Let me start by going on record and stating that I am a genuine and bona fide Mikel Arteta fan and I am desperate for him to put things right at Arsenal and turn the squad into one that is capable of challenging for the biggest prizes once again, something we haven’t done for the best part of a decade and a half. I loved Miki as a player, he was one of those that I coveted when he was at Everton and I always thought would fit in well to one of Arsène’s sides. I remember vividly apologising to one of my friends, an Evertonian, at my brother’s wedding the day after we had stolen him away on transfer deadline day, at how genuinely excited I was that he had chosen to join us and help to get us back on track after the quite frankly disastrous start to the 2011/12 season including that shellacking at Old Trafford.
The later seasons of Arsène’s reign were a tough watch if we are honest. A slow and painful decline of a team and a manager who stayed too long and didn’t know how to steer the ship back on course. The season and a half under Emery were head-scratching confusing as we tried to decipher what he was trying to do with the squad, the style of play or even what he was trying to tell us in his interviews. Despite Arteta’s inexperience as a head coach/ manager, the way he spoke at the first conference about: “changing the energy”, instilling “a new way of thinking”, of “reconnecting with the fans”, and the now infamous “non-negotiables” were music to the ears of long-suffering Gooners. That combined with the fact that he was a former player and his experience working under one of the greatest managers of all time gave us hope that this might be exactly the man we needed.
The early results weren’t exactly spectacular but there was evidence of a different approach, a more solid team that wouldn’t be bullied as easily as previous incarnations and that had a more solid defensive base. The pandemic, and let us not forget that Arteta was one of the first to fall ill, of course had a major impact on all football clubs but once football restarted there were positive signs, the oh-so-typical capitulation at the Etihad in the first game back aside of course. Wins over Man City and Chelsea to secure a record-breaking FA Cup and European qualification via the backdoor suggested a way forward for Arteta and the squad even if defeats at Brighton, Tottenham and Aston Villa reminded us all of the work that still needed to be done.
At the start of this campaign it is fair to say that there was a degree of optimism amongst the Gooner faithful, not necessarily that we would mount a genuine title challenge but that we might have developed sufficiently to have a tilt at securing a return to the promised land of the Champions League. Back in August, after the triumph at Wembley I wrote that while the ownership’s ongoing apathy, our seemingly confused recruitment and contract management may impinge on what Arteta is trying to achieve: “For now at least it feels like Miki has got us all in in the “boat” together and rowing in the right direction.” (Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings: We might not be anywhere near yet, but at least Mikel Arteta has got us all pulling in the same direction.) So why does it feel that we have veered off course somewhat?
So far this season there has been the relatively good: the wins at newly promoted Fulham on the opening day and a first away victory against one of the ‘Big Six’ for five years; the expected: defeats by Liverpool and Manchester City but where the team actually put up some form of fight this time; and the downright awful: three consecutive home defeats in the Sunday night graveyard TV slot. As a consequence, we now find ourselves languishing in fourteenth place in the table with more defeats than wins and worryingly having scored just ten league goals, only the bottom three have scored fewer. Just in case no one has pointed it out to you this is Arsenal’s worst start to a season since 1981.
Inheriting the shambles of a squad that he did, one that was wide open defensively and shipping goals at an alarming rate, it was obvious that Arteta had to start with sorting things out at the back. To an extent that has worked, and the best performances have come when the team has been able to play underdog football: to sit deep, invite teams onto them and then look to counter and exploit the space they leave behind. Ultimately it didn’t secure a result but this approach was most evident at Anfield when Aubameyang had acres of space down our left as Liverpool pushed so far up the pitch, we just couldn’t get the ball to him due to their relentless high-intensity pressing.
Where we have noticeably struggled this campaign is when the boot is very much on the other foot. When we are the team that dominates possession and have to find a way to penetrate a massed defence. Then we see the painfully slow, insipid, sideways passing football that is so reminiscent of the later years of Arsène’s tenure. In addition, Arsenal don’t press the ball in defence with anywhere near the same intensity as the leading sides. A stat quoted on Arseblog this week suggested that Arsenal are the third most passive side in the Premier League defensively, behind only West Ham and Newcastle.
When Arteta took up the job I for one hoped that his apprenticeship under Guardiola would mean his style of play would be of a similar ilk, while he may well still hold that as his aspiration we are simply not yet seeing the beginnings of that exciting brand of football. In Arteta’s defence we may not have the players capable of delivering at that level.
Many commenters have said that it will take a number of transfer windows for Arteta to be able to shape the side the way he wants and to get them to play the football that he truly wants them to. However, the impact of the pandemic, a confused and unbalanced squad thanks to some mind-boggling recruitment decisions and contract awards and the subsequent lack of available funds has limited what he has been able to do in the markets that he has overseen. Speaking after the loss to Wolves last Sunday, Arteta said his team need to create more chances and to score more goals. For anyone watching that game it is clear that the approach needs to change and that we sorely lack creativity. With the limitations in terms of the transfer market it may well be that he has to look for internal solutions, perhaps maybe even thinking about bringing the highest paid and most creative player back into the fold despite their well-documented falling out.
Things don’t look great for Arsenal at the moment and of course we are actually in a worse position than when Unai Emery was sacked just over a year ago. However, given the absolute mess that he is trying to sort out with little (any?) support from those above him, I for one will keep the faith for now. It does very much feel like we need to reinvigorate our play, get more positive results and to build some momentum. With a North London Derby against table-topping Spurs on Sunday followed by matches in quick succession over the festive period we really need to get going again and soon. If this funk continues into the new year things will be looking rather bleak indeed. Mikel it’s over to you.