How Mikel Arteta applied the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism in management

“It feels like the next training session.”

This was Mikel Arteta’s response to a journalist a few days ago when asked if every remaining game feels like a cup final.

Arteta lives in the moment, which I believe is a great lesson for all of us. Sometimes in life, the uncertainty and obstacles that we have, prevent us from giving our best because we’re so caught up on the end goal or what could go wrong. Arteta, however, wants us to focus on what is in our control and that is to prepare well for matches, train well, and execute the game plan. What happens beyond this is out of our control. Sometimes the opposition can be better. On other occasions, the referee might make a mistake, or the goalkeeper can have a blinder.

This is in line with the Ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism which was prominent in the Roman Empire. Stoicism, in simple terms, prescribes life principles that minimize externalities and maximize what we can control.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and one of the most popular proponents of stoicism, noted in his personal diary, Meditations: “Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone or not yet revealed.”

There are elements to football that are uncontrollable which pundits, journalists, and fans spend countless hours debating. Arteta doesn’t get caught up in this – he is very process driven. We lose a match, okay, it’s done, and onto the next one. We’re trailing in a game? It’s happened, now let us try to come back.

This mentality has helped Arsenal this season. Barring an isolated indifferent spell in February, Arsenal are typically quick to bounce back after a defeat. The loss at Old Trafford was followed up by 4 straight wins. The draw at Southampton was followed up by 5 straight wins. The spell of 3 league games without a win in February was followed by 7 straight wins.

Additionally, Arsenal have trailed in multiple games this season.

Fulham (H), trailing 0-1 after 60 minutes => Won 2-1

Manchester United (H), trailing 0-1 after 20 minutes => Won 3-2

Aston Villa (A), trailing 2-1 at halftime => Won 2-4

Bournemouth (H), trailing 0-2 after 60 minutes => Won 3-2

That takes character. You made a bad mistake and conceded a shit goal? Okay… You cannot take a time machine and change the past, but you can play better right now and change the result. We’ve done this countless times and it stems from the manager.

Arteta has always focused only on us. Arsenal are the only team with 2 apology letters from the PGMOL for poor officiating decisions this season, but Arteta seldom gets involved in that debate because once again, it’s uncontrollable.

Quite often, Arteta is asked about Man City, questions like “Are you following Man City’s results?” and “Are you concerned you play after them on the same day?” And his response is always “No”. We cannot control Man City’s results, but we can control ours, so let’s focus on that!

Another interesting stoic idea is to not give credence to what people think. Marcus Aurelius said: “It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care about their opinions than our own.”

Antonio Conte went on a monologue last season speaking about Arteta in a really condescending tone. “He should complain less”, Conte said. It was a low blow from an experienced coach who happened to also be the winner on the night. But a year later, Arteta has taken Arsenal to the top of the Premier League, whilst Conte got the sack after openly criticizing Spurs’ ownership. Arteta won both games against Conte this season but didn’t have one negative word to say about the Italian. He was the bigger person.

It speaks volumes about the type of person Arteta is. He didn’t care about what Conte had to say, he never gets embroiled in manager fights due to his conviction: he believes in himself and doesn’t find the need to go out of his way to express disapproval or react.

The stoic trait of temperance has been a major factor in Arsenal’s consistency this season. The Roman stoic philosopher Seneca says: “Temperance is a virtue which teaches us to be masters of our own pleasures.”

It is important to make sure that when you achieve something incredible, you don’t let it make you become too comfortable. On the other hand, when something doesn’t work out, you shouldn’t let it pull you down too much. Arteta exudes temperance. When Arsenal win games, he is quick to point out that whilst he is happy, we can still improve on many things. When we lose, he expresses disappointment but also acknowledges that he is proud of the team.

Aaron Ramsdale summed it up very well. Speaking on Arteta to Sky Sports News, Ramsdale said: “He has us on a tight leash, which allows us to express ourselves and be our own characters and all he has to do is give us a pull and we’re back in line. It’s very easy to get ahead of yourself when you’re doing so well and you’re such a young team. But when you have the boss as manager, he instills the fear factor in the team so you’re not out of line. When you are, it’s a quiet word because it’s not the end of the world. Making mistakes is part of footballing life but he does it in a way with different individuals, different ways of doing it.”

This pushing and pulling based on the situation keeps the players’ mindset “in the middle” so to speak. This middle ground is essential for the team to go out every week with the right mentality.

Whether Arteta wins Arsenal the Premier League remains to be seen, but what he has achieved is already incredible. To be 8 points ahead of Man City (even with a game extra), with the youngest team in the league is SPECIAL. It isn’t talked about enough. Arteta is an elite coach, but his human qualities are often overlooked and a lot of it can be traced to the philosophy of the stoics. Whether or not Mikel knows about this, he is certainly putting the ancient Greek philosophy into practice… And it’s working.

Arsenal FC is Life.


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