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Mikel Arteta’s disciplinarian, no-nonsense approach at Arsenal being put to the test

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He has made it clear he wants to run a tight ship, but recent leaks will test his resolve.

Leeds United v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Paul Ellis - Pool/Getty Images

From day one, Mikel Arteta has made it clear that he is going to run a disciplined, tight ship at Arsenal. He instituted a number of rules and set various punishments for breaking them. Thus far, from what the public can see, he has been resolute.

He drew a line in the sand with Matteo Guendouzi, froze him out when he wouldn’t change his behavior, and sent him out on loan this season when things couldn’t be worked out. He laid down the law with Ainsley Maitland-Niles for showing up late. Then there is the whole Mesut Özil business, which, while we still don’t know what is actually going on there, can be framed as a player versus manager struggle in which Arteta has stood firm.

But the first cracks may be starting to show in the good ship Arsenal. Funny how that can happen when the results are dipping as well. And so Mikel Arteta’s resolve will be tested once more.

Over the international break, news of a training ground dust-up between David Luiz and Dani Ceballos over a tough challenge leaked. The word was that, whether in the challenge or the ensuing fracas, Ceballos drew blood. Ceballos denied the story. Mikel Arteta acknowledged that something had happened but brushed it off, chalking it up to players training hard and being passionate. He said the issue was resolved immediately.

He seemed more concerned that someone in the dressing room leaked the story to the media. “I don’t like it at all and I will find out where it is coming from,” he said. “And if that is the case, that goes completely against what I expect from each other, the privacy and the confidentiality that we need, and there will be consequences.”

I doubt we will ever know whether Arteta found the source of the leak (or if he was actually looking or just posturing) and what the “consequences” were, but I’ve got a pretty good guess where the story came from. The guy’s initials are MO.

Willian took a trip to Dubai during the international break, reportedly without Arsenal’s knowledge and apparently in violation of current travel restrictions. Willian has said that the trip was a required business trip to fulfill image rights requirements, but the optics of being pictured on social media dining at Nusret Gökçe aka Salt Bae’s restaurant aren’t great.

Of that incident, Mikel Arteta said it had been “dealt with in the right way” and that he had “explained what [he] expected” to Willian. That reads as Arteta and the club accepting the “business trip” explanation but telling him to be smarter about what he does and whether he’s photographed doing it.

I don’t want to be naive and uncritically take what Arsenal are telling me at face value, but there is very little else to go on here. It’s odd that Willian, during COVID and under travel restrictions, didn’t tell the club where he was going and why beforehand, but that could be a simple oversight.

It also creates a seed of doubt. It puts within the realm of possibility that the “business trip” explanation is an after the fact, behind-covering explanation accepted because it’s easier to handle than the alternative. At the end of the day, however, the only thing that matters is whether Arsenal, Arteta, Willian, and the rest of the squad know and understand what is going on and that it doesn’t create any perception of unequal treatment in the dressing room.

What remains to be seen is whether Arteta metes out additional punishment to Nicolas Pépé for what he called a “selfish” and “unacceptable” red card. Last season, when David Luiz picked up one of his two red cards for a poor on-field decision, he lost his starting place for a few weeks. The situation is complicated a bit by the upcoming Europa League matches and Bukayo Saka’s potential injury. Pépé may have to play in the Europa League from a squad-rotation standpoint. And with the busy Christmas period coming up, he may be needed in the Premier League as well.

Earlier, I pointed out that there seems to be a correlation between a dip in results and cracks starting to show. It’s easy to create a narrative where there are off-pitch “distractions” that explain on-pitch shortcomings. And I’ll be honest, I may be playing into that a bit here. It’s entirely possible that all three incidents, Ceballos-Luiz, Willian, and Pépé’s red card are molehills being made into mountains.

Then again, when you add-in the Maitland-Niles, Guendouzi, and Özil stuff, it starts to feel like there some smoke here. And where there’s smoke, there is fire.