There was a lot of wishful thinking going on when Arsenal appointed Mikel Arteta 20 months ago. The board believed they were getting the next Pep Guardiola, a man who would transform the team’s style of play and make them a competitive top-four prospect again. The Basque thought he was taking over an elite club. The gap between hope and reality is widening by the week.
Arteta takes his side to the Etihad tomorrow to face his former boss Guardiola and Manchester City. Arsenal’s goalless, pointless start to the top-flight season has increased the pressure on the 39-year-old. The 6-0 Carabao Cup win away to West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday served as a distraction but means nothing in the larger scheme. A Premier League revival is imperative.
A good performance and result against the champions would begin that process but there is a disturbing feeling around north London that the game against City is less a barometer of the side’s health than the home fixture against Norwich City immediately after the international break.
The Arsenal manager might not have been expected to replicate City’s attacking verve but the team bear little resemblance to Arteta’s previous club. One of the biggest disappointments is the paucity of the pressing game. In the 2-0 defeat by Chelsea on Sunday, Arsenal allowed Thomas Tuchel’s side an inordinate amount of time on the ball.
Pressing is not easy. It takes organisation. If an attacker closes down an opponent, he needs the midfielders to home in on the hurried pass. When a team does not act as a unit, an attempted press merely takes the first man out of the game and allows the opposition more space. Arsenal were not at full strength because of injuries and Covid but that was no excuse for the lack of coordination and appetite against Chelsea.
One of Arteta’s finest moments as a manager was the FA Cup semi-final against City last summer. In that game Arsenal won 2-0 but showed a similar lack of urgency to pressurise ballcarriers. Guardiola’s side had 71 per cent of the possession. At the time it was hailed as an Arteta tactical masterclass. It is more likely that it was just a crushingly wasteful performance from City on a day when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit the heights. There has been scant evidence of strategic brilliance since.
Arsenal’s problems predate Arteta by more than a decade. He played a part in one of the emblematic games of the late Arsene Wenger era, a 2-1 victory for City at the Etihad five years ago. It was Guardiola’s first year in charge and his side endured a difficult start to December, losing two games. The Catalan felt the players were not listening to him and handed over team-talk duties to his assistant. Arsenal were a goal up at half time but fell apart in the second period. Arteta’s coaching credentials were endorsed by his role in securing the turnaround.
The foundations of institutional callowness were already in place at the Emirates. All of Arsenal’s problems were already established: resources wasted on big-name signings; poor recruitment and analytics departments; the failure of talented prospects to improve; and tactical incoherence. Wenger was living in a paradox where he insisted on total control but had already lost his grip. Arteta, who played for five years under the Frenchman, seems trapped in a similar cycle. For what seems the umpteenth time since Arsenal last won the title in 2004, the club is relying on the youngsters to provide a glorious future. Bukayo Saka, 19, and Emile Smith Rowe, 21, are already carrying a huge burden.
As No 2 at City Arteta spent a lot of time working one-on-one with the players and provided a link for Guardiola – who can be distant – to the squad. Being No 1 brings different duties that require different strengths. The Arsenal manager has not been as missed in Manchester as some anticipated. In the early weeks after taking the Arsenal job, his absence was felt, particularly by the Hispanic contingent, but the City machine continued to run smoothly.
He will receive a warm welcome at his former club but he did not leave a huge hole behind him.
And he has failed to fill the gap at the Emirates. Under Wenger’s rule Arsenal was an empire in decline. It was fraying at the edges, riven with internal dissention. The dissonance remains and Arteta’s self-belief – which verges on arrogance – evokes comparisons with his illustrious predecessor. The swagger is more likely inherited from the Catalan school of football, of which Guardiola is the pre-eminent practitioner. Many of those who grew up in the tradition of Johan Cruyff in Barcelona give the air of having invented the game. When it came from the great Dutchman it was an allowable conceit. From the likes of Arteta it seems like hubris. He is still young for a manager and has a lot to learn. Arsenal probably needed someone with the experience of not only rebuilding a club but breaking down the bad habits first. Arteta has not been able to stop the drift.
Is there enough talent in the squad to turn things around? Yes, but not to the extent that the fans and ownership demand. The top four looks beyond Arsenal, even at this early stage. The dressing-room remains unsettled and the recruitment policy disjointed. Ben White should be a good addition to the side but the centre-back was seriously overpriced at £50m.
Patience is running out for Arteta and it is hard not to have an element of sympathy. Arsenal would have been an extremely difficult job for any manager because of the systemic issues at the club.
Yet at the moment the team are falling short of the required minimum. It may be too much to expect them to compete with the likes of Chelsea and City, but they need to at least make life difficult for opponents. If they fail in that – and the bar is relatively low – the blame ends up at the desk of the manager. Arteta desperately needs his side to show some signs of fight at the Etihad tomorrow.