At the start of the 2020-21 season, when Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal lifted the FA Community Shield after beating Liverpool – their second trophy within a month – everyone thought their woes were over; that Arsenal had finally turned the corner on the bad performances that had plagued them the last few years. Fast forward to four months and the club lies 15th in the table, four points off the relegation zone. Here we take a brief look at what has gone wrong at Arsenal.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
Arsenal have not won a single one of their last seven Premier League games. Their last win came against Manchester United at the beginning of November – a 50-50 game that went in their favour thanks to a sloppily-given penalty. Since then, the Gunners have lost five and drawn two of their league matches. Their only wins have come in the group stage of the UEFA Europa League, of which they have qualified into the knockout rounds.
The performances are not good. The players are kicking off behind the scenes. Arteta’s defence for his team dwindles with each passing day, and so does the supporters’ faith in him. With another embarrassing defeat at the hands of Manchester City that saw them crash out of the Carabao Cup last night, Arsenal are slipping deeper into the quicksand quite seemingly of their own making.
On paper, Arteta’s plan to resuscitate Arsenal’s fortunes makes a lot of sense.
On the pitch, he has tried to implement a structured playing system that focuses heavily on defence. Going forward, the plan is to retain the ball and get ahead with quick passing and movement, leaving the attacking impetus on not just any one player, but equally on everyone. In the beginning, this proved substantially useful because the team’s defence during Unai Emery’s final months was all over the place. The idea here is that getting the defence right provides the perfect base on which you can build an assured and efficient attacking unit.
Off the pitch, Arteta has made a lot of massive, polarising decisions. He pushed out young players like Mattéo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira from the team, both of whom are out on loan, citing an attitude problem. He let goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez go, who had become quite a fan favourite towards the end of last season. He made the likes of David Luiz, Mohamed Elneny, and Granit Xhaka, whose time many had considered over at the club, centrepieces of his squad. He was instrumental in bringing in Willian and extending Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s stay at the club, both of whom are well into their 30s, with hefty long-term contracts that were fuelled by the 55 redundancies the club made in the summer. He ostracised Mesut Özil, whose contract extension Arsenal have been ruing probably since the day it was signed, entirely from the squad. New signings Gabriel Magalhães and Thomas Partey look brilliant acquisitions, while young players like Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Gabriel Martinelli show a lot of promise. At the back of his FA Cup success, Mikel Arteta posed such an optimistic and strong-minded personality, that he was promoted from Head Coach to Manager ahead of the start of this season.
The thing, however, is that when you go out of your way to make decisions of such sensational proportions, you expose yourself to the blame that would inevitably come your way when your team does not play well. That is what Arteta has been facing over the past two months.
On the pitch, Arsenal’s performances have, to put it politely, gone stale. In an attempt to shore up the defence the system Arteta has implemented is so rigid it leaves little to no space for spontaneity, effectively restricting his most creative players on the pitch. When their main plan of quick passing and systemic movement does not work, they need an unconventional solution for which Arteta neither has the right players nor allows his current players enough leeway. Even his most creative operators in Willian and Dani Ceballos are predominantly runners first, so when a string of bad results follow with no respite, it simply demoralises the little sources of creativity Arteta has left in his squad. Aubameyang barely looks like a shadow of his previous self, while the defence has started regressing to its former identity. It also doesn’t help that their most creative and highest paid player (Mesut Özil) is not only unable to make it into the starting XI, he’s not even eligible to play in the first half of the season.
The bad results have started to not only throw a negative light on Arteta’s bold decisions but have also put in front Arsenal’s disciplinary issues. From Nicolas Pépé’s headbutt against Leeds, to Granit Xhaka grabbing a neck during the Burnley defeat, to Gabriel Magalhães bagging two yellows against Southampton, the Gunners have gathered more suspensions than they’d have liked. There have been multiple reports of training ground bust-ups, which albeit commonplace, do not help the current narrative. David Luiz – the player Arteta fought so hard to retain for this season – is apparently not even on talking terms with him. There are also reports of a rift increasing ever so slightly between the management and players, who are all too sympathetic towards Mesut Özil for the way he has been treated. While the real Özil story will not be known until he leaves Arsenal, the fact that he is picking up the biggest cheque while not even being eligible to play, with the current state of the team’s performances, which Arteta incessantly defends with stats that matter little unless they precipitate into goals, the club needs a shock to get going again, and they need it quick.
While it makes for objectively hilarious banter, there is realistically very little chance of Arsenal getting relegated.
Firstly, discussing any team’s relegation in December is a long shot, let alone one like Arsenal. If we are to talk realistically about relegation, we need to mention here that there are enough teams worse than Arsenal lying below them in the league, to whom many are already giving no prayers. Yes, Arsenal are just four points off the relegation zone, but they’re also just twelve points off top four. Given how cagey this season is going to be, with no team coming out perfectly, it will just take a couple of good results to shoot Arsenal up the table.
The challenge, though, is getting said results. If a team’s not able to get going in time, they might get sucked into a dogfight they’re not prepared for, something Sheffield United are realising this season. Fighting against relegation is by all accounts a very different cuttle of fish, for which Arsenal have neither a plan nor the right players, given relegation is not something they could even consider having to consider. While it’s highly unlikely, if Arsenal do not get some decent results quick, they just might end up in a relegation battle. Even then, though, I believe they’ll eventually pull the plug on the Arteta project and bring someone in to just survive the season, like Chelsea did back in 2015-16.
Football can be a very unforgiving and cutthroat game at times. With the ever-rising stakes, the victories you garner will only take you so far. While Arteta deservedly gained a lot of trust with his early success, his team’s current performances are drying all the goodwill up rather exponentially.
While Arsenal’s woes are in no way entirely Arteta’s fault, being the manager makes him the easiest fall guy. At the end of the day, this is a results-based industry, and if the results don’t follow quick enough, there’s only so much time one’s given.
Watch this space as Arsenal’s season unfolds.