Premier League: A month in, Mikel Arteta's task at Arsenal is to control what can’t be controlled and lead Gunners back to glory
Arteta played at the base of Arsenal’s midfield and outwitted more physical opponents with his intelligence. His CV and real-life skill set are impeccable. But will it be enough to navigate his way through a complicated Arsenal?
A month into his new role, Arteta has endured a roller coaster of different games that revealed some of Arsenal’s fortes, but, above all, exposed the club’s systemic flaws
In his six games at the club, there have been moments of intensity, acceleration, aggression, and even bite, from his team that allowed hope to flourish again
The 1-1 draw vs Sheffield United was the umpteenth reality check for Arteta. He can demand greater exertion, introduce different tactics, but the team’s psyche can’t be reset in a matter of weeks
And so, it has fallen on Mikel Arteta to rescue Arsenal after the vagueness of Unai Emery’s maligned reign and the ill-fated interlude that befell, more than anything else, Freddie Ljungberg. A month into his new role, the Spaniard has endured a roller coaster of different games that revealed some of Arsenal’s fortes, but, above all, exposed the club’s systemic flaws that won’t go away anytime soon.
In his six games at the club, there have been moments of intensity, acceleration, aggression, and even bite, from his team that allowed hope to flourish again at a club that from Robbie Lyle, down at Arsenal Fan TV, to the aloof owner Stan Kroenke, at the very top, has been paralyzed by a prolonged existential crisis. Equally, there have been so many illustrations of Arsenal’s almost innate quality for self-destruction and slapstick interpretations of the game that reaffirmed that this team, club and institution are in terminal decline.
It’s a fine line between a positive analysis of Arteta’s maiden month in coaching or something far worse. At times, Lucas Torreira has looked revejunated, playing like the pit bull he is supposed to be. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Gabriel Martinelli have demonstrated that they are promising youngsters and even Mesut Ozil, the lethargic midfield metronome on £350,000 a week and the subject of public scrutiny, has been emboldened by the arrival of the Spaniard. At times, however, Torreira drowned in the fragility of his team’s midfield, not much aided by Maitland-Niles’ spells as auxiliary central defender, and Özil returned to his sins of the past by visibly not contributing much to the game.
That was the case against Sheffield United last Saturday at the Emirates Stadium. It was neither Arsenal’s best performance nor the team’s worst 90 minutes under Arteta, but the complexion of the entire match was instructive yet again. In the first half, the Londoners struggled against the high press of Sheffield United, failed to play the ball out of the back and, in turn, failed to control the midfield. When Arsenal did seize control and accelerate, Martinelli scored on the brink of half-time.
It would have been naive to think, that on current form and in the given circumstances, Arsenal would have consolidated their lead and perhaps ran out comfortable winners. Instead, a toxic air swept through the ground. Nerves frayed, legs tired and Arsenal were ready to trip up again. The visitors sensed this - the fragility and frailty that have ossified in North London after seasons of despair and disappointment. John Fleck’s fine equaliser was almost formulaic - this was the way Arsenal conceded and this was the way Arsenal capitulated.
The 1-1 draw was the umpteenth reality check for Arteta. He can demand greater exertion from his players, introduce different tactics and new patterns, and hand the club new impetus, but the team’s psyche can’t be reset in a matter of weeks. Again, Arsenal threw away the lead. Again, the team’s lack of backbone was glaring.
Could this bleak reality perhaps be too much to handle for a novice coach? Arteta, cast aside at the very last minute when Emery was appointed in 2018, is an intriguing choice. He is a graduate of FC Barcelona’s La Masia and thus masters the concepts of Tiki-Taka. He spent ample time on the bench alongside Pep Guardiola, the high priest of contemporary coaching. He understands auxiliary central midfielders, professional fouling when the opponents transitions quickly and other details of Guardiola’s coaching manual.
Arteta’s philosophy is attacking, but he knows how to defend as well. He played at the base of Arsenal’s midfield and outwitted more physical opponents with his intelligence. Thus, his CV and real-life skill set are impeccable. But will it be enough to navigate his way through the complex of complications at Arsenal?
It’s incontrovertible that he will need time to settle down in his new role and new environment, a big cheque in the next few transfer windows to acquire the players of his preference and build the team to his own image, and the unconditional and structural support of the Arsenal hierarchy. Those should be the future tangibles that will allow Arteta to further the incremental progress he has instigated.
Which leads to the larger objective Arteta must compute: Arsenal at its finest is a combination of the free-flowing football under Arsene Wenger and the grind-it-out 1-0 score lines of the George Graham era. At the moment, Arsenal inhabit the other end of the spectrum: they have taken the idea that football is a game of so many variables and, ultimately, chaos to another level. Arteta’s task then is stiff one: to control what can’t be controlled and lead Arsenal back to glories from the past.
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