Unity, body language and barbecues: How Mikel Arteta inspired Arsenal to an intrepid title challenge

As part of a team-bonding exercise during their pre-season tour to North America, Arsenal players were tasked with making movie trailers.

Split into small groups, they each had to produce a short video about what the team meant to them before playing the trailers out in front of each other.

Sadly for Arsenal, there was to be no Hollywood ending to their season. But it has nonetheless been an impressive year with very few blemishes to be removed in the editing suite.

After fading away last year, Arsenal were only beaten to the title by Manchester City on the final day and finished with a club-record number of goals and wins in the Premier League.

The seeds for this fine season were sown last summer during the tour of the United States.

Team-bonding exercises, like making movie trailers, were a key part of it and the squad also enjoyed a huge barbecue together - which have become a theme under Mikel Arteta.

The Arsenal manager was drumming the importance of unity into his players after the disappointing end to the previous season and the phrase “we plus me” was constantly used. When the players returned to their training base at London Colney, they found it had joined the list of motivational mottos that cover the walls.

Another new phrase on one of the walls by the indoor pitch was “win the game with set-pieces”, which the squad clearly took on board. Arsenal finished the season with 20 goals from set-pieces, more than anyone else in the Premier League.

The players’ lounge at the training ground also had a new addition too, with a wall full of post-it notes filled with messages from a dinner Arteta organised with the squad’s families. Everyone had to write messages to the team on how they were going to help them win the Premier League, with many choosing words like “love” and “honesty”.

One vital aspect to putting this collection of players together was underlined by how pleased Arsenal were to have the bulk of their transfer business done before the pre-season tour, which was always their aim.

There had been a tussle with Manchester City to bring in Declan Rice, but the Gunners had always been confident as in talks with the midfielder he had expressed a clear desire to join them.

The final signing to arrive was goalkeeper David Raya on loan from Brentford in what was a bold move from the club.

Aaron Ramsdale had performed well as the No1 the previous season and been rewarded with a new contract in May. Arsenal’s transfer dealings are conducted as a club, but it is understood Arteta was the driving force behind a move for Raya.

Originally, some within the club had reservations about the deal, but by the end all agreed to push ahead with it.

“Arteta has worked hard to create that environment of unity among the squad.”

Raya had a shaky start, though, and so did fellow new signing Kai Havertz after he arrived from Chelsea for £65million. The 24-year-old would finish the season with 14 goals and seven assists, but he found the net just once in the opening three months of the campaign.

That goal came at the end of September, when captain Martin Odegaard made him take a late penalty to get off the mark in a 4-0 win over Bournemouth.

Many thought that would be the turning point for Havertz, but those inside the club believe that came in November at Newcastle. The German did not score but he showed the fight Arsenal thought was inside him with a big tackle on Sean Longstaff that sparked a brawl between both sets of players.

Teammates helped Havertz through his tough start, especially Jorginho.

The pair knew each other from Chelsea and were actually together at goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga’s wedding when Havertz signed for Arsenal. Havertz spoke to Jorginho before he made the move across London and during his tough start the Italian gave him advice.

Arteta has worked hard to create that environment of unity among the squad and it was shown early on this season when Jurrien Timber injured his knee in the opening league game. The defender learnt a few days later that he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and, sat alone in the medical room, he was surprised when Oleksandr Zinchenko and Mohamed Elneny arrived to console him.

Morale in the squad was high throughout the season and even someone like Ramsdale, who barely played, did not sulk, and tried to maintain his bubbly personality. He even joined in with the role of dressing room DJ at times - which was left vacant after Rob Holding left.

After a steady start to the season, Arsenal’s form dipped around the turn of the year. The goals dried up and calls for the club to sign a striker grew.

Arteta was convinced the side could turn it around and part of his work to fix it revolved around studying players’ body language after they missed chances.

Arteta is a huge believer in psychology and one of the books he has read is ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’ by Malcolm Gladwell.

After defeat at Fulham on New Year’s Eve, which was in Arteta’s eyes his side’s worst performance of the season, he clipped footage of his players’ reaction when they missed chances. He later showed them to the squad and urged them change their body language when they, or a teammate, missed a chance.

There was an acceptance, too, that the squad needed a break and it was why Arsenal decided to go to Dubai in January.

The trip to Dubai proved vital for Arsenal (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
The trip to Dubai proved vital for Arsenal (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Some members of the squad were initially reluctant to go, but it was stressed to them the trip would be about recovery. Families were invited and players had adequate time to relax as well as train.

Rice was able to follow Rory McIlroy for a practice round at a golf tournament. Gabriel Martinelli and Fabio Vieira went and drove buggies in the dessert with their partners. Bukayo Saka, Havertz and Odegaard spent a lot of time together and went for dinner a few times as a group with their partners.

The wives and girlfriends of the whole squad have become close since then, thanks in part to a yet another barbecue organised by Arsenal in Dubai.

When the Gunners played Bayern Munich away last month in the Champions League, many of the partners flew out together and were spotted in the German city singing Arsenal songs.

The fear after that loss to Bayern was that Arsenal’s season was going to end with a whimper. It was the second defeat in a row after losing to Aston Villa just three days earlier and some inside the club were worried the squad was burning out.

Arteta, however, pulled the team together and Arsenal won every subsequent game.

It has, ultimately, not been enough, but the belief inside Emirates Stadium is that this side has what it takes to win major trophies.

Every season under Arteta they have improved and now it is about taking that final step after laying the foundations. Arsenal and Arteta believe next year will be their year.