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OPINION: Arteta’s Eggs Are All In One Basket

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With Arsenal on course for their worst ever points total in a 38 game Premier League campaign, it seems our only chance at rescuing something like a respectable season would be to turn the sole focus to winning the Europa League and qualifying for Europe’s premier competition. I hardly need tell you that 13 losses from 33 Premier League games, with Arsenal in 10th with 5 games to go (at time of writing), and below newly promoted Leeds, is a dismal return. For Arsenal, it’s Europa or bust.

But, publicly, Mikel is insistent that that would be the wrong attitude.

“Putting our eggs in one basket would be a big mistake. I love this sentence. My father has always told me that since he was 15 years old. We can’t do that.”

Fitting paternal advice. But Mikel’s laser focus on balance, calm and the right messaging, while befitting of a top Premier League manager and part of the reason I like Mikel, doesn’t reflect what’s at stake here, nor does it reflect where Arsenal are. Arsenal being out of Europe for the first time in over 2 decades would further cement the downward curve we have seen over the last 2-5 years. It makes it harder to attract players, harder to keep the players you want, hurts the image of the club and ultimately affects the bottom lines on KSE’s books. While there may be some benefits to no European football, no club would ever think that they outweigh the negatives, and Mikel will feel the same way, I’m sure.

That sparked a thought. Perhaps a bit of conjecture here, but I think there’s something deeper going on, which can explain away a lot of the strange decisions Mikel makes, and something that is often factored out of conversations around his future. Since his appointment in December 2019, but especially since Arteta’s promotion to manager in September of 2020, we’ve seen a number of baffling decisions – a persistence with Willian, dropping Aubameyang for the North London Derby and his treatment of Saliba and Guendouzi to name a few. But for me, it can all be explained by one thing.

Mikel simply doesn’t think his job is at stake, and knows his long term future is secure as he moves Arsenal into a new age.

He’s just not manoeuvring like someone whose job is on the line. It’s someone with a plan, and a vision, and the long term backing of the club. Mikel can afford to leave Willian on for a bit longer, because he can afford to really give his gamble the chance to succeed. He can afford to drop his captain and talismanic striker for a huge game, because the culture can come first. He can make Martinelli wait for his chances, because that’s better for him long term in many ways. Think of how he’s made Balogun wait, despite our striker woes this season. Think of his insistence that Saliba isn’t ready despite us crying out for a ball-playing RCB, think of his comments on Pepe’s red card. An inexperienced coach too, sure, but these are all the hallmarks of a man who is prioritising culture over results and experimentation over outcome. Mikel is finding his style and stretching his legs – at the cost of results, sure. But perhaps there’s a higher purpose. It’s process over points.

Take late substitutions – something consistently thrown at Mikel as a criticism. There was a recent Arsenal Vision Podcast where Tim Stillman made an excellent point; what Mikel lacks around him is experience of management. If your first priority as manager is results, you get in someone who has got results. And no, not Big Sam. Astute and excellent coaches as I am sure they are, Albert Stuivenberg, Steve Round et al have never managed a top level fixture in their life. But take David Moyes as an example – over his shoulder, he has two ex-high level managers in Stuart Pearce and Alan Irvine. Experienced football men with voices who can challenge him. Mikel doesn’t have anyone who can really, genuinely and from experience, tell him at 65 minutes that the game plan isn’t working, and he needs to make a change. A choice, maybe, and perhaps Mikel’s – but the fact that no one has made that a necessity maybe indicates he is being given time to make those mistakes, so Arsenal benefit long term.

If Mikel was fighting for his job, his eggs would surely be in that proverbial basket. Maybe there’s a different attitude internally, but one of the main positives from Mikel is his transparent and thorough communication, a welcome relief from the wordy and opaque Unai Emery. Arsene was a bit more strategic. I think Arteta is telling us something, and I think he’s saying what he really thinks.

But.

Those comments were on 18th April, 2021. Then, everything changed – or perhaps more accurately, everything was revealed. The European Super League reared its ugly head, and this time I fear it may not go away without serious governmental interventions.

The owners are now under incredible pressure. They fans don’t want them to stay, and despite vultures circling, it looks like they’re holding firm. At some point, something may have to give, and the long term vision might have to be sacrificed for immediate results. Suddenly, the 2-3 year plan, especially to keep Arsenal in the kind of conversations in the kind of rooms they want to be in, might have to change. Suddenly, the young rookie coach who can be given time, with young players and new ideas, no longer has that trust. The self-sustaining model looks ever more unsustainable. Especially based on recent results.

Suddenly, there is something more at stake for Mikel. 

Mikel is smart, and I think he knows this – but Thursday just got a whole lot more interesting. With fatherly advice the order of the day, I wonder if Arsene Wenger has a few missed voicemails this morning, with the sound of eggs being put in baskets gently in the background.

Alexander Moneypenny (@DiffKnock)

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