• Ben Welch

Aug 3, 2023, 03:58 AM ET

HERZOGENAURACH, Germany – Arsenal have been busy. After a Premier League season that saw them lead the table for 248 days before being pipped to the title in the final few weeks of the season by treble-winners Manchester City, the Gunners have spent over £200 million to bring in three new players.

For many at the club, a four-legged free transfer back in May is the one to have made the most impact on team morale. “It was really nice when I came back on the first day and they were waiting for us,” Arsenal right-back Ben White tells ESPN. Brazilian defender Gabriel echoes White’s sentiments while endorsing the work of his manager. “Mikel [Arteta] does all he can to help us understand what winning is. We have a new member in the family. I hope it helps us,” he says.

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We are, of course, referring to the chocolate-coloured Labrador named Win, who arrived as one of manager Mikel Arteta’s quirky motivational methods that can attract ridicule and intrigue in equal measure. But chatting with the players on the first leg of their preseason tour at Adidas HQ in Germany, it’s clear they’re fully invested in the Spaniard’s pursuit of marginal gains. In the words of winger Reiss Nelson, “he’s a genius, bro.”

Detractors may snigger at Arsenal’s furry new resident, but there’s logic to letting man’s best friend roam around London Colney as Arteta and his coaching staff build up the players’ mental, physical and tactical capabilities to perform every week in the Premier League. As Nelson astutely observes, “it makes you feel a certain type of way.” Calmer, for one. Research shows dogs can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, while boosting feel-good hormone oxytocin – handy when you’re competing against Pep Guardiola’s relentless winning machine.

Understandably, though, certain players see the new recruit as a threat. “Some of the boys are scared,” laughs White. “It’s something different.”

The name “Win” is a constant, energetic reminder of the weekly target that connects all the players and staff. One you can develop an affinity for, as Arteta puts it, “love for Win.” The Gunners need to reignite the fearless brio that took them so close to the title, and their new dog is just one of the tools Arteta has used to snap the players back into focus. Now, three months on, wounds gradually healing, they have processed their experiences, both good and bad, helping to strengthen their burgeoning team spirit.

“I learned many things with regards to the group – my family,” says Gabriel. “We have to be aware that we’re wearing the Arsenal jersey, we need to be there fighting with the big teams. Even though we didn’t win, we have a very joyful team that’s united.”

When it’s White’s turn to reflect on last season, his response reveals a shift in expectation at Arsenal. “You can do well, but then you’ve got to do it again and again and again for the whole season,” he says. “Otherwise it’s worthless.”

Reaching the top four was the original goal last season, and it was surpassed by some distance. But it is not an achievement they celebrate like winning a trophy. To get to the next level, Arsenal need to play with ruthless intensity week in, week out. Just like City do.

“The gaffer has drilled into us that every game is important and that’s why Man City are so good,” White adds. “They won the crucial games, games against teams from the lower end of the table, scoring a lot of goals.”

At a crucial part of the season, Arsenal dropped points against Southampton (3-3) and West Ham (2-2) during April’s run-in. Two points from a possible six ultimately cost them the title. Had they won those games they would have finished on 90 points, just ahead of City’s 89. The players will look back on these performances with huge regret. The overwhelming pressure of fighting for a title triggered panic and anxiety, leading to costly individual errors and lapses in concentration.

It wasn’t a question of talent; it was a lack of maturity. And White, for one, has learned a lot from last season. “I’m more relaxed now,” says the defender, who has been known to get caught up in niggly confrontations. “I’m only 25 and I’m one of the older ones in a young team. I’ve been playing in the Premier League for three years now so for people coming into the league or the young boys that have no idea what they’re getting into, it’s nice to just tell them, ‘It’s going to be okay’ and try to lead them through it.

“Now I try to play the game, not the situation. You have to stay level-headed and not get too emotional.” Arsenal’s squad depth came into focus during the run in, with injured players and tired legs draining Arteta’s men of energy and quality when it mattered most. The Gunners had four players that played every Premier League game - goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, winger Bukayo Saka, and defenders Gabriel and White – while captain Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka, who has since left for Bayer Leverkusen, both played 37, which is more than any Manchester City player. Arsenal averaged just one change to their starting XI per game, the fewest in the league.

Sporting director Edu and Areta acted quickly over the summer to rectify this weakness by spending over £200m to sign Jurrien Timber (£40m), forward Kai Havertz (£67.5m) and midfielder Declan Rice (£100m). It will take time for the new recruits to understand their manager’s tactical plans, as we’ve witnessed during preseason, but if everyone stays “ tranquilo “ [calm], it should click into place.

“That’s the direction we want to head, bringing in top players,” White says. “It’s obviously lifting the standard of training and everything around the club.”

But for Gabriel, it’s the manager’s influence which has been transformational. “I’ve learned a lot from him, I have evolved,” he beams.

Arteta doesn’t just tell his players to follow his plan, he explains the methodology, providing a “why” behind the “what.” This will bring clarity to their revamped game model in and out of possession, making them unpredictable and versatile. Consistent messaging and detailed video analysis sessions are key.

“We have a lot of team meetings where he [Arteta] goes into more detail with what you have to do as a team, as a collective, but we also do unit meetings,” Nelson explains. “So the left side do things together, the right side, the attackers, the defenders, and that gives us more chemistry on the pitch to perform at a high level.”

White also believes Arteta will help the new players see the game differently, with a sixth sense for what is about to happen.

“Coming from Brighton I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know why I was doing certain things,” he says. “It all makes sense because he [Arteta] explains it so well. When you see what you’ve worked on in training, happening in a game you’re like, ‘wow, that’s why we’ve been doing that all week.’”

Nelson’s appraisal of Arteta’s methods is almost identical. “It’s scary how he sees things,” he adds. “He sees every single picture in every situation. You might think it’s just a simple pass to your full-back but he makes sure every detail is right. For example, making sure you’re playing it in that zone to his left foot so he can come out and play to the right centre midfield.”

Like Gabriel, both Nelson and White have evolved under Arteta’s guidance. White’s position changed, shifting from centre-back to right-back to accommodate the emergence of young William Saliba in central defence, and the nature of this position exposed him to more one-on-one duels against the Premier League’s most dangerous attackers. But it is a challenge he relished.

“That’s what I loved about last season,” he says. “Being a full-back, coming up against a winger. When I’m playing against players like Wilfried Zaha, I want it. I want to test myself against someone like that. It’s exciting.”



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Being able to defend isn’t enough in Arteta’s free-flowing system. White has to offer an attacking threat and that’s exactly what he does. Instead of inverting into midfield like Oleksandr Zinchenko does on the left, he holds his position out wide to form a partnership with winger Saka and understands the supporting role he plays in this duo.

“He’s phenomenal and it’s my job to help him be the best he can be,” he says. “So I’ll be doing extra runs for him or whatever I can do to make him glow. There’s always situations where I stitch him up and he gets out of it cause he’s so good, making me look so much better than I am.”

Nelson’s transformation has been more psychological than tactical. The 23-year-old winger admits he has changed his “mentality towards doing the small stuff” taking his recovery “seriously” to keep his body in “top nick.” And when called upon to make an impact last season, Arteta gave him the freedom and belief to showcase his skills.

“Sometimes it’s hard when you’re coming on for five minutes and you’ve got to take on your man,” Nelson, who signed a new contract in July, explains. “If you lose the ball that might be the only thing that you do. There were certain situations where I wouldn’t shoot or take on the defender, but when the league was on the line, I did what I needed to do. I’ve become more ruthless.”

Nelson starts grinning, knowing what question is coming next. “Maybe it was that Bournemouth game,” he says with a huge smile, as he recalls his last-gasp winner in a thrilling 3-2 win. “I’m not just saying it but in that moment he [Arteta] saw the left-hand side was open for me to use my attributes. He told me, ‘Every time you get the ball, get at your man, I don’t care if you lose it, just keep losing the ball.’ Some managers say, ‘play safe,’ but he wants you to take risks. For him, if the reward is high, you go for it.”

Arsenal will certainly be going for it this season as they look to wrest the Premier League trophy off City, who have won it for the past three years in a row. Reaching the finishing line ahead of a team armed with pulsating strength and wealth, managed by arguably the greatest tactical mind in the history of the game, seems to be impossible. But there’s no room for such talk at the Emirates.

This young squad are a year wiser, bolstered by talented reinforcements and have the kind of hunger that can only come from a painful defeat. “Nothing is out of the question,” says White. “It’s the time to show what we’re made of. We want to win everything. That’s why we’re working so hard. There’s going to be bumps in the road, but it’s going to be fun.”