The Mikel Arteta transfer gambles that will shape Arsenal’s season

Pep Guardiola has emulated Sir Alex Ferguson in several ways. Usually, however, that tends to be something to savour. As Manchester City’s most decorated manager became the first coach to lose three consecutive Community Shields since his Manchester United counterpart, he could have taken solace in the bigger picture.

Call it the curse of the Community Shield, perhaps, but then, as now, its winners rarely went on to taste Premier League glory. Only one of the previous 12 victors – albeit City themselves in 2018 – have been able to call themselves champions of England 10 months later. Arsenal won the Community Shield in 2020 and only finished eighth that season. Three years on, they were happy to ignore history. The celebrations suggested it was more than just a pre-season trinket to them.

“This is what I visioned when I joined,” said Declan Rice and although Arsenal hope their £105m recruit actually imagined something more glorious, the previous time they made a midfielder the most expensive Englishman of all time, Alan Ball won nothing in their colours. Rice had no trophies to show for the first 244 games of his club career: he has two in two now, even if the Europa Conference League and the Community Shield are not the most prestigious prizes in football.

The broader question – and a perennial one at this stage – is whether the Community Shield is a marker for the campaign. Arsenal got a first glimpse of what £200m bought them. Rice was disciplined and diligent in midfield but an unspectacular outing may be a deceptive debut: for the majority of matches, he is likely to be a lone defensive midfielder, rather than dovetailing with Thomas Partey, in a team who seem primed to exchange attacking ambition for more mettle. Meanwhile, Kai Havertz was bought to operate in midfield and instead deputised for the injured Gabriel Jesus in attack. Arteta branded the £65m man “superb” but it felt a microcosm of the Chelsea Havertz: intelligent movement, eager pressing, ineffectual finishing.

There is a case for saying that Havertz performed too accurate an impression of Jesus: Arsenal prospered last season by sharing the goals around, with Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard all getting either 14 or 15 in the Premier League. Leandro Trossard provided their Community Shield equaliser, even if it required a huge deflection. Whether Arsenal can afford profligacy in attack, or from Havertz, remains to be seen but the reinvention of the German in midfield may yet be the gamble that shapes Arsenal’s season, one way or another.

Jurrien Timber’s bow may have been the most auspicious: quietly assured, the versatile Dutchman slotted in at left-back, though it is perhaps only his third-best position; Kieran Tierney, seemingly on his way out, fared less well when he replaced the Dutchman and Cole Palmer scored. That Arteta bought Timber and is bidding for David Raya is a sign he is willing to create a threat to those who had seemed entrenched in his team. Ben White could be dislodged by Timber, Aaron Ramsdale by Raya. The goalkeeper’s match-winning display showed he had produced the right response and suggested competition could be healthy.

Mikel Arteta lifted the Community Shield

(PA Wire)

Ramsdale’s rhetoric was instructive, too. He argued a mental block against City, forged in three years of defeats, was lifted. That City had returned to training two weeks later than Arsenal and removed Erling Haaland at 0-0 offered the impression that victory meant less to them; the result will nevertheless assume an added importance if it helps shift the balance of power in the Arteta-Guardiola rivalry.

A clearer indication may arrive when they meet in October. Perhaps then Arsenal will borrow from their Wembley gameplan, reuniting two defensive midfielders, fielding a back four who – unlike when Oleksandr Zinchenko twice faced City last season – are all specialist defenders, playing deeper to limit space both behind and in front of their rearguard. If last season’s Arsenal was about idealism and excitement, the surprise surge of a youthful team, perhaps this season’s side are charged with showing more physicality, solidity and nous against City, borrowing from a greater strength in depth to alter their style of play.

Such wins can feel signs of progress, staging posts on the route to something greater. Arsenal beat Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea last season, taking 19 points from a possible 24 against them, but not City. But such occasions can also be a false dawn. After their triumph in the 2020 Community Shield, they won their first two league games, but only two of the next 12. They sank as low as 15th. A repeat feels implausible. But more than most, Arsenal know it is hard to judge precisely what winning the Community Shield signifies.

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