictate the game more.

“At the time, [manager] David Moyes had a more organized approach in terms of being a strong defender, attacking teams on the counterattack, and being extremely resolute.

Being realistic, at that time, with Everton, we were never going to be a team that controlled games of football, but Mikel would always give the argument, “Why can’t we try? “, I believe he would have preferred to see us go to try and win the game 2-0 or 3-0 rather than play out a 1-0.

Everton player Mikel Areta
Arteta played for Everton for 208 games and scored 35 goals before deciding to accept a wage cut and join Arsenal in August 2011.
After a humiliating 8-2 loss at Old Trafford, Arsenal was in desperate need of a leader on the transfer deadline day in August 2011. Arteta originally pursued his own goals to become a manager during his time working for Arsene Wenger, although in improbable circumstances.

Former footballers Marcel Desailly and Roberto Martinez were among those who had gone through the coaching program run by the Football Association of Wales (FAW) at Dragon Park in Newport. Its Uefa Pro Licence cohort from 2016 was notably famous.

Their former classmate and current head of player development for the FAW, Richard Williams, states that “Mikel was on the pro licence, as was Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell, and Freddie Ljungberg.” “For guys who hadn’t been in that world, it was a little bit special.”

Arteta’s focus stood out even among such illustrious company.

“The one thing I noticed about being in the same room as Mikel during anything we did was the clarity he had in what he wanted to do,” claims Williams. He was extremely clear about the style of play he wanted his teams to adopt and the strategy he intended to use.

“He gave a passing drill at our national conference the year after we graduated, and I still use it now. Although it’s a straightforward exercise, every action and pass detail needs to be flawless.

He was a perfectionist, which I believe is a result of his La Masia upbringing and, of course, of getting to work with Pep in his atmosphere.

Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium sidelines
Former teammates and coaching partners Guardiola and Arteta are now adversaries at the top of the Premier League.
Arteta’s three-year stint as Guardiola’s assistant, which came after his playing retirement at Arsenal in 2016, is compared by Reina to receiving a “Masters from Harvard” in football coaching. There are numerous accounts of the two having late-night discussions about a new approach or formation in their apartment building in the heart of Manchester.

When City trained at Dragon Park before of a match with Swansea City, Williams saw what he terms the “easy chemistry” between them.

Williams explains, “What I’ll never forget was that we set up the boardroom with five tables and a lectern at the front for Pep. Mikel had arranged for a Q&A for the Pro Licence hopefuls after the session. But as soon as Pep entered, he insisted that we all sit at the same table.

“That way, it was much more casual and intimate, and it was obvious that he and Mikel got along well. When they were returning the answers to us, they were joking and teasing one another. Therefore, it appeared to be a really cozy and lovely setting.

Arteta’s Arsenal team defeated Guardiola’s Manchester City on the road to winning the FA Cup in his first full season after being granted the chance to go it alone in 2019 – but problems were to come.

After three straight eighth-place finishes, Arsenal dropped to the bottom of the standings in 2021–22, and a fan survey conducted online at the time revealed that 77% of Arsenal supporters wanted him out.

However, Arteta committed to his footballing ideas, dumping high-earning individualists like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil in favor of building a young, attacking team that was bursting with individual inventiveness and team purpose. Arteta may have been inspired by the resilience acquired at La Masia.

The Gunners set a furious pace to lead the Premier League for the majority of the 2022–23 season after narrowly missing out on Champions League qualification, but ultimately it was a tempo they were unable to sustain as Manchester City took advantage of a late wobble to steam past them on the home straight.

Thoughts of next season and beyond are already stirring in the minds of Arsenal supporters, with Arteta as the manager shaping their future.

“Every cheer, chant, he lives it, he breathes it,” claims Faisal Khan, host of the Latte Firm YouTube page for Arsenal.

We can see how much it matters to him since he was a player once and knows what it means to be an Arsenal.

“We are here and competing, and I am confident that we will continue to do so for years to come, hopefully with him in charge.

We simply can’t wait to find out what happens to him.

Reina concurs, insisting that his former roommate have all the skills necessary to succeed at the highest level and knowing where to go for guidance when he begins his own coaching career.

Michael is among my favorites, but you must prepare yourself and choose your mentors wisely, he advises.

He’s going to be one of the best managers, so I’ll take advantage of the opportunity to learn a lot from him.

John Bennett of BBC World Service Sport contributed to the report.


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