The First Three Things Mikel Arteta Must Address
According to most reports, former club captain Mikel Arteta is set to relieve struggling interim head coach Freddie Ljungberg of his responsibilities and take up the reins at Arsenal. With just one win in his five games in charge and little improvement on Unai Emery’s side, it is clear to see why Arsenal’s hierarchy have opted for a change sooner rather than later. In this article, I will look at the three issues that Arteta must aim to change in order to get his stint as Arsenal manager off to the best possible start.
Fundamentally, this squad is one lacking any semblance of confidence, and overcoming this issue will be Arteta’s first, and arguably greatest, challenge. Very few of these players are “bad”, and we must remember this is a side that managed fifth place and a European final just six months ago. New signings aside, there remains quality throughout the squad. However, this poor run of results and the rumours of discontent among the players suggest that this problem represents one of more than simply a collective downturn in form.
The main issue seems to be one of mentality, an accusation regularly levelled at previous Arsenal sides. On this occasion, however, the comments are even more accurate- players look scared to make mistakes, and this means that they often take the safe route, which in turn forces these mistakes closer to their own goal. To me, it seems no coincidence that Arsenal’s two most progressive players have been new-signing Nicolas Pepe and youth academy graduate Bukayo Saka. Both can be considered bright sparks in an otherwise gloomy start to the season.
Often, it is said that results can breed confidence- indeed, one only needs to look north, to Everton, to see the truth in these statements. The problem that Arteta will face is that this is made significantly more difficult by Arsenal’s tricky run of fixtures- away games to Everton and Bournemouth are followed by the hosting of Chelsea and Manchester United. There is an opportunity for improvement, but it seems unlikely that there can be a quick fix.
2. The creative conundrum
Ah Mesut Ozil. The man I have seemingly defended for the entirety of his Arsenal career, who I can defend no longer. Perhaps I expected too much this season? After all, he has never been one to impact the game in the way that Kevin De Bruyne did so brilliantly at the Emirates. I did, however, expect his return to the side to improve us creatively, even if leaving us even more exposed defensively. This has not happened. He is simply not earning his wage, or anything close to them. I cannot see Arteta rectifying this either- the Spaniard played with Mesut at Arsenal, yet his aim to press in the same way that Guardiola’s Manchester City do could spell trouble for the nonchalant German international.
In dropping Mesut Ozil, however, we return to Unai Emery’s creative conundrum. The return from injury of Dani Ceballos might help to ease this pain, but he has himself identified more as a deep-lying midfielder than a creator. Neither Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira nor Matteo Guendouzi are suited to this role. This leaves two options: ditch an attacking midfielder for a more industrious trio, as Liverpool have so effectively done. Alternatively, the gap offers an opportunity for Emile Smith-Rowe to follow in the footsteps of fellow Hale End graduates Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka and challenge for a first-team spot.
3. Central defence
Lastly, and arguably the most important on the pitch change has to happen at centre-back. A partnership of Sokratis and David Luiz cannot be a regular occurrence. Both have proved their significant deficiencies time and time again so far this season. Ljungberg has already dropped the Greek international, in favour of Calum Chambers. The ex-Fulham player of the season has benefited from Arsenal’s poor form and has played his way into the starting XI with a string of good performances. Although he has had to wait for his opportunity to return to his favoured centre-back position, he certainly looks more comfortable than Sokratis at centre-half.
On the topic of bringing players in from the cold, it may well be time for the return of Shkodran Mustafi to the starting XI. The German international has looked relatively sure-footed in his outings when Arsenal field weakened XIs, and at the very least cannot be any worse than David Luiz, who is fast transforming into one of the worst signings in the club’s history. Mustafi, surely another rival for that infamy, could be brought in from the cold in Rob Holding’s absence. The irony if Chambers and Mustafi were to offer the defensive solidity Arsenal have been craving would surely not be lost on the Gunners fans. However, it may be the best way forward at present.
Arteta’s arrival seems imminent, and many are expecting it to be confirmed this Friday. If he were to achieve solving these three issues, this would take Arsenal a long way to returning to the top four. The problems will not be solved overnight, and given Arsenal’s fixtures it may be February until we see performances translate into results, but any signs of improvement under Arteta would be strongly welcomed by Arsenal fans.