Is Mikel Arteta already on his Last Legs at Arsenal?
By Allan Riley
Following Arsenal’s shambolic opening day loss to Brentford, much has been made of Mikel Arteta’s job security as Arsenal manager.
Right now his status looks about as healthy as Arsene Wenger’s relationship with zip-up jackets, but that’s beside the point. A dismal 2-0 away defeat to the Bees with games against Chelsea and Manchester City coming up has Arsenal’s season aspirations already looking bleak. One game in. God, I have missed this club.
The shenanigans from the 20/21 campaign have already placed Arteta in the bad books of most Arsenal fans on social media, with many a supporter pointing out valid criticisms of the Spaniard, but still looking forward with positivity. Now though, it may be time for everyone to say Arteta might not be the manager everyone thought he was in August of last year.
With crunch games coming up against Chelsea and Manchester City, it is now make or break for Arteta and his project at Arsenal. Fans have been patient, but now Arteta needs to show that his ‘process’ is something that isn’t merely abstract, but achievable.
I previously wrote that Arsenal’s Europa League semi-final loss to Villareal was the straw that broke the camel’s back regarding Arteta, but the Spaniard must now roll up his sleeves to show he has what it takes to revive a sleeping giant of a football club.
What does Arteta have to do this season?
Find a system that best suits his players.
At this point, it’s more than fair to suggest that Arteta’s beloved positional play system has not worked – and may never work at Arsenal. He simply does not have a squad suited to this style of play.
The obvious answer to this problem will be to spend money on the players he wants. That argument has to become obsolete at some point, though. White, Mari, Lokonga all started the Brentford game and were all Arteta signings. Cedric and Tavares, also Arteta signings, started on the bench.
The club has spent €175 million on new arrivals during Arteta's time at Arsenal, while also handing contract extensions to Aubameyang, Tierney, Saka, Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Balogun. This is starting to very much become the Spaniard’s squad now.
Don’t get me wrong, Arteta has not been done any favours by the board or owners, but the onus had to be on Arteta to try to make do with what he has.
What he has is a squad that is best suited to quick transitions and counter-pressing. It’s a team full of hard runners, who are good at exploiting space and are deadly when running at defences, as @danielscouting highlighted on Twitter.
Despite this, Arteta has – by all accounts – doubled down on his philosophy with intense training sessions now focused on playing the ball out from the back.
Arteta would need a complete squad overhaul to implement his system, and even then, there’s no guarantee or proof that it would work.
What the Spaniard has to do to succeed this season is to drop the positional play idea, stop trying to micro-manage the players’ every move in-game and, as cliché as it sounds, release the shackles. A system that relies on attackers being technically perfect and totally disciplined wrecks confidence.
Arteta’s constant quest for perfection could well be his downfall.
What can’t he do?
Start the season with another horror run.
The Spaniard avoided the boot with a 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day and did turn around Arsenal’s fortunes in the second half of the season, but ultimately failed in his goal to attain European football.
The aforementioned Europa League run ended in disaster, with the team going out with the pathos and vigour of a damp fart, which ultimately left a bitter taste in many people’s mouths.
As humiliating as it was, it was not the nadir of Arsenal’s campaign. Arteta’s charges won just one game in nine from mid-October to December in the league, as well as enduring a humiliating EFL Cup exit at the hands of Manchester City. Riding off the back of an FA Cup triumph the previous campaign, he was lucky to come out of that run with his job security intact.
Arteta can also count himself lucky given the lack of fans present at the Emirates. This time, he won’t be so lucky, with stadiums now being able to have full capacity crowds once more. Supporters won’t be as patient as they were last season.
Three of Arsenal’s next six Premier League fixtures are against “big six” opposition, including a North London Derby at the Emirates. That, coupled with tough trips to Burnley and Brighton, as well as a home game to Norwich, could swing the tide in regards to Arteta’s future.
Following last season’s impressive end, there seems to have been no discernible change in the squad. Pre-season fixtures showed worrying signs, with Arteta’s men looking a far cry from the team that won their last five Premier League games on the spin.
He simply has to hit the ground running from here on out. With Arsenal already three points off the pace and the patience of last year not being afforded to him this time around, it's a daunting task for the Spaniard. However, with no European football this campaign, there’s no excuses.
Does he have what it takes to survive the season?
That’s where opinion is most divided.
Many people on social media believed that Arteta should have fallen on his sword at some stage last season, with the fanbase decidedly split on the manager.
Depending on who you speak to, Arteta is either an innovative, young coach or a naïve manager who is tactically out of his depth at the top level. There are valid arguments for both sides.
There have been rumours of discontent within the Arsenal squad, with reports coming out of London Colney that players have struggled to follow Arteta’s very technical approach on the training pitch due to frequent interventions.
Such problems were faced under predecessor Unai Emery, as the former Sevilla and PSG tactician became a figure of ridicule amongst the playing group in the final weeks of his reign. Arteta cannot allow that to happen to him.
Last season, reports suggests Arteta fell out with a number of playing staff amid tempers fraying on the training pitch. He can’t let this trend continue into the 21/22 season. A disjointed dressing room led to Emery’s downfall, Arteta must learn from this and promote unity.
The Spaniard may not command the respect of senior players within the team due to both his age and lack of any previous experience as a manager, which is a worry. Players can say in the media that they back Arteta, but the signs – such as not defending their coach in the friendly against Tottenham when confronted by Pierre Emile Hojbjerg, don’t look good for the Arsenal manager. .
This situation mirrors the last years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, when players said online that they backed and still played for the manager, but the performances on the pitch did not mirror those claims.
Arteta may still have the backing of the men upstairs, but should he lose the respect of key individuals within the squad, or the majority of the squad, his position will quickly become untenable in the dugout.