Evaluating Arteta At Arsenal So Far
It’s a huge week for Arsenal football club with the Europa League round of 16 ties against Olympiacos sandwiching the north London derby.
The Gunners find themselves seven points off a European place, nine points of the Champions League, and loitering in tenth place in the table. A point better off but a place worse off than this time last season, where they had to rely on winning the FA Cup to qualify for UEFA’s B-list competition. Already out of this year’s domestic competitions, and the gap to qualify for Europe via the league appearing unattainable, it looks like all of Arteta’s eggs are firmly in the Europa League basket to guarantee European football next year, and the enhanced transfer budget to go with it.
The current state of affairs
On the face of things, Arsenal haven’t taken great steps forward under Arteta. A lacklustre defence of the cup, followed by no marked improvement in the league, points a finger towards stagnation – not progression.
Results have been mostly positive since the Boxing Day win against Chelsea: 14 points from the first 14 games and 24 from the past 13. This coincided with Arteta’s move from 5-3-2 to 4-2-3-1 and the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe as a creative force. The change in approach deserves credit as he addressed issues within the team that has generated a significant upturn in results. However, the hesitation and persistence with the five at the back which won the FA Cup have left our league season it tatters with too much to do post-Christmas. We can criticise and praise in equal measure depending on what side of the fence you’re on, or what way the wind is blowing. But how far can we judge Arteta as a manager given current circumstances?
More time: a cliché
The classic party line with any new manager is they need time to “stamp their authority” on the team. A few transfer windows are needed to be “backed by the board.” However the pandemic meant that the summer window was a difficult market to move players – only Chelsea were able to fully capitalise on the dormant market, and Arsenal’s refinancing by the Kroenkes meant Partey’s arrival was something the fans could get excited about. Although Gabriel was added earlier on in the window, unbalance in the squad wasn’t fully addressed until the January window, where a succession of loans out and Ødegaard in created some cohesion among the group.
Last week the Spaniard said the team was “very, very far” from being styled in his own image. He added, “There’s still a lot to improve, a lot of quality to add. Much more efficient in decision making; much quicker to open situations up when advantages are there; many situations to feel when advantages [can be] obtained. More control of games; more defensive actions in the opponent’s half; fewer giveaways in our own half; more clean sheets. More goals to score, more creativity. A lot to do.”
To get to where he wants Arsenal to be there is no doubt that quality additions need to be added into the starting 11. There are a few nailed-on places in this Arsenal squad: Leno, Tierney, Gabriel, Partey, Saka and Aubameyang are the players that the boss appears to have put his money on moving forward. That leaves five places up for grabs. No doubt some solutions will be found within the current set up but a big summer both in expense and quality of player lies ahead.
Until Arteta has had a transfer window where he’s able to get his top three transfer targets through the door we won’t be able to judge where he is at as a manager. The lack of an overhaul last summer has proven to be a real hindrance in the club’s progression and it’s no surprise that the league position hasn’t kicked on from last year. He’s still very much dealing with a Frankenstein-esque squad of Wenger and Emery signings.
There are green shoots starting to appear with a squad that is trimmer after January, but with results against Villa, Wolves and Burnley still fresh in the memory it’s easy to forget any progress made. The team looks tactically more astute, with a wider variety of attacking patterns of play and not solely relying on overloading the left and hoping Aubameyang can carry the team with his goals alone.
No matter how much the team improves tactically, individual errors will make challenging for major honours impossible. If Arteta places his faith in players that have proven to let him and the team down then I wouldn’t be surprised if he lost his job. With backing in the transfer window comes the added pressure of achieving success. This won’t happen if the team keeps shooting itself in the foot.
The jury is still out
Arteta as a coach is undeniably good. He can set his teams up to win particular games, and we’ve seen more of an idea – or identity – on the pitch in recent months. As a manager we can still have doubts: Pepe’s and Willian’s recent performances suggest that Arteta can get a tune out of players that have hit a rut, he can find a solution to make them tick; however, the Özil, Guendouzi and Saliba situations still cast a shadow over the man-management side of the job.
Moving forward we’ll find out if Arteta becomes the manager we hope he can be. But we’ll also discover if Edu and Vinai are up to the task of turning Arsenal into a competitive force in world football. Arsenal’s squad building has been appalling for the past few years: unbalanced squads and poor contract management pre-date both Arteta and Emery. To be truly successful over a long period of time the leadership structure needs to be able to function without a totalitarian manager. And the only way to find out if our newest iteration of a management structure is up to the challenge is to see how it plays out. We have an inexperienced manager, an unproven leadership team and a squad rebuild underway. What happens next is anybody’s guess. One thing is for sure, this summer will be eventful.