Not only does Mikel Arteta have excellent hair (never a hair out of place!), but he's also very good at football. People who are very good at football get nice reviews.
Last August, Arsene Wenger decided to sell Alex Song and have his role taken over by Mikel Arteta. Now, Arteta had been more defensive than his Everton days in 2011/12, working with Song in a double pivot, but this new role meant Arteta would effectively be Arsenal's deepest midfield. It's not a role that's entirely new to Arteta -- he came through at Barcelona as a pivote -- but it was a change that effectively happened the week the season started. Arteta took to the role extremely well, leading the team in both tackles and interceptions per game, while also starting Arsenal attacks. As a passer, Arteta is a metronome; he routinely keeps things ticking over, and makes simple but intelligent passes that open up space. He also has the ability to go longer, which was important when teams started closing Arteta and other midfielders down. Arteta got some blame for Arsenal's inability to play at a higher tempo when under pressure, but that seems unfair; after all, it's hard to pass to players under pressure if their movement is poor.
The only period Arteta suffered was in the middle of the season, when it seemed their was very little defensive cover from the midfield. Arteta was still doing what he does well; closing down counter attacks, and being the primary defensive player in the midfield, but with Jack Wilshere's indiscipline, Arteta had more space to cover. When Aaron Ramsey was reinserted into the double pivot, he and Arteta both flourished and were major reasons for Arsenal's defensive solidity towards the end of the season. His leadership, too, as captain once Thomas Vermaelen was dropped, was exemplary, and also extremely important. Arteta may be 31, but I see no reason to relegate him from the starting lineup next season.
One of my favorite ever sports nicknames was one that was given to Reggie Jackson back in the late 70's. Everyone knows him as "Mr. October", but that's not my favorite. My favorite was one that he reportedly gave himself, in talking with a reporter prior to the 1977 season. This reporter was at a bar with Jackson, and asked Jackson what he brought to the Yankees; Reggie pointed out all the ingredients in his drink and said "Maybe I'm the straw that stirs the drink".
To me, Mikel Arteta is the straw that stirs the Arsenal drink. He played the third-most minutes of any Arsenal player, behind only Cazorla and Mertesacker, and while he looked fairly worn down at the end of the season, his contributions were immense, if not always visible. He's one of those players who does nothing flashy - he doesn't fire pinpoint-accurate passes from 65 yards away, but he will make the right 10 yard diagonal pass all damn day, and he's quietly good at defending as well even though that's not really his brief.
I can't imagine where Arsenal would be without Mikel Arteta, and I hope we don't have to find out for a few years yet.
Mikel Arteta should be, if one's looking at a calendar, riding the proverbial horse into the sunset of his career by now. He should be, if one's looking at a calendar, reflecting fondly of memories made at the various stops along his chosen path in the sport. Instead, Mikel Arteta is flat-out kicking ass and taking names as, many could rightfully argue, the keystone to the club.
I guess we can get the one negative moment that stands out for him this past season, which is the blocked penalty kick at home, in the 94th minute in a 3-3 draw versus Fulham. And, even in that moment of agony, his overall body of work that match wasn't extremely terrible (94% overall pass completion on a total of 89 passes). He passes the ball more effectively than any player currently at the club. Arteta tackles and intercepts the ball and is the type of cover our center backs enjoying playing behind, which in its own right is pretty impressive considering he was asked to play deeper in the midfield than ever before due to a combination of Alex Song's departure over last summer and Abou Diaby's Persistent State of Doom. He can place free kicks to the intended targets, and he can hold up the ball and maintain possession during a lengthy run in order to draw fouls and cards. All of this is to say, Mikel Arteta wails.
Mikel Arteta is known for one thing: solidity. He's a solid professional - he came to Arsenal to play in the Champions League, and he's done everything he possibly can to get the team there and keep them there. He's playing out of position, he plays hurt, he plays more minutes than almost every other player on the team. He's solid in the team - as "holding midfielder" he's been the metronome that kept the Arsenal midfield humming, and his positioning and passing range are near-flawless. Even his hair is solid, enough that he looks like a Lego man (and believe me, that's not a criticism.
When he first came to Arsenal he was labelled a panic buy, and we've fought against that label ever since. But I guess the better way to approach it is this: Mr. Wenger, if Mikel Arteta is your idea of a "panic buy," please feel free to make as many of them as you would like.
This seems as good a time as any to resort to clumsy metaphors about food, so I'll just say that Mikel Arteta is fresh Italian bread with olive oil and cracked pepper. He's nothing fancy, but he's still the best. A team of 11 of him won't get it done nutritionally or footballistically, but as one part, he's unbeatable. Occasionally he'll drop in a little balsamic surprise, too.
GRADE: hungry A