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10th Nov 2020

Five questions that need to be asked of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal

In Mikel Arteta, Arsenal fans have a manager they can believe in. But his honeymoon period at the club is very much over.

Nooruddean Choudry

Mikel Arteta’s honeymoon period is over

Mainly due to their emptiest vessels making the most noise, Arsenal supporters have an unfair reputation of impatience and reactive knee-jerkery. Rival fans may wait in glee for the next YouTube meltdown after a disappointing result, but these are much more performative displays for views rather than genuine sentiment normally expressed. Most Arsenal fans are like most football fans – they want to be happy. They want to be proud of their team. And they are willing to give the players and manager the benefit of the doubt.

In Mikel Arteta, they have a manager they can believe in. He has done many good things since taking over from Unai Emery, not least winning the FA Cup and Community Shield. More than that, he has shown himself to be a strong and principled leader, unafraid to make big calls and instil his very specific vision. There have also been glimpses of what this Arsenal team could become under his tutelage and development. But if anything, that has made recent performances even more frustrating for the fans.

They are patient and seem to appreciate that Arteta’s long-term project will take time, and yet worrying inconsistencies and specific concerns about how and when the Spaniard uses his players have punctuated the start of the 2020/21 season. A 3-0 loss at home to Aston Villa, immediately following an impressive 1-0 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford, seems indicative of a Jekyll and Hyde team which regularly flatters to deceive. With the forced timeout of an international break upon us, let’s consider 5 questions Arteta may consider asking of himself and his players…

What is Willian?

The question is not meant as a snide rhetorical, but rather a genuine consideration. When Arsenal bought Willian, it felt like a sensible if unexciting addition to their ranks. A proven winner with a wealth of experience and Premier League nous. Arsenal’s attack was characterised but thrilling but often erratic young talents and the Brazilian felt like a grown-up who would imbue the final third with a modicum of consistency.

The problem is that Willian’s early season form has been generally bad. He has been as wasteful as any of his younger colleagues and doubly ineffective. Any calmness he has brought has been in the way he leisurely trots back after surrendering possession. If your Mr Consistent isn’t consistent, if your Captain Efficiency isn’t efficient, what’s the point of him? To be boringly bad rather than excitingly awful?

What is Aubameyang?

The answer should be pretty obvious: one of the best and most sought-after centre-forward talents in world football. The kind of attacking asset that pretty much any top team in Europe would welcome into their fold. It begs the question, why doesn’t Arteta play him there? Why does the mercurial Gabonese spend so much of his time on the left-wing? Is it for the benefit of his own game, that of his teammates, or indeed neither?

Arsenal may be a club that creams itself whenever an attacker cuts in from the left because it remind them of Thierry Henry, but just because a player can doesn’t mean he always should. With all due respect, a 31-year-old Aubameyang should not be wasting what is left of his prime out wide to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette. You’ve got a problem scoring goals and a goalscorer not playing front and centre. That’s bizarre.

What is Lacazette?

Some Arsenal fans would be forgiven for thinking the answer is ‘mastermind extortionist’, given recent performances. Why is Arteta so married to the idea of playing him through such a wretched stretch of impotent form? Especially given Aubameyang is right there over his left shoulder. One would assume it is the hope he will play himself into form, were it not for the fact he looks more crestfallen after every stinking performance.

The Frenchman may have a limited ceiling as a player but he is far better than he is currently showing. And he certainly displays more gumption and energy when in brighter form. He is presently matching his lack of goals with a lack of work ethic, and that is unforgivable to the fans. So why is Arteta so seemingly content with his output? It may have more to do with the systems and structures the Spaniard prefers than the player himself.

Is flexibility the key?

There is much to be said for a principled leader with an unwavering plan. Man’s gotta have a code and all that. But sometimes it is prudent to prioritise short-term flexibility over long-term vision. Mikel Arteta clearly has his own idea of how he wants an Arteta team to play, and he seems to be work backwards from that starting point. The question is whether the players currently at his disposal are able to play the way he wants.

Arteta comes from the Pep Guardiola school of management, or at least has been heavily influenced by his former boss at Manchester City. The problem is that Arsenal are not Manchester City and don’t have their unlimited resources. It’s telling that Arteta’s side seem to play better against ‘bigger’ teams, as if they are more tuned into on a rigid set of instructions. But if your current playing staff are more suited to fluid movement and flashes of inspiration, perhaps it’s worth leaning into that chaos a bit more.

Is attack the best form of defence?

Is is interesting that younger managers, who one would assume to be more daring and gung-ho, often resort to safety-first tactics when faced with a problem. It can be in stark contrast to their most established peers, who perhaps have the job security and confidence to think more progressively. Whatever the reason, two things seem increasingly clear: few of the ‘top’ teams fully trust their defences at present, and they have different ways of dealing with this.

Whereas Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp essentially double-down offensively, putting more emphasis on their attacking strengths to pin teams back and keep them away from their backline, the likes of Arteta and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are more prone to doubling-down defensively, with an extra defensive midfielder or another centre-back. Not only does that result in giving the opposition more initiative to attack your weakest area, but it weakens your own offensive threat.

Like playing Willian instead of the more erratic and exciting Pepe, like sticking rigidly to a system that doesn’t allow for fluidity of movement and greater risk, like playing Mohamed Elneny in midfield just because he was solid against Manchester United, the decision to play three centre-backs because he presumably doesn’t trust just two points to a growing conservative strain in Arteta’s thinking. Perhaps the international break will give the Arsenal manager time to rethink his plans going forward.