Summer of 2011 was a busy time in English football. Players came, and players went. Most fans were enthralled by the big-name transfer sagas. Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona was a favourite, as was the abortive but fascinating tale of Luka Modric, Chelsea midfielder. Manchester City spent £38 million on bringing Sergio Aguero to the Etihad Stadium, while their cross-city rivals moved in for David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young for the combined sum of £70 million.
Who was the best signing of the summer? Chelsea would have a decent shout with Juan Mata, while City would argue that the contributions Aguero made to their first title win since the before-Sky times. But there's also an argument -- a very reasonable one -- that it was actually Arsenal who did the best piece of business when they swooped for Mikel Arteta on the final day of the summer.
Arteta, of course, was no stranger to Premier League audiences. He'd been with Everton for six and a half seasons, making 209 appearances for the Toffees. He was also quite clearly their best player, a cool and collected presence in midfield who, despite several injury problems, was instrumental to his side's run of success in the late stages of the last decade.
But time was running out for Arteta to make his mark at the highest level, and he was clearly capable of making a step up to one of the perennially elite clubs. Despite signing a five-year contract in August 2010, the then-29-year-old began agitating for a move a year later, and on August 31st, 2011, he moved to Arsenal for £10 million transfer fee.
[Joining Arsenal] is a big challenge, a different challenge, fresh for me and I want to see myself on the biggest stage, the Champions League.
I am 29 years old so I haven't got much time left to take a chance like this one. I think I have done my best for Everton. That is the way football is, there is always a start and an end and today is the end of probably the best time of my career. I am never going to forget it.
-Mikel Arteta. Source: BBC.
The Gunners, of course, needed a replacement for the recently-departed Cesc Fabregas, who had given in to the siren call of his very soul to join up with Pep Guardiola in Barcelona. They didn't quite get one. Fabregas is a fine all-around midfielder, but he'd probably be best classified as one of the attacking variant. Arteta's part of a slightly different breed -- the conductor.
Instead of necessarily looking for an incisive pass all the time, the conductor will set the tempo, keeping the ball flowing and ensuring that their team retains possession. That's not to say that they're useless going forward, but they're the ones who tease the opposition, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Despite being pass-first players, conductors tend to play deeper, and that comes with significant defensive duties as well.
It was a good summer for conductors, as teams all seemingly started to seriously value the player archetype. Modric, of course, was the subject of a transfer saga that ended up being so lengthy that football writers are obligated to begin stories about it with 'Tell me, O Muse...'. Arteta was bought by Arsenal. Lille's Yohan Cabaye ended up at Newcastle. Nuri Sahin went to Real Madrid. Even Lucas Leiva started getting the plaudits he deserved.
Arsenal had a reputation for frailty and, more specifically, for a lack of composure. With Arteta in the side, they were significantly less inclined to collapse under minimal provocation. There'd always be an option to keep the ball, to circulate. Although he was never that much involved in the Gunners' attack (despite scoring six times in 31 starts), Arteta was the foundation upon which everything was built.
He's only become more influential this season. Alex Song's move to Barcelona has left Arsenal desperately low on defence-minded midfielders, so the 30-year-old has been forced to drop yet deeper, taking on even more responsibility when the opposition is in possession. But, counter-intuitively, the further he drops back, the more his passing game improves.
His statistic this season are mind-blowing. In seven league matches, he's played 658 passes, misplacing the ball just 41 times for a pass completion rate of 94 percent. His long passing is sublime, with 46 accurate attempts in 50 tries. And his defending has been top-notch as well. Arteta is averaging 4.2 tackles per game and 2.4 interceptions -- he wins the ball from the opposition more often than he misplaces a pass.
His defensive improvement is eye-catching, but it's still his passing that stands out. As the heartbeat of the Arsenal side, Arteta's started to see opposing teams tailor game plans specifically to deal with him. Against Chelsea, in the Gunners' first loss of the year, Arteta had the dubious pleasure of being man-marked throughout by Oscar, an honour previously reserved for Andrea Pirlo. It worked, but the steps that Roberto di Matteo took to nullify him were noteworthy in and of themselves.
For right now, to stop Arteta is to stop Arsenal. For a last-minute, low cost buy... that's good going indeed.