Mikel Arteta is almost two years into his job as Arsenal manager, and he is by no means the first “next big thing” to discover that life on the touchline is not quite as straightforward as it seems when you’re an ambitious assistant coach waiting for the chance to become the one who calls the shots.
Arteta goes into Sunday’s North London derby against Tottenham at the Emirates with the Gunners having emerged from their worst start to a season in 128 years of league competition, but the storm clouds are still lingering.
Successive 1-0 wins against Norwich and Burnley have eased the sense of alarm after three straight defeats against Brentford, Manchester City and Chelsea, but for Arteta, his billing as one of the brightest young talents following three years as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at City has certainly taken a battering during his 92 games as manager at the Emirates. (His 93rd will be Wednesday’s Carabao Cup game against AFC Wimbledon.)
“All of the credit I had built up as assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United evaporated after one game as a manager,” former Middlesbrough and England manager Steve McClaren told ESPN. “We lost 4-0 at home to Arsenal, and everything went out of the window. Once you’re a manager, everything changes.”
McClaren, who was Ferguson’s No.2 during United’s Treble-winning season in 1998-99, is a rarity among assistant managers for successfully making the transition from coach to manager. The 60-year-old, now working alongside Wayne Rooney as technical director at Derby County, guided Middlesbrough to the EFL Cup in 2004, won an Eredivisie title in the Netherlands with FC Twente and managed the England national team, but even now, he’s regarded as a failure by many simply because of the impossible standards set by Ferguson at United.
Many others since McClaren have found life as a manager too tough after leaving their role as trusted assistants to more celebrated managers. Paul Clement, who worked alongside Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, was sacked by Derby after just eight months in his first managerial role and has since lasted less than a year in charge of Swansea, Reading and Cercle Brugge.
Brian Kidd, McClaren’s highly rated predecessor at United, was sacked after 11 months in charge of Blackburn Rovers after they were relegated from the Premier League. Ferguson has since said he feared that Kidd’s personality was not suited to the hard decisions of management, saying in his autobiography, “Managing My Life,” that “I would have had serious reservations about Brian ever taking charge of United. I suspect that the constant demand for hard, often unpopular, decisions would have put an intolerable strain on his temperament.”
Carlos Queiroz is another who discovered that club management was a different scenario to assisting a legendary coach, with the Portuguese being sacked after just 10 months in charge of Real Madrid after quitting his role as Ferguson’s number two at Old Trafford.
There are many more. Rui Faria and Aitor Karanka — both prominent assistants to Jose Mourinho — failed to succeed as managers, while Ray Harford lasted just an year in charge of Blackburn after replacing his boss, Kenny Dalglish, in the wake of the club’s Premier League title success in 1995. Bob Paisley proved an exception, leading Liverpool to unprecedented success after stepping up to replace Bill Shankly in 1974, but the modern era has proven to be much more difficult for assistants to navigate the path to becoming managers and many, from day one, are simply not cut out for the job.
“The leadership role is the reason why so many number twos fail to succeed as managers,” Patrick Manhire, the Head of Executive Search at Sportsology, told ESPN. “Too many are unable to go from being a functional expert [coach] to having the responsibility of leading and empowering talented staff to fulfil their role.
“When we advise a team on hiring a Head Coach, General Manager or Sporting Director, there are four key themes which are crucial for any successful appointment. One: Are they coachable and prepared to take ideas from staff or ownership? Two: Are they self-reflective and open to change in terms of their approach? Three: Are they open-minded to feedback and prepared to get uncomfortable in order to progress? Four: Do they know what they are and what they are not? Basically, are they able to give staff, experts in their field, the autonomy to deliver?
“And within all of that, they have to be able to forge relationships that enable them to manage relationships with the owner, the media, the stars of the team and the staff. Managing up, as well as down, is crucial.”
Sources at City have told ESPN that Arteta was regarded as a significant loss when he left his role alongside Guardiola to replace Unai Emery at Arsenal in Dec. 2019. The former Arsenal midfielder was popular with the players, trusted by Guardiola and, according to one source, “a proper number two who would have his say.” There was even a widely held view, although not publicly confirmed by the City hierarchy, that Arteta was regarded as Guardiola’s heir apparent as manager at the Etihad.
But those who have trod the path from coach to manager in the past insist it’s always a shock to the system to take the top job.
“On my first day as a manager at Derby, I sat at my desk, realised how many decisions I had to make and thought to myself, ‘Wow, what the f— have I done?!'” Phil Brown, the former Bolton assistant manager, told ESPN. “I had been an assistant for almost 10 years at Blackpool and Bolton and had an invaluable education into management working under Colin Todd and Sam Allardyce, but there really is nothing that can prepare you for the unique challenges of being the manager.
“As a coach [assistant], it’s pretty simple, really: you just coach. But as manager, you have to quickly realise that everything lands at your door and you have to make a decision on players, team selection, deal with the owners and also handle having to speak to different people in different departments about recruitment, why you need this player, why you need to get another player out. And when you lose, the fans only blame the manager.
“When I took charge of Hull City, I was given some priceless advice from Sir Alex Ferguson. He said if you get 7 out of 10 decisions right, you’ll be OK. You can’t get them all right, but sometimes a new manager needs to hear that. He also said to pick my battles. There are fights and challenges around every corner as a manager, but you have to let some of them go.”
Arteta has seemingly been locked in one battle or another ever since arriving at the Emirates. The 39-year-old has endured vocal criticism from supporters, had to deal with changes in senior management above him and has also struggled to offload unwanted players and replace them with the necessary quality due to financial restrictions exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then there are the results, the ultimate barometer of any manager’s job security. An FA Cup triumph in 2020 now seems a long time ago with Arsenal lying below mid-table in the Premier League after failing to qualify for Europe last season for the first time this century. Sources have told ESPN that Arsenal are committed to Arteta and prepared to back him over the long-term, despite the negativity and noise generated by bad results, and McClaren insists that patience is crucial for him to survive.
“I lost my first four games at Middlesbrough,” McClaren said. “We conceded 11 and scored once. The team was pointless and I was clueless, according to the headlines, but one thing all managers need is the time to impose their methods and build a squad of players capable of delivering.
“It took me three years to move on all the players I didn’t want and replace them with top professionals such as Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu and Mark Schwarzer. The reality is that, to get the right culture in place, you need players and staff who buy into it. You can see that Mikel is trying to do that at Arsenal, and all I hear within the game is that the owners are totally behind him and prepared to back him through what will undoubtedly be a tough period. But they will reap the benefits at the other end.
“He has a good backroom staff and, it seems, good owners. Both are absolutely crucial. When I was at Middlesbrough, the owner, Steve Gibson, called me and my coaches into the boardroom after a bad home defeat in which fans were throwing the season tickets onto the pitch. I prepared my staff for the worst, but when we arrived, Steve had placed five pints of lager on the bar and said, ‘Have a drink guys, enjoy your weekend and get back to it on Monday.'”
The kind of patience and understanding displayed by Gibson — renowned as one of football’s most sensible owners — is a rarity in the modern game, but sporting trends are highlighting the importance of stability in senior roles.
Chelsea, as ever, have proved themselves to be an exception to that rule, with managerial upheaval doing little to halt the production line of silverware at Stamford Bridge — Tuchel is the 12th permanent manager since 2008, with the club winning four Premier League titles, two Champions League crowns and two Europa Leagues, among others — but overall, patience equates to stability and success. “Over the past 10 years in U.S. sports, you see that success, however it is measured, takes time,” Manhire said.
“In MLS, the average is 2.6 years after change to senior management, including the GM, while it is 3.6 years in the NBA. In the NFL, it is 3.7 years. Constant change is like drinking through a fire-hose and it rarely leads to a successful outcome. But you also have to pick the right candidate for everything to work.”
As for Arteta, he is still fighting to impose his methods and accelerate the evolution of his team in order for it to be good enough to deliver what he expects. It’s just a question of time, and whether it is on his side or ultimately proves to be against him.