As Arsenal FC aim to book a knockout berth against Borussia Dortmund, Mikel Arteta tells Champions how lessons learned at FC Barcelona help him flourish under Arsène Wenger.
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Seven years ago, a prominent figure in Spanish football in England rang David Moyes and asked him: "Are you still looking for a central midfielder? Somebody who can govern your attack? Are you willing to take a risk on someone who is on the bench in a team not really doing that well?"
At the time, Mikel Arteta was a regular among the substitutes for his beloved Real Sociedad de Fútbol. The normally cautious Everton FC manager decided to trust his instincts and go for it. Rarely has a foreign player been such a perfect match for a club and their philosophy.
Yet after almost 180 Premier League games in a blue shirt, in September Arteta joined Arsenal FC. He had watched Everton grow: a new training ground, European nights, an FA Cup final. But at 29, he wanted a new challenge before it was too late.
Arteta went to Arsenal in the aftermath of one of the most protracted transfer sagas in memory, as Cesc Fàbregas finally returned to FC Barcelona. That deal left a gap in the Arsenal dressing room and an even bigger one on the pitch.
Comparisons with his countryman are inevitable, but Arteta insists that does not faze him: "If I try and replace Cesc, that's where it will go wrong. I've been here weeks, he was at Arsenal for eight years, it would be impossible for me to replace him in that sense."
It is not only the Arsenal midfield Arteta and Fàbregas have shared. They had both landed at Barcelona's La Masia academy in 1997. Fàbregas was ten, Arteta five years older, having arrived from San Sebastian. Though Arsenal's No8 spent only two years at Barcelona, the experience shaped him
as a footballer.
"I learned to pass at Barcelona, training with players like [Josep] Guardiola, Rivaldo, Luís Enrique and [Luís] Figo," he said. "The first time I played for the first team, against Hertha Berlin in pre-season, I was 16 and replaced Guardiola at half-time. Afterwards he talked me through everything I'd done on the pitch. You can't have anyone better than that helping you."
At Arsenal, where he is one of the new boys, his role on the field is to bring experience and insight into midfield, something he is also encouraged to do off the pitch.
"The dressing room is a mirror of the bad times a team have out on the pitch, or rather that spell of 15, 20, 75 minutes even, when the team really suffer. In those moments you look at how your team-mates react, the looks between them – that tells you everything. When all seems lost a good dressing room pulls together. That's invaluable."
Then there is Arsène Wenger, a manager who has to show the way at a time when some are questioning the club's philosophy. "I was surprised at how straightforward his message is," Arteta said. "Players aren't weighed down with 40 different instructions: Wenger gives a player six or seven clear ideas and that's it, in 20 minutes you know what you're doing."
At 29, Arteta has taken a risk moving to a side facing their toughest challenges since the mid-1990s. Yet if the gamble pays off, it could pay dividends for player and club.
Wenger believes he can get the best out of Arteta: "He is a complete player – he can defend, he can attack and is very ambitious. He has all the ingredients to be a perfect Arsenal player," he said. If Wenger is right, Arsenal's prospects suddenly appear much brighter.
The full interview with Mikel Arteta is available in the new issue of Champions, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League, which is out now.