Arsenal Are At A Nadir. . . But Let’s Not Revise History
A big few weeks lie ahead for Mikel Arteta.
Amid a Covid-19 breakout at London Colney, the 2021/22 campaign has started with two under-strength Arsenal sides stuttering their way through two equally-as-drab 2-0 losses against Brentford and Chelsea. Two different opponents, one newly promoted, the other the champions of Europe – the same result. 2 games, 4 conceded, 0 scored, 0 points. Manchester City away at the Etihad next. Ouch.
Despite the umpteen mitigating factors including injuries to key players, the impact of Covid-19 on the market and a difficult fixture list, after two 8th placed finishes, there is no real counterargument to the simple truth that Arsenal are in decline, and it’s not clear that Mikel Arteta has the answers. To find the solution to anything in life you have to know what the problem is, or at least be asking the right questions… and one question defines Arsenal right now:
Is Mikel Arteta part of the solution, or part of the problem?
Whatever your opinion, context is key.
This decline is nothing new. From 2004, the last time Arsenal won a league title, you could pick on almost any moment as the arbitrary start of Arsenal’s downwards spiral – the move to the Emirates, the increased influence of the Kroenke family, the sales of key players, David Dein’s departure, Arsene Wenger’s stubbornness; the list goes on. You could even start at Robin Van Persie’s decision to move to Manchester United and blame him. It’s tempting. So however much you think the current manager is to blame for the contemporary failings, it’s certainly not a demise that can be found solely rooted in Mikel Arteta’s appointment in December 2019. This is a long term trend that Arsenal must grapple with.
In football, opinions and narratives on managers and more swing on seasons, games, and split second decisions. As Harry Redknapp puts it in a now infamous clip prophesying Frank Lampard’s rise to the top at a West Ham fan meeting in 1997 – “It’s a game of opinions”. Incidentally, West Ham are an example of a club on the up, with David Moyes having spent a fraction of the money that Arteta has, having been appointed at roughly the same time. Comparisons of outcome of those two are understandable and valid. Questions over Arteta’s ability are understandable and valid. Action on concerns over where the club is going seem not only valid, but urgent. However, there are unique problems at Arsenal that stretch back far beyond Mikel Arteta and the current regime’s spell at the club that we simply can’t erase when coming to conclusions about where they are going wrong, or indeed where we go next.
Since joining, Mikel has made eleven permanent first team signings. On Sunday, just three of those players started the match. One is twenty one years old with one Premier League game under his belt in Albert Sambi Lokonga, and Cedric Soares and Pablo Marí are far from Mikel’s first choice players in their respective positions. Mikel has had a long period of time to get his ideas across to the players, and with a full strength team of players who are capable of playing the way he wants, hand picked by Arteta, we can and must judge – but it’s difficult to ignore the slow squad turnover over four transfer windows since his arrival. This slow churn leads to starting elevens like the ones seen against Chelsea – over half of whom have question marks over their long term futures at the club.
The awarding of long contracts on high wages in previous administrations has been a huge contributing factor to this. These players just didn’t and don’t want to leave. They’re comfortable in London, on high wages. Arteta arrived to the tail end of the Mesut Özil conundrum, and the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac, Sokratis Papastathoupolos and Henrikh Mkhitaryan bloated the squad and the wage bill. The squad building as a whole has been really below par for years now, not helped by less than competitive investment from KSE. Arsenal have four players competing for the right back position – only 3 of whom are on long term contracts and none of whom seem like the long term option, as seen by their consistent rotation; 3 of these pre-date Arteta’s arrival by quite some way.
On the outgoing front, the impact of receiving £0 for Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud, Sokratis Papastathoupolos, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Shkodran Mustafi and more cannot be ignored on the long term finances of the club, and the impact on squad registration with bloated teams cannot be ignored either, as seen in the controversy at the beginning of last season. All this means the quality of Arsenal’s squad simply no longer matches up to their competitors and hasn’t for a while, regardless of who the manager is. It takes time to fix that, certainly longer than just over eighteen months. Ask a cross section of fans to pick a combined XI with any of the top six, and you’ll likely struggle to fit many Arsenal players in. Thomas Partey, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Martin Ødegaard are the small number of players perhaps likely to feature more widely in a combined XI somewhere – all players Mikel and Edu have signed or given long term deals to.
Arsenal can no longer attract top professionals entering the peak of their careers. The historic slide down the table has meant that wage structures have had to change without elite European competition, and that factor alone can turn a transfer target away. Instead, there has to be a reliance on potential or post-peak players – something that can upset squad balance, and leaves the gap we see in our age profiles – a huge cluster of players at the 18-23 mark, and a huge cluster in the 29-32 mark. Players who are at the most efficient time in their careers are simply not playing for Arsenal.
Even contract decisions made by the current administration, while they must take ultimate accountability for, cannot be looked at and properly assessed without the fuller context. Who in August 2020 didn’t celebrate Aubameyang’s new contract after his heroics in the FA Cup win? In a Covid market, and with one year to run on Aubameyang’s contract, Arsenal had a decision to make. Keep their star striker knowing he may decline, or accept a low fee for him after an 8th place finish in the league and risk further turmoil and a crisis of confidence at the club. What was more valuable – Aubameyang for £15-20m, or his goals?
It was a tough question, and after a series of unfortunate events along with a poor on-pitch season from Aubameyang, Arsenal wound up in the worst of both worlds. Win-now thinking from Arsène Wenger and Ivan Gazidis in 2018, signing a 29 year old striker just months after the arrival of Alexandre Lacazette, followed by years of instability created fallow ground for what may ultimately be a costly, embarrassing and painful error by the current administration, dependent on Aubameyang’s form this year. It will certainly be a question that’s asked of the current executive structure if Aubameyang does not deliver again.
Arteta does need to get the best out of the players he has, and he’s not doing that at the moment. He’s also not guilt-free from win-now thinking himself, however a new approach appears to be being implemented, looking at the age profiles of incoming transfers this summer. But that will take time and patience with the young players as they mature and develop. With the historic low level of investment in comparison to competitors, over-reliance on youth from necessity, poor squad balance and squad registration issues from years of mismanagement – it takes more time than he’s had to build a team in his own image. This is the same Mikel Arteta who won the FA Cup in 2020 playing attractive football. It’s the same Mikel Arteta who has beaten Klopp, Guardiola, Tuchel, Mourinho and more. He’s only into his third season in management. He may not be the right manager for us – but we mustn’t forget that.
There are specific incidents that have occurred under Mikel which people often use as lightning rods. Without context, these incidents look pretty foolish – but so would a lot of things. A lot of the time decisions in football are judged in hindsight based on information we have now that was unavailable at the time. While decisions are ultimately going to be vindicated or not, it’s important to remember exactly what was available to those making the decisions at the time.
The sale of Emiliano Martinez is often used as an example of incompetence from Mikel, Edu and the board, and the signing of Aaron Ramsdale for £30m, who many people have question marks over, has only compounded the issue. Before Leno’s injury, Martinez’ market value was £2.52m according to Transfermarkt. The Argentinian made his senior debut for Arsenal during the 2012/13 campaign, but between then and the 2018/19 season, he only made 14 appearances. After his excellent run at the end of the 2019/2020 season, Arsenal had to make a decision on who would be their number 1, and an offer was on the table for Martinez from Aston Villa for £20m – almost 10x his value earlier on in that same season. There was no offer for Bernd Leno.
Based on Leno’s excellent performances up to that point, as well as a small data sample from Martinez, despite telling Emi he would almost certainly start as number 1, Martinez wanted to leave, and Arsenal accepted his wish. Because of Martinez’ excellent performances and Leno’s form, this is now seen as the wrong decision, and maybe that’s true – but I’m sure 99% of football executives would have made the same call at the time. The alternative, with no offers for Leno, was to keep both, have Martinez see out the final year of his contract, and have an unhappy, talented player leave for nothing the year after.
Arteta cannot hide in all this – he has to take huge amounts of responsibility. He’s been stubborn, inconsistent in his treatment of players, tactically inflexible and naive at points. But when assessing the situation, one cannot ignore the wider context of how some of these hot button decisions have been reached, nor ignore the slow churn of the squad. As well, as much as we are tired of hearing about it ourselves, no manager had less experience to deal with the impact of Covid-19. It’s affected him most – literally, at times.
The club, despite their press briefings, will be concerned at the current trend. They will be making plans for what happens if Arteta enters a death spiral in September and October. They will be asking themselves many questions. Can Arteta turn it around? Is he a good enough manager for Arsenal? Should we stick behind him or make changes as soon as possible? Should we continue to back him in the market?
All excellent questions, and ones we shouldn’t shy away from discussing. We’re at a nadir, and I’m not sure Arteta has the skill to escape – but let’s not forget history in our assessments – frustrating as it may be.