Arteta Under Fire?

What exactly is wrong with Arsenal, and is Arteta facing the sack should the Gunners’ fortunes not improve?

Exactly one year ago from about a week ago, November 29th, 2019, Arsenal sacked then-manager Unai Emery. At the time, Arsenal were coming off a 2-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, their seventh consecutive match without a win in all competitions. They sat eighth in the table, eight points off of fourth place and 19 points off of runaway league leader Liverpool. Emery had been under fire from the media and the fanbase over his more negative, reactionary style of play, one that saw Arsenal’s attack struggle to score at times and left them with a -1 goal difference through 13 league matches. The club moved to bring in their long-term manager, settling on Mikel Arteta as the man to carry them forward.

One year later, Arsenal currently sit 14th in the league through 10 matches, six points off of fourth and nine points off of current league leaders Chelsea following their dismal 2-1 defeat to Wolves last weekend. While they are not on a long winless run as they were a year ago, they have only won once in the league since early October. Their attacking woes have continued, despite returning prolific goalscorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, holding onto a -2 goal difference and having scored fewer goals than any team in the league outside of the bottom three. Obviously, the context behind this stage of the season under Arteta is different than a year ago under Emery, but the pressure still seems to be there.

So what does this all mean? Is Arteta under pressure? Should he be under pressure? Have Arsenal actually improved over the last year?

To answer the first question simply: yes, Mikel Arteta is under pressure. When the media is talking about you on the hot seat, and when media members go so far as to ask you if you are nervous about losing your job this season, then it is safe to say that your seat has begun to heat up, so to speak. I do not think Arteta is close to losing his job. I think (or at least I would hope) that when Arsenal brought in Arteta from Manchester City, they did so under the pretense of starting a several-years-long project instead of being contenders straight away. The “Rome was not built in a day” cliché applies here; no world-beating side was built in a matter of months. Arteta himself, as a bright footballing mind who is still very inexperienced when it comes to being a first-team manager, is part of this project. The expectation should be that, after a few windows and after time is taken to implant a philosophy and style of play into this team, that Arsenal, and Arteta himself, will be ready to push for a league title. Should this logic hold up, then I do not think that anything bar relegation from the top flight would spell the end of Arteta in North London. I do not fully believe that the Kroenke Family will stand by that line of thought, however, so there is still a slight worry that, should things not improve, Arteta will not be Arsenal manager come this time next year. This is very much a “what have you done for me lately” industry, where the room for error can often be nearly nonexistent, and there are very few fanbases that are as notoriously impatient as Arsenal’s fans. Failure to qualify for Europe, leading to a big financial hit for the club, could spell the end for Arteta at Arsenal. He may not be in danger right now, but he is under some pressure.

Now, should he be under pressure? Probably not. Again, Arteta will have been brought into the club to helm a several year-long project, and to sack him less than a year into this project would be ludicrous, especially after winning the FA Cup last season and knowing that, realistically, there are no real good options to replace him. Sure, Max Allegri has been to some Champions League Finals, but what does he offer stylistically, as a very practical and some might say defensive manager in his own right, that will be a welcome variation from the current football that Arsenal are playing. Pochettino, sought after by a number of different clubs, will likely not cross the North London Derby divide so soon. If you wanted to go down the former player route, ex-Invincible Patrick Vieira is recently out of a job, but he has not shown anything to demonstrate he is ready for the step up from Nice to Arsenal. What other options are there? Another Premier League experiment for Maurizio Sarri? Take a chance on a Marcelino or Ernesto Valverde to come into a league they know little about and take charge of a club in near crisis? Pray that Arsène Wenger quits his desk job at FIFA and comes back to the same ungrateful fans that ran him out before? Not really much to choose from, is there?

Whoever the alternatives are is beside the point. Chopping and changing managers on a whim is not how you build a contending club, just ask Everton and Manchester United how that has gone for them over the last half decade. The only way for the club to actually progress is by giving the manager time to bring in the players he needs and create the team and style of play he envisions. Liverpool are obviously the perfect example of this, keeping faith in Klopp after some early stumbles for him to create one of the best teams in the history of the Premier League, but even look at Southampton as another example. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s Southampton tenure was not going well for the first nearly season and a half, and there were several moments last season where the club could have parted ways with the Austrian to bring in a firefighting manager to save them from relegation. A year ago last week, when Arsenal sacked Emery, Southampton were 19th, four points from safety, and a month removed from the 9-0 debacle against Leicester. Saints had plenty of chances to sack Hasenhüttl, but they did not do so. Instead, they stuck with him, and their faith was rewarded. Being given the time to implement his ideas into the team, Hasenhüttl has Southampton looking very impressive this season and currently sitting in 5th and having been top of the Premier League for the first time in their history, even if it was short lived. There is no reason to remove managers so quickly. It did not work for Manchester United or Everton, it did not work for Atlético Madrid and right now is not working for Barcelona, and it would not work for Arsenal.

Now that is not to say that Arteta is perfect as a manager. He is still figuring things out, and he has not been good in the last year when it comes to game management and adapting to situations. The team has been fairly defensive, aiming to make up for Arsenal’s, let us say not great defense through using three center backs and a defensive midfielder, on top of wing backs that cover the wide areas in defense and attack. They would attack on the counter, aiming to catch out opposing teams with speed and creativity from the wide areas and the usual surgical precision of Aubameyang, which worked well in the FA Cup run but has not worked well since. His 3-4-3 system has also seemingly failed, as it left the team unable to connect the defense and midfield to the attack, playing a part in their goal drought. If you look deeper into the stats, you see plenty of passing from this team, mainly from those midfielders, but most of it goes sideways and backwards, and the formation and personnel leave them without players who are able to make forward, chance-creating passes, sometimes due to a lack of players to pass it to. There was no center forward dropping into the space or number 10 moving into that pocket to offer a passing option to the midfielders and defenders. Arteta has been very stubborn, sticking to his system regardless of situation and outcome, not being willing to revert to a plan B or alternative should the match dictate it. Being a brilliant footballing tactical mind is not the only thing you need to be a successful manager. You also need to learn the practical and adaptive skills needed to operate on the fly, recognize an issue, and change it mid-match or mid-season in order to solve problems, and religiously sticking to one system when it does not work will not do that. To be fair to him, Arteta has recognized this and has moved the team to a 4-2-3-1 system, utilizing Joe Willock as a number 10. A significant sign of managerial growth, one that shows Arteta is learning with the job. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this has not made things better, as the Gunners still lack players who can make those decisive passes and they are still very reliant on creativity from the wide areas, which is more predictable and easier to deal with, especially for a team like Wolves, for example, who have two very physical center backs in Willy Boly and Conor Coady. The ridiculous amount of goals that Aubameyang has scored the last two seasons was simply a sign of an overachieving team, with a world-class talent able to score many goals despite the team creating relatively few chances. Now that the Gabonese forward is in a poor run of form, they cannot find any more goals in their team.

This comes back to one simple idea: Arsenal are just not a good team, and changing manager is not going to create a 180 degree change in their fortunes. Think back to the Wolves match last week and think about the starting XIs for each team. Name as many Arsenal players as you can that are better than their counterpart in the Wolves team. Position by position, in how many areas are Arsenal, a traditional “Big Six” power, better than Wolves, a team that was promoted to the Premier League in 2018?

My answer is three.

Gabriel, even in his short time in the Premier League, is better than Boly. Kieran Tierney is better than Marçal (though Marçal was basically playing center back, so I am unsure whether the better comparison for Tierney would be him or Pedro Neto), and Aubameyang is better than Jimenez.

I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say normal starter Thomas Partey, who missed the match due to injury, is better than Leander Dendoncker, but on the day, there are three positions in which Arsenal, on paper, are better than Wolves. In there lies the problem. Arsenal are just not a good team. In that match, their midfield may as well not have been there, their fullbacks were bullied for 90 minutes by Neto, Daniel Podence, and Adama Traore, Saka and Willock did nothing, and Aubameyang got very little service to do anything with. They just are not a good team, one that is not nearly good enough to contend for the European places this season, and it is clear that Arteta recognizes the need to bring in reinforcement. Their very public and very poorly handled courting of Lyon starlet Houssem Aouar shows Arteta was worried about the lack of creativity in the team, and that concern is showing up every weekend. Bringing in Gabriel, especially wrestling him away from Man United, was important, but it still has not fixed all of the defensive issues. Partey was a brilliant signing, but he seems to be their only competent midfielder. Arteta needs a few more windows to bring in the players he needs.

Though he manages a club that is notoriously thrifty in the transfer market and one that has been burdened financially by a global pandemic and lack of Champions League over the last several years. It is also a very poorly ran club, one that fired its entire scouting department in order to buddy up with an agent and sign Willian to an egregiously overpriced contract. A club that had to launch its own internal investigation into why they paid so much money to sign Nicolas Pépé from Lille, which led to the resignation of the man who apparently had more control over the transfers than the manager himself. I am not entirely confident that he has a revolutionary transfer window next summer, or maybe even the summer after. I am not sure any other manager has one either if they are put into Arteta’s shoes.

This is a very long-winded way to say this: Mikel Arteta is under pressure. He should not be, because the mess he has been brought in to fix is not something that is cured overnight, and there is a significant percentage of the blame that should be fixed upon the players and the club hierarchy for not just this year, but basically every season dating back to the end of the Wenger reign. Arteta may not be a great manager, but he has the potential to be one, whether he reaches it roaming the touchline at the Emirates or not. He is working with a bad team, one that needs time to be fixed. Very few, if any, managers in this sport ever gets things perfect immediately, and he needs time to bring in players and implement his ideas and philosophies. But yes, he is under pressure. He could be sacked in the next few months. If they get embarrassed by Tottenham today, he could be sacked on Monday. That is football. That is the reality of this industry, however unfair it may be.

Mikel, this is life as a manager. Arsenal fans, this is the reality of how far your club has sunk over the last few years. Time is needed to fix it.

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