Previewing the five most important games of Mikel Arteta's tenure at Arsenal
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
604 days, 88 matches, 47 wins, 16 draws, 25 losses. Mikel Arteta's tenure at Arsenal has seen amazing moments, heartbreaks, financial crisis, a global pandemic, a smattering of trophies, and most importantly and crucially, a meaningful decline in the triumphs and accomplishments of the club. Eighth place has become the new norm, as fourth or better used to be, and it's as simple as that.
Two losses from two matches in this Premier League season have compounded that decline, and though the boo birds have yet to emerge from their nest, having most recently pecked at Granit Xhaka during that fateful Crystal Palace match, I have a feeling they're starting to stir a bit.
Of course, it's not all his fault. Reliance on super agents, poor contract decisions, a lack of firepower in transfers, a complete backroom overhaul twice over, and the aforementioned COVID crisis have not helped his case at all, but there must be a line drawn, a point where excuses have run dry, and we have reached that limit.
As a result, per Matt Law of the Telegraph, the Arsenal board have given Arteta five games to save his job. Manchester United have employed a similar technique in recent seasons, given their squabbles with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's coaching, and it has worked wonders for the successes of their squad, the Norwegian now firmly backed to continue leading the Red Devils forward.
With Antonio Conte reportedly knocking on the door, and the ownership fed up with the lack of progress, it's do or die for Mikel. Transforming his luck in this pivotal quintet of matches, though, is no mean feet. Seems unfair? He can deal with it, and must if he hopes to walk into Arsenal's dressing room come October 3rd, the day after the fifth fixture.
Excluding tomorrow's Carabao Cup tie against West Brom, and September 22nd's third-round tie—let's be real, if he can't beat the relegated Baggies, he'll be sacked by Thursday—let's focus on the real priority: league placement. His first test will be his most severe, an away tie at Manchester City.
The league champions are every inch the side they were last season, and though their suffocating pressure didn't quite manage to strangle Spurs on the opening matchday, don't be fooled. They are yet again the team to beat, despite their points deficit. With Jack Grealish flying high last weekend in a 5-0 win over Norwich, the Citizens will be looking forward to an almost certain victory against an Arsenal side that has been nothing short of hapless so far this campaign.
Speaking of the Canaries, they will travel from their home at Carrow Road to face Arsenal at the Emirates the subsequent weekend. The only team lower in the table than the floundering Gunners, Norwich look to be on another perennial yo-yo back to the Championship already, and will hopefully signify three points in the bag for the men in red-and-white. Alongside Arsenal, they are the only other side in the league that has yet to score a goal this season, but they have shipped eight to Arsenal's four, admittedly against City and Liverpool. They smack of a beatable team, but were Arteta's side to fall victim to Norwich, his lifeline would likely be shortened further, if not cut altogether.
Following what will likely be his first points of the season, Arsenal will travel to Turf Moor, to face Burnley in a resurgent fortress. It's never a fun place to play away, and despite another summer without recruitment, their stout, counter-attacking style may be difficult to overcome. Though we've had excellent success over them in recent years, I don't anticipate an easy match. Three points, though, are yet again a must.
Their next match is the most important of all. The North London Derby returns to a supporter-filled Emirates, as Tottenham make the short journey to face us in a battle that's currently seeming more like David and Goliath than the clash of titans it used to be. There's nothing quite like a derby win to raise spirits and excite fans, and though he should not let the looming prospect of this match influence him in the preceding fixtures, Arteta has to know that winning this match could effectively extend his contract, while losing it would signify something of a death rattle for the Spaniard. I predict a draw, but I'll be crossing every finger and toe available for three more points.
The final match is down on the south coast: October the 2nd against Brighton. WeLoveYouArsenal Editor in Chief Alfie Cairns Culshaw will be at the Amex Stadium that day, per reports, and what a match it could be, especially as a result is needed. Brighton have been a bit of a bogey team for Arsenal in recent seasons, with Neal Maupay's studs-up masterclass still fresh in the memory, and with the Seagulls flying high on six points, it could be a deceptively difficult test of Arsenal's mettle. Coming up against a manager in Graham Potter, who has also been favoured to replace Arteta, and long-time Arsenal target Yves Bissouma, will provide an equally interesting predicament for the Gunners. Anything other than three points, and I think Arteta's hourglass may run out of sand.
The overall yield from these five matches, in order to save Arteta, will need to be somewhere upwards of 9 points, and I'm not sure if that will be enough, hence why I believe the North London Derby may seal his fate, one way or another. 12 points from a possible 21 is still a pretty horrendous outlay, but anything less and I think he's out the door, though there's a chance 10 points might just give him an extra slice of time, given a very difficult match against Spurs.
As for my own opinions on the man, I'm still reserving my judgements. I believe he has all the tools to be a fantastic coach, and I appreciate the respect he commands, and his belief system, both morally and tactically. However, much like his mentor, Arteta is his own worst enemy. His stubbornness and insistence on a system that doesn't suit the players could be his downfall, especially given that when he arrived, the opposite was true.
Our success during Project Restart, in my eyes, boiled down to a cohesive squad that played in a manner fitting the players within it. Trying to suit Arsenal's squad to the tactics he wants, at this point is somewhat of a pipe dream. It's a square peg for a round hole. At the moment, I have my doubts about how well the squad is gelling, both with each other and their tactical assignments, and I know I'm not alone in that. People that actually matter to the success of the club have clearly seen it too.
There was a discussion in the WLYA Writers WhatsApp chat about how long we would reserve judgement before indicting Arteta. The general consensus was somewhere between six to eight games, with ten being the upper limit reached for the more patient among us, and five the lowest. Arteta has been given seven total, and just five remain. Five matches for the man who was supposed to be our everything to prove he truly has what it takes.
The clock is ticking.