Going into the final game of 2011-12 against West Brom, it became well known that the Gunners had not won a single Premier League game without Mikel Arteta that season. Coming out of the game, Arsenal fans knew, therefore, that it was their first league win without him.
This sense of Arteta's importance to the team lasted for a couple of months, until Santi Cazorla. From Santi's first league game—the 0-0 draw against Sunderland—people seemed to forget the other Spaniard in midfield. Cazorla's electrifying impact on the game overshadowed every other aspect of the Gunners' game.
And that's where Mikel Arteta got left behind.
Most Gooners consider Cazorla to be Arsenal's player of the season, most of them acknowledging the fact that Jack Wilshere's long absence played a role in this decision. But mention this season's top performer, and you won't hear Arteta's name. The Cazorla point may be justified, but his compatriot does deserve a role in this conversation.
Despite the lack of recognition, however, he has been not only the most underappreciated player on Arsenal, but also the most consistent.
Due to Alex Song's departure, Arsene Wenger needed someone to fill in a defensive role and win balls in the middle of the park. And although Arteta's game has been thought to lack physicality (a common argument against Spaniards today), he has adapted amazingly to fill in the need for a holding midfielder.
It is amazing how he has adjusted his entire game to fit this position. At Everton, he was thought of as a player who played much higher up—a pure playmaker. Now, however, he has become a much more complete player, having added a whole dimension to his game: He makes a tackle here, wins a header there, and isn't afraid to "get stuck in," as they say.
Here are some statistical reinforcements of this point. According to WhoScored, Arteta has the second highest passing percentage and the most passes in the Premier League. Defensively, however, his stats are also quite good (especially for a newly-turned defensive midfielder): He is in the top ten in tackles per game, interceptions and interceptions per game.
He has been incredibly consistent, as well. Game in, game out, he is solid in the midfield, but also one who pulls the strings, the calm playmaker, who, in this respect, reminds many Arsenal fans of Cesc Fabregas. His only bad game in my memory was the 3-3 draw against Fulham, as he conceded a penalty and missed one at the very end of the game (at that point his confidence looked shot.)
And then there's the biggest part of it all: The heart. The effort he puts in during games is remarkable; even though he's been at Arsenal for less than two seasons, he plays as if he has worn red and white all his life. Despite his recent arrival, he wears the armband for the Gunners.
The hustle, the work rate, the effort are all outstanding—he wants it just as much, if not more than everyone else on the pitch. It has been amazing to watch how much heart he has been putting into each and every game this season.
Yesterday's 1-0 win at QPR was a perfect example of his abilities. He showed his great vision and his cool within the opening 20 seconds, setting Theo Walcott up for a one-on-one with Rob Green, which he finished. But he was all over the place defensively, closing down, making tackles, winning loose balls.
It was an extremely important game, as they always are toward the end of the season, and Arteta stepped up, in my opinion the best performer by a long stretch. With two more games to go, can he keep producing?
So let's give a little more credit to the Spaniard. He may not be like the Santi Cazorlas and the Jack Wilsheres, but make no mistake about it.
Mikel Arteta is just as important to the Arsenal team as anyone else.