With Arsenal 15th in the Premier League as Christmas approached, the pressure on Mikel Arteta threatened to boil over.
A 1-0 defeat at home by Burnley had condemned the Gunners to a seventh loss in their opening 12 top-flight games.
The brand of football was drawing criticism, goals were few and far between and the FA Cup glory of the previous summer seemed a distant memory.
While Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke was sticking by Arteta, he was understood to be reaching the end of his tether.
But things got worse before they got better, with a 1-1 draw at home to Southampton and a 2-1 loss at Everton meaning the stakes could hardly have been higher as Arsenal hosted Chelsea on Boxing Day.
Arteta needed a response from his side – and he got one. The Gunners surged to a 3-0 lead over their London rivals and secured the three points after weathering a late barrage.
It proved to be the turning point in Arsenal’s season, setting them on course for four more wins in their next five games.
There have been setbacks – the 2-1 defeat by Wolves in which two Arsenal players were sent off comes to mind – but the Gunners have hauled themselves into the top half of the table with eight wins in their last 15 outings.
Relegation taunts aimed at Arsenal are a thing of the past and Arteta knows his side can still nab a European spot, while the Europa League means silverware and a Champions League place are still on offer.
But what changes has the Spaniard made to transform Arsenal’s season and keep his job?
Here, Mirror Football investigates the tweaks and transfers which have made the difference.
Clearing out the dead wood
After 13 months in the Emirates hot seat, Arteta was finally able to stamp his mark on his squad in the January transfer window.
He replaced Unai Emery in December 2019 but the coronavirus-affected campaign and truncated pre-season gave Arteta little opportunity to remould his squad to his requirements last summer.
Arsenal entered the current season with numerous players on the books who were clearly out of the frame.
Among them were exiled playmaker Mesut Ozil, out-of-favour centre-backs Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and a number of youngsters who had failed to make enough of an impression.
So, ruthlessly and clinically, Arteta set about trimming his squad.
Kolasinac was the first player to depart on loan and joined Schalke on New Year’s Eve having made just one Premier League appearance for Arsenal this season.
He was followed out of the door by William Saliba – who was loaned to Nice in search of regular minutes – as well as Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock, who were loaned to West Brom and Newcastle respectively.
Arteta did not shy away from permanent transfers, either, and terminated the contracts of Ozil, Sokratis and Mustafi ahead of the trio’s moves to new clubs.
The Arsenal boss started the season with what he described as an “unmanageable” squad. But his business in the January window has given the team a renewed identity, a clear pecking order, and sent out a strong message of his expectations.
Signing a playmaker
Of course, Arteta’s transfer business in the January window was not only concerned with outgoings; this was the month when he finally landed a playmaker in the form of Martin Odegaard.
Arsenal came close to signing Lyon star Houssem Aouar in the summer but missed out, instead directing their funds towards defensive midfielder Thomas Partey on deadline day.
While Partey has impressed when fit and firing, Arsenal were clearly lacking in attacking midfield throughout their stuttering start to the season.
The Gunners’ creative deficiencies were so severe they scored a dismal two goals in eight Premier League games between mid-October and mid-December, while captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang suffered a 648-minute top-flight goal drought at the Emirates.
The emergence of Emile Smith Rowe in the No.10 role went some way to addressing Arsenal’s problems in attack and the arrival of Martin Odegaard has given the Gunners depth and intensity in this position.
Odegaard joined on loan from Real Madrid and received mixed reviews after his first handful of starts, but he has won over fans and pundits by scoring vital goals against Olympiacos and Tottenham.
He also helped Arsenal stage a remarkable comeback against West Ham, rallying his teammates as they recovered from 3-0 down to draw 3-3.
The Norwegian has played himself into contention for a permanent transfer, and both player and manager are reportedly keen on the move.
It remains to be seen if Arteta can prise Odegaard from Los Blancos, but there is no doubt about the 22-year-old’s big impact at Arsenal.
Looking to the future
Arteta shaped his squad to his demands with his January clear-out and solved their offensive woes with the loan of Odegaard.
Now, as mentioned, he turns his attention to the race for European spots and will hope to make it two trophies in two seasons with Europa League success.
Even if Arsenal miss out on silverware or a European place – and barring a dramatic late-season collapse – Arteta has likely shown enough adaptability and resilience to keep him in his job ahead of the 2021/22 campaign.
The Spaniard is believed to be assembling his list of summer transfer targets and could pursue Real Betis star Nabil Fekir if he is unable to sign Odegaard from Real Madrid.
But given his turbulent first full season in charge, Arteta will not be getting ahead of himself and his main focus will undoubtedly be on his side’s vital upcoming fixtures.
Arsenal host Liverpool on Saturday and Slavia Prague the following Thursday in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final.
The improvement Arteta has brought about in recent months will count for little if Arsenal’s domestic form drops off and their European campaign comes to a premature end.
The pressure is on the Spaniard and his players to deliver during the run-in.
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