Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock on Mikel Arteta’s evolution from player to head coach: “He didn’t take any nonsense! But now he’s got the right balance”

Arsenal take on Manchester City at Wembley on Saturday evening exclusively live on BT Sport with a place in the FA Cup final at stake

By Robert Cottingham Published: 8 September 2020 - 10.28am

Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final promises to be a day of huge significance for Mikel Arteta, both personally and professionally.

It’s his last chance to end his first season in charge with some silverware and the most realistic remaining avenue for European qualification for Arsenal.

It’s another opportunity for Arteta to secure a landmark victory against his former side Manchester City and his mentor Pep Guardiola.

And it represents an occasion for Arteta to measure his evolution from player – he lifted the trophy twice with Arsenal, once as a captain – to assistant with City and finally, to Arsenal head coach. 

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For Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson, who were academy players when Arteta was winding down his career but now find themselves playing for the Spaniard, it’s been an interesting transition to watch.

“Mikel knows the system because he was a player here and he knows how hard the young players want to play for the badge,” Nelson says, in a joint-interview with Willock and BT Sport’s Darrell Currie.

“He used to enjoy training with the younger players towards the end of his career so it’s nice he’s now our manager and can actually put us in to the team!”

“He didn’t take any nonsense!” Willock recalls of Arteta as a player. “He was very demanding, if you were on his team in training he used to shout and be very aggressive.”

Arteta retired as a player at Arsenal in 2016 before returning four years later as head coach
Arteta retired as a player at Arsenal in 2016 before returning four years later as head coach

“When you used to see Mikel in training with his long socks, that's when you knew it was about to get on top!”
- Reiss Nelson

Nelson adds: “I remember for training the players would always wear low socks with low trousers but Mikel used to come out with long socks like it was a matchday.

"So when you saw him coming out with his long socks, that’s when you knew it was about to get on top!”

But it’s not all hairdryers and shouting since Arteta has returned.

“He’s got a different balance now. He knows he’s got to have an aggressive side but he also puts his arm round your shoulder too in his man management,” says Willock.

“That’s one of his strengths – that you feel you can always talk to him. He’s that sort of manager.”

Young Gunners

Five players aged 20 or under have scored Premier League goals for Arsenal this season - Nelson, Willock, Saka, Nketiah and Martinelli

It’s something that the younger players in Arsenal’s squad will no doubt require from time to time as they continue to develop under their rookie head coach.

Arsenal’s academy prospects have played a big role for the Gunners this season, with Nelson, Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka all seeing significant minutes.

Nelson’s goal against Liverpool on Wednesday evening means five players aged 20 or under – with summer signing Gabriel Martinelli included – have netted Premier League goals for Arsenal this season.

“There’s a lot of talent but there’s a lot of competition between each other because we know how good we are,” explains Willock, who scored his first Premier League goal in last month’s victory over Southampton

Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson have played together at Arsenal since the Under-9s
Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson have played together at Arsenal since the Under-9s

“When something happens like Reiss scoring we are all so happy for him, it’s like a young family.”

“We have to push each other,” Nelson explains. “Sometimes you go into dressing rooms where there’s a divide but at Arsenal it’s not like that because a lot of us have come through the system together.

“I remember Joe and I used to watch Saka when he was coming through with the Under-13s! It’s something we’ve always wanted to do to keep us grounded and keep growing together.”

Having played together in Arsenal’s academy since the Under-9s, Willock and Nelson have a particularly strong bond on and off the pitch.

“Joe’s my brother,” Nelson says. “I have a lot of love for Joe… we started our journey together and now we’re playing for such a great club together. You couldn’t ask for anything more!”

The feeling, presumably, is mutual?

“Reiss knows he’s very close to me," laughs Willock.

"To play with one of your close friends is something that you dream of – we’re really blessed.”

Niceties aside though, Nelson and Willock know there will be little time to learn against a City side who secured a 3-0 victory over Arsenal at the Etihad in their first match back following the Premier League's coronavirus hiatus.

Despite being dominated in all areas of the pitch, Arsenal secured a morale-boosting victory over newly-crowned champions Liverpool last time out at the Emirates.

Yet after the match Arteta was under no illusions about the size of the task at hand as he looks to start bridging the gap – which stands at 40 points – between themselves and Liverpool.

“To bridge the gap between ourselves and the top two, we need to fight for every moment”
- Joe Willock

City, of course, are the other top-two club Arsenal must eventually rein in if they are to challenge for the title and Willock is under no illusions about the task at hand.

“We have to compete and bridge the gap between the teams at the top,” he says. “The first thing we need to do is compete and fight for every moment.”

Nelson adds: “It’s something that Mikel has said. If we want to be known as a big team we have to compete against the big teams.

“That’s something we know we have to do and we’re going to do it at the weekend because we’re going to be hungry, more than ever, to get that game sorted out.”

The FA Cup is a competition that the two 20-year-olds have fond memories of as Arsenal fans growing up.

“It’s a trophy growing up I’d always dreamt of playing in,” says Willock. “To have the opportunity to get to the final… I’m excited. It’s a massive trophy for me.”

“I remember when [Arsene] Wenger put in [Per] Mertesacker [for the 2017 FA Cup final against Chelsea] and everyone was surprised,” Willock laughs.

“Then he had an amazing game and everyone was so happy. I was at Wembley for that match.”

The chance for Willock and Nelson to make own FA Cup memories for Arsenal beckons on Saturday evening.

The Gunners are big outsiders having lost all seven of their previous encounters with City but it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the match before that run was a 2-1 victory in the 2017 FA Cup semi-final.

Returning to Wembley, in the same stage of the competition and against the same opposition, it’s an omen the young Gunners will take heart from.

Watch Arsenal v Man City exclusively live on BT Sport 1HD, BT Sport Ultimate, btsport.com or the BT Sport app from 7pm on Saturday 18 July.