Always honest, impassioned and intelligent, Mikel sat down with the official magazine to examine the twists and turns in a typically involving campaign for the men in red and white – and provided an intriguing glimpse of his own future too.
There’s no denying that injuries have contributed to our drop-off in the league, with the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil all missing long periods. Is that something players talk about among themselves?
Well, we talk about it because we want to know when the players are back – we know how important they all are. You named three but I can give you many more: Podolski was for four months; Chambo was out for five and a half months and he hasn’t been able to play every week since then; Santi was injured with an ankle problem; I had a spell out too; there’s Jack of course; Bacary with his hamstring; we’ve had Laurent Koscielny injured at a crucial time. Basically everyone has been injured apart from Olivier – perhaps Per, too, but he’s been sick a couple of times. It’s unbelievable to have had these injuries, long-term ones at very important moments of the season when you need your players to click and make the difference at vital moments. I would have liked to see us playing our strongest team every single week, and to see if the same thing would have happened. I don’t think it would.
What do you think the problem has been in the big away games you mentioned – the defeats at Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton?
It’s been our fault – I can’t find any other explanation. When you go to Chelsea and they score three amazing goals then ok, but we gave the ball away in our own half. They were putting pressure on us and we knew they would do that, but we kept making mistakes and in a big game your opponents won’t miss their chance. The games were over after 15 or 20 minutes, and that just can’t happen. It’s nothing to do with preparation – everyone is prepared, and when it happens once we expect that it won’t repeat itself in the next big game. But it has still happened. Dropping points like that has been a big blow for everyone psychologically – it’s been really hard to take. The goals we’ve conceded haven’t been good enough from our point of view and we’ve paid for them, big time.
I’m certainly going to stay involved in football because I think I’ve got something to add
How have you felt out there on the pitch? You’re 32 now, and are in line to play over 40 games this season.
I’ve felt really good throughout the season, but obviously I don’t want to go through games like the Chelsea and Liverpool ones again. That was tough to come to terms with – I’m a very competitive person and when I lose like that my head just blows away. But physically I’ve been fine, I’ve played in the holding role quite a bit and slightly differently when I’ve played along Mathieu. Things have felt okay.
As a senior player, do you feel extra responsibility on your shoulders during tough times?
Yes, I think you have to try and keep everyone going, to make sure they don’t get downhearted and throw the season away. That was the biggest risk at one point, but we’ve always responded to tough moments in a positive way since I’ve been here and I’m expecting the same reaction between now and the end of the season.
How does your own approach to the game change with age? Do you find it easier to take a step back now?
The fight to switch off gets harder and harder. I just can’t do it – I have long discussions with my wife every time we have a bad result, and I constantly think about what we can improve, what we did wrong, what happened in the game. I turn it over in my mind a thousand times. It’s because I love the game, love playing football, and along with my family it’s the biggest part of my life. I don’t know how to turn it off. Fortunately my wife only needs to look at me and she knows what I’m thinking!
Looking at where we’re sitting now, and then going right back to the start of your career, would you say that you are where you had hoped and dreamed you’d be when you were 16 or 17?
When I was younger my dream was always to play for Barcelona. But after that, if you had asked me where I would like to play when I first arrived in the UK, the answer would have been Arsenal – and that’s the truth. The way they played, the team they had, the philosophy of attacking football, they enjoyed playing the way I do and I would have chosen them ahead of any other. Now that I’m here, I feel so proud to be part of this football club. What they’ve done with it, how they’ve managed it and built it up, is unbelievable. We all feel very privileged to be where we are.
But if your career had finished a week ago and we were looking back upon it now, what would your feelings be?
That I achieved what I wanted to achieve, but with one particular regret – that I haven’t enjoyed it as much as I should have done. And that’s because I always put too much pressure on myself, trying to improve things that are not going well, not just in my own game but other things around the players or the club. I always think that, in five or ten years’ time, I’ll look back and say "Mikel, do you realise you played for Arsenal, you played nice football, you had good coaches, good team-mates, a good life in London?" Maybe I should just enjoy it more, but it’s part of my makeup and it’s what keeps me going.
Thierry Henry once said something similar – that his goal against Leeds two years ago was the first that he’d really been able to savour...
When you win, you think about the next game straightaway. When you lose, it takes you 48 to 72 hours to digest why it happened, and then you begin thinking about the next game, which is usually just a couple more days away. So I find it difficult to say “I love it” because I’m constantly putting myself under pressure, there’s always a next target or there’s “we won but we didn’t do a certain thing well” nagging away at you. And it’s always like that. But I do know how privileged I am to be in this position. Sometimes I take my kids out onto the Emirates Stadium pitch after a game, and remember that this would have all seemed like a dream when I was as young as them.
We’ve spoken about recent tough times, but what has been the most difficult period of your career so far?
Probably when I injured my cruciate, on 2009. I was at Everton, and was hitting probably the best form of life. I was so close to getting into the Spain national team, and thought I was going to get a call-up. Then I did my cruciate, my anterior ligament, my meniscus – everything went off. After four and a half months, when I was almost back, I needed more surgery because my meniscus went again, and then I picked up an infection after that, so it went on for 11 months. At some points I was saying “well, I don’t know if I can come back”, because the infection was really bad. But I knew what I had to do.
I’ve admired Pochettino ever since I was young; he really looked after me when I was at PSG as well
I went through a lot of pain and many, many hours of rehab – and again, a lot of discussions with my wife, because I was so focused on my recovery that I couldn’t do anything else. Three or four hours after she gave birth to our first baby, I pulled up a treatment table next to her in hospital and had my physio. She wanted to kill me: “You can miss one day!” But my feeling was that no, I couldn’t, it was so important for my knee and I’d lost eight hours already. We laugh about it now, but we had some hard moments back then. I would love to be able to put things more in perspective when they’re not going well, but it’s just the way I approach my job. The positive thing is that, if my boy ends up doing this when he is older, I’m not going to let him be like his dad!
It often seems the case that the most demanding things in life happen at once...
It’s happened to Theo too, with his new baby. I was talking to him a few weeks back telling him that I’d been through the same thing and that there’ll be some tough moments. You’ll have a baby crying for the whole night and you can’t sleep or rest, but you have to do your rehab at 8am and get to work for 12 hours. But it’s good as well, because it gives you something new, something that is the best thing in the world, to encourage you and motivate you.
It’s little secret that many people see you as management material when you hang up your boots. Is that something you think about?
My team-mates are always going “What are you going to do Miki? You’re going to be a manager, you should be a manager!” I know what the job means and I know how hard it is, especially when I look at the boss and see how many hours he puts in here. You need to sacrifice your family all over again, which I’ve done since I was 15. But I would love to manage a squad of players and staff – I’ve got it inside me, it’s true, and I want to do it. First of all I want to make the most of my playing career, because I’m 32 and in this game you never know whether you’ll end up carrying on until 34, 35 or 36. After that, I’m certainly going to stay involved in football because I think I’ve got something to add. I would like to prove myself, and prove my ideas about managing and encouraging people to do things in the way I believe is best.
So let’s imagine that you take over Mikel Arteta FC tomorrow: what will the ideas behind it be?
My philosophy will be clear. I will have everyone 120 per cent committed, that’s the first thing. If not, you don’t play for me. When it’s time to work it’s time to work, and when it’s time to have fun then I’m the first one to do it, but that commitment is vital. Then I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition. We have to dictate the game, we have to be the ones taking the initiative, and we have to entertain the people coming to watch us. I’m 100 per cent convinced of those things, and I think I could do it.
Will you set your team up in a particular system, or do the players come first?
I think you need to adapt. You can have an idea of a system, but you need to be able to transform it depending on the players you have – how much pace you have up front, how technical your team is, what types of risk you can take and whether your players are ready to take those risks. It’s important to analyse your players because you can’t always play the same way. There have to be different details and changes in how you approach things, and you have to look at how you can hurt whoever you are playing against. Is there something they don’t like to do? If so, we’re going to make them do plenty of it. Then the most important thing for the manager is that, the Friday before the game, you imagine what’s going to happen on the Saturday. And if what happens on Saturday is not what I had planned, then it’s not been good enough from me.
Is there any current manager who particularly influences you?
One is Arsène Wenger, of course – he has a philosophy that he’s never going to change because he really believes in it. That is the most important thing, because if you don’t really believe in something then you’ll just change it after one bad result and drive your players crazy. Another is Pep Guardiola, who I’ve known since I was 15. The way he sees football is always to look ahead, then further ahead, always improving. Then there’s Mauricio Pochettino – he was my captain at PSG and I always knew he would become a manager. He has taken a lot of influence from Marcelo Bielsa, who was his coach with Argentina; they used to talk about things a lot, and now you can see that his teams are really aggressive, both when attacking and defending. He takes a lot of risks, the players enjoy playing for him, his decisions are always sound and he’s got a good personality. I’ve admired Pochettino ever since I was young; he really looked after me when I was at PSG as well.
Can we go back to something you brought up earlier? You said that your cruciate injury came just as you were pushing for a Spain place – do you think it was pivotal to your not becoming a member of the squad since?
No, I think what has stopped me is that we’ve had the best generation of midfielders that European football has ever seen in Europe. I know I was very close to going, and I had a phone call from someone saying I was going to get the chance, but it’s part of football. I would love play next to those players one day, but it hasn’t come and I have to accept it because what they’ve got is brilliant.
Read the full interview with Mikel in our latest edition
Will you be watching them in the World Cup, and do you think they can win it a second time?
Of course. I hope they prove the people wrong who say that they have lost their hunger and can’t win it again. I don’t think they have, but obviously a World Cup is won by small details – they were superb four years ago but they still had some lucky moments, such as when Casillas made that massive save against Robben in the final with his foot. They’ll need more of that, because it’s going to be a very interesting tournament and there could be a surprise. Look at Chile for instance – I watched them play Germany recently and they were so unlucky to lose, and they battered England at Wembley before Christmas. Then you have Uruguay, who have a crazy amount of power up front. And of course there’s Brazil, playing at home, and Germany, whose players have won everything in the last few years and got into a very important habit of reaching finals. I can’t wait to see what happens.